Submarine paper leak

Tiger Shark is on WhatsApp today. It should have been under water.

  • Published 25.08.16

New Delhi, Aug. 24: Tiger Shark is on WhatsApp today. It should have been under water.

India's latest submarine programme, with all its secrets about stealth, is circulating on social media. This is after a newspaper in Australia, called The Australian, claimed it had accessed 22,400 pages of technical literature, manuals, presentations and specifications on the Scorpene submarine project.

The first of six Scorpene submarines is set to be commissioned as the INS Kalvari (Tiger Shark) next month.

The literature is from DCNS and Thales, companies headquartered in France. The companies are in the business of manufacturing and supplying military platforms. They have recently won a contract from Australia to make submarines. They won the contract after beating competition from companies in Japan and Germany.

India's Scorpene submarines are being built in the yards of Mazgaon Docks, a defence public sector unit, in Mumbai.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar today summoned the navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, and senior officers to be briefed on the programme and the leak of data. The submarines were contracted in 2004 during the UPA I regime when the defence minister was Pranab Mukherjee.

At the time, the Scorpene contract was advertised as the first with an "integrity pact". The integrity pact, the then defence minister had said, will ensure there is no bribery in the deal and that it will not be compromised in any manner.

Today, however, the technical specifications of the submarine - its size, speed and, what is the most delicate of its issues, its noise, and some of its radio and sonar signatures, frequencies at which they may operate - have been circulating on social media.

At face value, this compromises the security of what is supposed to be India's most modern stealthy weapon.

"Negative," says Adm. Vishnu Bhagwat, the former navy chief. "When, how and where you deploy and operate submarines is up to you and all this data leak means nothing because the information is available publicly anyway."

Ironically, Bhagwat, who was dismissed by the then defence minister, George Fernandes, in the Vajpayee government and reinstated to his rank by the court, had argued against the proposal to build the Scorpene class of submarines.

"That was one of the reasons (for the action that Fernandes took against me). But you need to understand two things: why submarines are important and how decisions are taken," Bhagwat said, and went on to explain.

In the tropical waters around India's coasts, said Bhagwat, the laws of physics favour the use of submarines. "The total internal reflection of sound when there are thermal layers between 32 degrees and 24 degrees makes it virtually impossible for a submarine to be detected if it is 30 to 50 metres under the surface in summers and 100 metres in winters," he said.

"Not by satellites, not by surface platforms (such as ships) and not by aircraft. In Indian waters, submarines defy both surveillance and detection," he said.

It is important to record these words from the admiral because he is speaking like a professional soldier-sailor despite having been at bitter odds with a former BJP-led dispensation.

But there is a thrillomania with the details of the Scorpene, or Kalvari-class. The INS Kalvari (all vessels of the same type are categorised after the name of the first in the class) is scheduled to be commissioned next month, possibly on the 17th. The entire project is four years behind schedule.

To complicate matters, Ravi Shankaran, sacked as a lieutenant in the navy, has filed a complaint with Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking why the Scorpene project should not be scrapped. Shankaran, who is absconding and was last known to be in London, is a nephew-in-law of former navy chief Adm. Arun Prakash.

Adm. Prakash lives in a modest home in Goa now. "Somebody needs to get hold of the papers and analyse them. 'Restricted' is the lowest form of classification. I do not really know the details of the issue," he said when contacted by The Telegraph.

Much of the documentation - some of which has been read by this correspondent (it is impossible to read all 22,400 pages in one day) - is marked "restricted" by the manufacturers Thales and DCNS.

At the same time, the disclosure of such information that is not generally made public by militaries is in itself alarming. One submariner said: "If you have my mobile number, it won't take you long to find out where I am. The number is now in the open. But we can play with time and space."

The Indian Navy has run into controversy in recent years principally because of problems in its submarine fleet. India now has 10 operational submarines. In 1998, when Adm. Bhagwat helmed a 30-year submarine building programme, it was envisaged that the Indian Navy would have 20 by 2014.

In that year, sailors died when a submarine was being tested after a refit. India suffered its biggest peacetime loss of war machinery on August 14, when the INS Sindhurakshak submarine sank in the naval dockyard in Mumbai after its weapons chamber blew up killing 18 crew. The then navy chief, Adm. D.K. Joshi, quit halfway through his tenure.

The submarine acquisition issue continues to dog the navy and the country even today. One of the first decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government in 2014, when Arun Jaitley was defence minister (he has since moved on) and Adm. Robin Dhowan was navy chief, was to approve through the Defence Acquisitions Council a multi-billion dollar upgrade of the navy's Russian-origin (Kilo-class) submarines.

Even the navy was divided on whether such an upgrade was warranted for life-expired platforms. But so dire was the operational requirement that the DAC approved the programme, largely because the Scorpene project was delayed.

The leak of data has shaken both the defence minister and the Prime Minister, none of who is a military professional. But the understanding that has reached New Delhi from Sydney is that the Oz media has been taken in with corporate rivalry.

That does not absolve the French who make submarines for both India (the Scorpene) and Pakistan (the Agosta).

In a statement late this evening, the French company DCNS said it was aware of reports on the data leak. "This serious matter is (being) thoroughly investigated by the proper French national authorities for defence security. This investigation will determine the exact nature of the leaked documents, the potential damages to DCNS customers as well as the responsibilities for this leakage."

The data leak from the French firm comes at a time when the Modi government says it is close to signing a contract with France for 36 Rafale fighter aircraft estimated to be upwards of Euro 7 billion.

When it was contracted, the Scorpene submarine programme was estimated to be Rs 24,000 crore. The French escalated the price after that and India, too, entered into separate contracts for weapons and spares for 20 years.