When a storm leaks out of a teacup

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The brouhaha over the Scorpene project leaks are much ado about nothing. Top secret military leaks are seldom made public, in order to keep the adversary guessing.

The greatest strategic advantage to be gained from the leak of any highly sensitive information leak lies in not publicising it and continuing to use it against the adversary. The >recent data leak on the Indian Navy's Scorpene submarine project, as reported by an Australian newspaper, is much ado about nothing. “The stunning leak, which runs to 22,400 pages details the entire secret combat capability of the six Scorpene class submarines that French shipbuilder Direction des Constructions Navales (DCNS) has designed for the Indian Navy,” as has been reported by The Australian. It is understood that the leaked data pertains to 2011, and to a minuscule extent, 2013.

To conclude prematurely that the leak will gravely affect national security is being paranoid to the extreme. At best, this seems like a deliberate effort of leaking sensitive documents to score brownie points by rival governments and arms companies.

However, all the brouhaha over the reported data leak seems to be an overreaction. The Navy too has clarified that "data has been blacked out and does not pose any security compromise". It has also reached out to the Director General Armament of the French government to carry out a complete investigation. All these are routine actions that are considered par for the course. This is not to condone any careless or cavalier handling of data pertaining to national security. The available information till now indicates that the leak is not from India. Defence Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar >has alleged "hacking" of sensitive information. With the opposition gunning for a slugfest, the government must naturally demonstrate an attempt at preemptive damage control.

What is pertinent to note in this episode is that any agency or person who steals such secrets with a mala fide intention will always endeavour to them under wraps. That is the philosophy of intelligence operations. Consider the case of the Enigma cipher, which was used to encrypt messages for the German military in World War II. An Enigma machine was captured by the British forces while retreating from a German onslaught right at the beginning of war. The team of British and Polish codebreakers, led by the mathematician Alan Turing, painstakingly studied the machine to unravel its secret. When they successfully decoded the messages, it was never let out.

The British never let it be known that they could read the secret messages of the German High Command. For this, government deliberately allowed hundreds of convoy ships to go to harm and be sunk by the Germans rather than inform their crew of the impeding danger. Reason — it would have alerted the Germans and they would have changed the entire code. The success of Enigma leak and codebreaking did not emerge until the 1970s. There are striking differences between the Scorpene papers’ leak and the way Enigma secret was handled.

^ An employee of shipbuilder DCNS looks at the propeller of a Scorpene submarine at the industrial site of the naval defence company in La Montagne near Nantes, France, on April 26, 2016. | Reuters

In addition to India, the Scorpene submarine that is manufactured by DCNS has been supplied to the Brazilian and Chilean navies as well. The general specifications of international arms companies are not too different when they manufacture a particular weapons platform like a ship or a submarine. After all, the assembly line that churns them out are standardised production lines. Specific to this case, the first Indian submarine named INS Kalveri was launched in April 2015, and is due to be commissioned in September this year. Since then, it has been undergoing sea trials.

Before being inducted into the Navy, there is a process called the Delivery Acceptance Trials (DATs), undertaken by the manufacturer, that becomes the starting point for further submarine deployment. It is this report that contains the sensitive details of signatures and several parameters that would compromise a submarine’s stealth operations. From the available details, nowhere has a claim like this been made. To conclude prematurely that it will gravely affect national security is being paranoid to the extreme. At best, this seems like a deliberate effort of leaking sensitive documents to score brownie points by rival governments and arms companies. The Australian government’s decision to award a submarine contract to DCNS in competition with Japanese and German companies was not without its share of controversy. Therefore, there is no need for high voltage ballistics over a ‘storm in a teacup’.

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