Scorpene Submarine: $3.5 B, 11 years of hard work, all sunk by a data leak?

Written by: S. Raghotham

India woke up Wednesday to the news that documents related to one of the nation's most critical military projects -- to build six Scorpene attack submarines -- had been leaked. The news came from an Australian newspaper, The Australian. And the document -- all of 22,400 pages -- may have been out in the open for as long as five years now, before it reached the Australian journalist by ordinary mail!

[Also Read: Sensitive data on India's Scorpene submarines leaked]

While the leaking of any data is worrisome, is the Scorpene data leak in particular something to be alarmed about? Can India afford to go ahead and build these submarines and put them to sea? Or, have $3.5 billion and 11 years of hard work and learning to build a submarine been sunk by a data leak?

Scorpene Submarine: Sunk by a data leak?

Project P75: The Submarine Project

1. India currently has only 13 submarines, and even those mostly in indifferent health, being of the mid-80s vintage -- eight of Sindhughosh class, the first of which was inducted into service in 1986 and the last in 2000; and, five of the Shishumar class, inducted between 1986 and 1994.

2. In comparison, the Chinese Navy currently has 57 conventional attack submarines in active service, five under construction; it has 12 nuclear submarines, both ballistic missile as well as attack submarines, and is developing the next generation of these, most of them inducted in the last decade.

3. Pakistan has three Agosta 90B submarines in service, all of them inducted since 1999, and is building three more. It is buying eight S20-class Chinese submarines for $5 billion. And it is rumoured to be developing its own nuclear-powered submarine.

4. The Indian Navy has to begin retiring its current lot of submarines between now and 2025 and replace them with newer, quieter, more capable submarines.

5. With this in view, in October 2005, India placed an order for six Scorpene submarines.

The Scorpene Submarine

6. The Scorpene is a 1,600-tonne diesel-electric attack submarine, a scaled down version of the French Navy's 4,700-tonne Barracuda, jointly developed by the French DCNS and Spain's Novantia companies.

7. They are being built at Mazgaon Docks Limited, with technology transfer and assistance from DCNS.

8. The project is running four years behind schedule, as MDL had to learn submarine-building from scratch.

9. The first Scorpene-class sub, Kalvari, started sea trials in May 2016 and is expected to be inducted into service in September.

10. The remaining five subs under Project P75 are to be delivered at the rate of one a year.

The Scorpene's Subtics tactical combat system.

Who leaked the document?

The Australian journalist Cameron Stewart, who broke the story of the leak, says an Australian company received the document on a data disk that was sent to it by ordinary mail.

When he contacted DCNS officials, they implied that the leak might have happened from India.

Australia selected DCNS recently to supply it Barracuda submarines in a US$38 billion deal, and so DCNS was trying to assure the Australians that the Scorpene leak happened only because Indian parties were involved -- since India was building the subs under technology transfer and assistance, but it would not happen with the Australian deal because DCNS would run that project end-to-end and would be in full control of all data.

But Stewart writes that his own investigations had revealed that the leak had happened in France, possibly in 2011, where the company had prepared the document for the Indian Navy.

I'd worry if sea trial data leaked out, not factory data -- RN Ganesh, Ex-Navy

The culprit is possibly a former French Navy officer who started a private venture after retirement and took the document, marked 'Restricted Scorpene India', to a company in Southeast Asia with which he wanted to partner. Later, the document was sent to another company in Southeast Asia, and finally made its way to the unnamed Australian company.

The fact that the culprit also took away and leaked data not related to the Indian Scorpene deal, but related to other French defence deals, with countries such as Chile, seems to show that the leak did not happen out of India, but out of France, and perhaps out of the offices of DCNS itself.

What data has been leaked?

From the looks of it, what has been leaked is the 'operating manual' for the submarine, written by DCNS. In essence, whoever has got the document knows the 'factory data' of the submarine.

The Australian Journalist Cameron Stewart, who broke the story of the leak (See here for documents), writes that the secret information revealed include: 

1. The stealth capabilities of the Indian Scorpene submarines.

2. The frequencies at which the submarines gather intelligence.

3. The submarine's noise levels at various speeds.

4. Diving depths, range and endurance.

5. Magnetic, electro-magnetic and infra-red data.

6. Specifications of the submarine's torpedo launch system and the combat system.

7. Speed and conditions needed for using the periscope.

8. Propeller's noise specifications.

9. Radiated noise levels when the submarine surfaces.

How the Scorpene would defend itself against threats from the sky.

"The data seen by the Australian includes 4457 pages on the submarine's underwater sensors, 4209 pages on its above-water sensors, 4301 pages on its combat management system, 493 pages on its torpedo launch system and specifications, 6841 pages on the sub's communications system and 2138 pages on its navigation systems," Stewart writes.

So, does it mean India's 'stealthy' new submarines are now "full monty" at sea? Will they become sitting ducks for the Chinese or Pakistani navies if they venture into the waters? Will India have to simply shelve the Scorpene submarine programme and write off $3.5 billion in costs and years of hard work learning to build a modern submarine?

Government and Navy officials say that while the fact that something did leak out is a matter of worry, there is no cause for alarm over the fact that so much about the submarine itself is out there in the open.

India's first Scorpene-class submarine INS Kalvari undergoes sea trials. The submarine is expected to enter service in September.

Does India need to worry?

The whole point about a submarine is that, unlike surface ships, it is not visible to the enemy and therefore submarines can, as retired Vice Admiral R.N. Ganesh, a submariner himself, told OneIndia, "It can go in harm's way, into critical areas where other ships can't go, and carry out its mission," because it has the advantage of surprise. It's why the submarine service is also called the 'Silent Service', a description that perfectly fits nuclear submarines but works well even for modern diesel-electric submarines with air-independent propulsion systems, such as on the Scorpenes.

Ganesh says that if it is only the operator's manual as written by the manufacturer, which contains factory data about the product, that has been leaked, as the case looks to be, then "the damage is not grave. It does not imperil the system and render it useless".

"Knowing the parameters as mentioned in the manual does not help the enemy. The people who want to know are people who already have a good idea about the submarine. The leak does not detract from the efficacy of the Scorpenes", the retired submariner said.

"Every submarine has a 'signature' (that the enemy wants to detect), but that signature cannot be made out from emperical, factory data. Each signature is a combination of hundreds of parameters that one cannot calculate merely by looking at the manual. There are a lot of external factors affecting these parameters, such as the temperature of the air, salinity of water, etc," Ganesh explains.

Top 10 countries with the most submarines in the world in 2016

If the leak of the entire operator's manual doesn't compromise the system and cause alarm, what would worry a submariner and the Navy?

"If the data from the sea trials were to leak out, that would worry me. That is in our hands, it won't leak out", Ganesh said.

The first of the six Scorpenes, named INS Kalvari -- meaning a deep sea Tiger Shark -- began sea trials in May this year. It is expected to be inducted into service in September.

Bottomline: India's Scorpene submarine programme is not sunk, but France and DCNS have suffered a big dent in their reputation.

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