In what may be seen as a huge blow for the Indo-French defence co-operation, India has asked French shipbuilder DCNS to submit a report on the alleged leak of documents of the Indian Navy’s Scorpene submarine project.
India made the move on Wednesday soon after the Australian media revealed that sensitive documents regarding the technical and stealth capabilities of the USD 3.5 billion project were leaked. Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar immediately asked Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba to prepare a separate report on the issue. Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi, the minister said: “I have asked the Navy chief to study the entire issue about what has been leaked, what is there about us and to what extent. It came to my knowledge at about 12am (on Wednesday). What I understand is there is a hacking. So we will find out all this.” However, Parrikar claimed that 100% leak was not possible as a lot of final integration lies with India.
A senior Defence Ministry official told the media that the Narendra Modi government has taken the issue seriously, as the DCNS data details the secret stealth capabilities of six new Indian submarines. According to the official, the project is very sensitive because India plans to incorporate the DRDO-developed Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system onto the Scorpene submarines. Even DCNS decided to offer a larger version of the submarine to the Indian Navy. The official expressed serious concern over the leak, saying that detail of the most sensitive combat capabilities of diesel-electric attack submarines could provide an intelligence bonanza if obtained by India’s strategic rivals Pakistan and China.
By analysing the leaked data, anyone can easily understand how the crew can speak safely to avoid detection by the enemy. The leaked data not only contains details of Scorpene’s stealth, communication and navigation abilities, but also the frequencies at which it gather intelligence, levels of noise it makes at various speeds, its diving depths, range and endurance, and specifications of the submarine’s torpedo launch system and combat system. As the leak of classified information threatens India’s on-order Scorpene submarines, the Modi government may also scrap the entire project.
Meanwhile, DCNS issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that it became a victim of “economic warfare”. The French company said that it was trying hard to determine whether any harm had been caused to its clients and whether there was a need to drawing up an action plan.
A senior DCNS spokeswoman said that the incident took place “against a difficult commercial backdrop and that corporate espionage could be to blame”. “Competition is getting tougher and tougher, and all means can be used in this context. There is India, Australia and other prospects, and other countries could raise legitimate questions over DCNS. It’s part of the tools in economic warfare,” she told reporters in Paris.
In India, defence experts have expressed different views on the leak (about the submarines’ secret combat capabilities), which has turned the spotlight on the project. While some experts say that it’s too early to jump to conclusions, others believe that the incident will help submarine hunters refine their search. Director of Society of Policy Studies Air Commodore (Retired) C Uday Bhaskar stressed: “The DNA of a submarine is about not being detected. If the adversary has all that data, it affects the detectability index of the boat.”
In July 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security had approved a 30-year submarine building plan. As per the plan, the Indian government decided to construct 12 submarines (six each under Project-75 and Project-75-India with foreign collaboration) during Phase-1 (2000-12) and to build 12 more submarines (fully indigenously) during Phase-2 (2012-30). Under the Project-75, six Scorpene submarines are being built with French technology at the Mazagon Dock Limited in Mumbai. India also ordered six Scorpene-class submarines, which can dive up to a depth of 300m to elude enemy detection, in a deal worth INR 235,620 million. The Indian Navy was betting on the project to sharpen its underwater attack capabilities. As a result, the leak is considered as a “Himalayan” blunder that can ruin the Navy’s future plans.
Currently, China has five nuclear and 51 diesel-electric submarines. The Asian giant also plans to induct five advanced JIN-class nuclear submarines equipped with 7,400km JL-2 missiles. Pakistan, which also has five diesel-electric submarines, recently ordered eight more such vessels from China. As far as other major powers are concerned, the US has 72 nuclear submarines, Russia has more than 40, and the UK and France have around 8-12 each.
With an eye on the swift expansion of the Chinese fleet, India is exploring the possibility of collaborating with a foreign vendor to build six more next-generation submarines. Even if New Delhi scraps the deal with DCNS, it will have no problem in acquiring new submarines from other countries, as many foreign countries are ready to collaborate with the South Asian powerhouse. Some of the contenders include German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp Marine Sysytems, Spain’s Navantia S-80 class and Sweden’s Saab Kockums.