Submarines are generally shrouded in opacity given the intrinsic nature of the underwater domain they operate in and the traditional secrecy that surrounds them as a platform. This rule of thumb was given a startling turn last week when The Australian newspaper put out certain documents reported to be part of a 22,400-page tome pertaining to the Indian Scorpene submarine currently being built in collaboration with the French company DCNS.
Clearly the matter was serious enough for Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to be woken up at midnight on Tuesday to be apprised about what could be a very serious security breach, for the Australian news report suggested that all the significant design parameters of the Indian Scorpene were now in the public domain. If this report was indeed accurate, this exigency would compromise the credibility of the Indian submarine and render it a sitting duck even before the first Scorpene is formally inducted into the Indian Navy by the end of this year.Who leaked the documents?
The initial government response was predictably cautious and defensive, and the Minister referred to the possibility of hacking. It was also suggested that the leak had not occurred from the Indian end, and an investigation would be carried out to establish the veracity of the leaked document and its correspondence to the Indian Scorpene programme.
The French company initially sought to place the onus on India for this breach of data security but backed off after more details emerged. Sources in Paris now concede that it is probably a theft by a former DCNS employee. It is now reported that the person behind this startling and massive leak of submarine documents is an anonymous Australian citizen who will surrender the computer disk containing all 22,400 pages to the government in Canberra.
All this has generated an international furore and created gleeful interest for sure. Apart from India, France and Australia, the governments of Malaysia and Chile that have acquired the Scorpene, and Brazil, that is acquiring this platform, will be studying the security implications of this leak very closely. The gleeful interest, it may be conjectured, will be discernible among the potential adversaries and naval competitors of all the navies that operate Scorpenes.Types of security breach
Two types of security breach merit review. The first pertains to the contractual obligations that devolve upon DCNS as a company that is the principal supplier, and the degree to which it is responsible for this leak of documents. One version that is currently doing the rounds alludes to a former employee of DCNS, Paris, having obtained the data over the years and covertly taking it to a Southeast Asian location for commercial purposes.
While India and France will need to work together to investigate and redress the contractual breach of security, the operational security implications are predictably opaque — the central characteristic of the submarine domain. As of now, the technical data is being released in the public domain by The Australian in a tantalising trickle to keep the eyeballs glued.
The Australian whistleblower who brought the data into the public domain was reportedly motivated by a sense that his country’s submarine acquisition programme could be compromised due to inadequate data protection protocols. How does this affect the Indian boat, the Kalvari, that is now in its final stage of trials?
Pending a detailed review of what has been leaked in the public domain and the technical characteristics of the Indian Scorpene, Mr. Parrikar’s current approach is appropriate: “prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. Expert opinion is divided and while some of India’s veteran submariners have described the leak as a storm in a teacup, others aver that the credibility of the platform may have been compromised.
The DNA of the submarine is its opacity, and what makes it vulnerable to detection is its distinctive acoustic signature, or the fingerprint of each boat. An adversary spends years trying to acquire this profile by tracking a boat on patrol, a pattern witnessed between the U.S. and Soviet navies during the Cold War decades.
The dynamic part of this spectrum relates to the frequencies related to the sonar (the device used to detect the target) and the propulsion noise at different speeds and depths. Will the Indian Scorpene be compromised if this technical data is released by The Australian ?
The dynamic spectrum will be determined only after the final sea trials, and the data leaked may pertain to a broad design bandwidth. This could be tweaked through software changes but what may be a challenge is the propeller-related acoustics. This is the structural part of the acoustic signature and varies from boat to boat. In the event that such basic propulsion/cavitation design data is leaked, advanced digital signal processing could provide many useful clues to an adversary in the tactical domain. Has this happened, thereby making the Kalveri a sitting duck?
The answer is opaque and we must await the last of the 22,400 pages to be reviewed by the intrepid Indian sailor.
Commodore (Retd.) C. Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.