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Experts divided on leak of sensitive data on Scorpene submarine

Indian and international experts were divided on how damaging the leak of sensitive data on the Scorpene submarine could prove to be and whether it could have compromised the platform.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2016 00:26 IST
Rahul Singh
File photo of Indian Navy's Scorpene submarine INS Kalvari being escorted by tugboats as it arrives at Mazagon Docks Ltd in Mumbai.
File photo of Indian Navy's Scorpene submarine INS Kalvari being escorted by tugboats as it arrives at Mazagon Docks Ltd in Mumbai.(Reuters)

Indian and international experts were divided on how damaging theleak of sensitive data on the Scorpene submarine could prove to be and whether it could have compromised the platform.

Strategic affairs expert Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar said if it is confirmed the data relates to the Indian vessel, then the quantum of details put out might compromise the submarine’s credibility.

“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,” said Bhaskar, who heads the Society for Policy Studies.

Gabriel Dominguez, Asia-Pacific editor at the respected IHS Jane’s Defence weekly, said, “The risk is even higher if the data has been distributed widely, has reached potential adversaries and regional rivals or is now held by individuals or organisations or both that increase the risk of further leaks or hacks.”

He said there could also be implications for the operational effectiveness of the Scorpene fleet and for India acquiring additional Scorpene-class vessels at a time when the Indian Navy’s underwater capabilities are a source of concern.

Read: All about Indian Navy’s crucial Scorpene submarines

However, Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash, who was the navy chief when the Scorpene deal was inked, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. He said, “One can’t really say how much damage has been caused without analysing the data.”

Prakash said since the documents were categorised only as “restricted,” it was an indication the leaked data was not very sensitive. “Restricted is the lowest security classification. If the documents were that sensitive, they would have been marked secret or top secret.”

If found guilty of lapses, French shipbuilder DCNS would have violated a critical non-disclosure clause in the $3.5-billion contract for supplying six Scorpenes to the Indian Navy.

Read: India assesses vulnerability of Scorpene submarines after leak of secret data

Peter Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the most serious implications from the leak were the “frequency signature details” of the Scorpene class. “The major risk…is from the exposure of data related to propeller and radiated noise – as a result, Indian submarines will be more vulnerable after the data breach,” he said.

Such leaks will “allow submarine hunters to refine their searches rather than just searching large swathes of water”, he said. “In simple terms, acoustic intelligence – the fingerprint of a submarine – is the Holy Grail of national secrets.”

Roberts said DCNS will have to make “some reassurances to the Indian government, and possibly undertake some mitigation work”, such as changing key equipment to change the frequency signature of the submarines. “The impact on DCNS is most likely to be highest with the Australian government who, having recently (awarded) a large submarine contract to the French shipbuilder, will want reassurance that their data will be sufficiently protected from prying Chinese eyes,” he said.

Prof. Harsh V. Pant, professor of International Relations at King’s College London said, “This is a serious breach, if established, and can do some real long term damage to Indian strategic profile as the Scorpene was supposed to be the main conventional submarine of the Indian fleet. With this leak, Indian Navy will have to re-set its calculus in light of the Scorpene becoming more vulnerable and prepare anew for a challenge that is growing by the day.”

Alyssa Ayres, a former US state department official who oversaw relations with India and is now a South Asia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, described the leak as “terrible news, no question”.

“But I think further details are required not only on the leaked info (does this reveal all about the sub?)…as well as on how it happened (was it indeed a hacking? If so, by whom?) before it’s possible to assess how future Indian defence deals might be affected,” she said.

Roberts added that in the longer term, the leak will act as a black mark against DCNS” in future submarine bidding competitions, especially in the Asia-Pacific region where more than 70 new submarines will be ordered over the next decade. All arms manufacturers will have to “tighten (and prove) their ability to protect data and information against internal leaks, as well as potential espionage from external actors”, he said.

(With inputs from Prasun Sonwalkar in London and Yashwant Raj in Washington)

Read: Scorpene submarines documents leak case of hacking: Manohar Parrikar