Is India Ready for the After-Effects of the Scorpene Data Leak?

Is the navy ready to face the consequences of leaked Scorpene data that may end up with China, asks Ravi Rikhye.

3 min read

A view of INS Kalvari, the first of six Scorpene diesel-electric attack submarines  that began its sea trials at Mazagon Dockyard Ltd   in Mumbai  29 October, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

An ex-employee of the French corporation gave the submarine’s data to The Australian. Vivek Raghuvanshi shows how the data reached the newspaper. It has redacted sensitive parts, and an optimistic reading of the circumstances suggests that others may not have the originals.

From a counter-intelligence view, this assumption is untenable. The same employee who leaked the data to the newspaper could have given, or sold, the data to others. The Australian’s computers can be hacked. Moreover, the files were on a public-access Singapore server for some months.

With three potential leakage points, India must assume the data is compromised. Other known potential points are Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, India, Malaysia, Norway, and Poland. Hacking secure data is not as easy as movies and novels suggest, but it is done all the time, especially by strong cyber powers such as China.  

“Kalvari” being built at the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd Mumbai ventures into the sea for the first time as trials begin off Mumbai coast, 1 May, 2016. (Photo: IANS)
“Kalvari” being built at the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd Mumbai ventures into the sea for the first time as trials begin off Mumbai coast, 1 May, 2016. (Photo: IANS)

Leaks have Exposed Vulnerabilities

Instead of wasting time analysing who else has the data, only two questions are relevant: How serious is the breach, and what do we do about it?

The French company says that the leak covers generic data given to serious prospective customers. The Indian Navy is correct in saying our version is unique. Conversely, the generic data can provide parameters within which basic performance like speed, depth, and emissions are defined, giving an adversary an advantage as it searches for more precise data. But does this make the submarine vulnerable?


Boat Signatures Compromised

Concern is being expressed, for example, that our boat signatures have been compromised. Even with the generic data, an adversary such as China can discover key data by observing our and other Scorpene-boats at sea. This is because each submarine is custom-built, giving each unique operating characteristics.

For example, variations in machining the propellers will give different acoustic signatures. This is true of all naval and maritime ships. Variations in the manufacture and application of coating used to counter self-generating internal noise and to reduce the effectiveness of enemy sonar create different signatures. Indeed, the way the coating deforms while sailing varies from boat to boat.

Even more complex, acoustic signatures vary with the water temperature, currents, salinity, and depth, to name just some of the important considerations. The sea is like a thick, amazingly noisy jungle: There are endless opportunities to hide and sneak around. This is precisely what makes submarines so dangerous; the knowledge of the signature may provide no advantage. And, of course, submarines use decoys, including when under attack.


Should the Program be Scrapped?

Now take the worst case: Assume a significant quantity of valuable ‘Indian’ Scorpene data is in enemy hands. What do we do about it? We cannot cancel the program. Kalvari is on trials, Kandheri has been launched, the four remaining boats are under construction.

Should we scrap the entire program and start anew, incurring a delay of another 10 years at a time our sub-surface warfare capability is steadily diminishing? Is there an assurance that details of the new boats won’t be discovered? And the price for a new class would likely double because of weapons price escalation.

Some in the media suggest that at least we can recover our money from the French, because they failed in their contractual duty to keep data secret. A successful suit is unlikely. All contracts carry the qualifier “to the best of XYZ’s ability”. No contract ever says “XYZ is liable under any conceivable circumstances.”

We’d have to prove deliberate negligence, and the company would counter that no data on the Indian boats has been leaked. Moreover, we’d have to show the company had reason to believe its employee would steal the data for publication and did not do enough to stop him. This is very difficult.

Consider this, the operating characteristics of fighter planes are known in great detail. Does that mean we avoid buying the aircraft we need? Clearly not, because ultimately victory depends on pilot skill and the synergistic network. The same is true for submarines.

(The writer is an international security expert. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also read:
Has National Security Been Compromised With the Scorpene Leak?

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