Over the last 36 hours since the Scorpene Leak scandal broke, plenty has been said about the nature of the leak and its potential impact on Indian submarine operations and deployments. The Indian Navy has set up a top-level inquiry team to investigate the leak. India has also unequivocally put the onus on France, officially declaring that the leak for was from ‘foreign source’. In the mean time, government officials have sought to play down the impact of the leak, both officially and otherwise. Among the things being said: the leaked documents are technical manuals, are outdated, don’t constitute sensitive information and don’t pertain to India’s Scorpenes alone. An MoD official has also been quoted as saying there is no cause for worry. Handling an explosive situation where the Indian government has clearly been blindsided by the leak is one thing. But to brush the leak aside and recognise it for anything other than a devastating breach is to ensure that it happens again. Here now is a list of three reasons why the Scorpene Leak scandal is the most serious non-conflict cause for worry the Indian military has faced in a long time.
- The fact that officially controlled/restricted documents of any kind pertaining to strategic platforms have found their way into the public domain itself is the principal cause for alarm. Documentation and literature running into many thousands of pages are restricted for several reasons — tactical, strategic, economic and commercial. A leak establishes that the system on the Scorpene programme has holes. Period. That hole is now the centerpiece of two separate investigations in India and France. That hole has no place in a $3 billion transaction that was underscored by an integrity pact. That hole has no place in an enormously complex programme that looks to shore up critical force levels in one of India’s most crucial combat arms.
- Indian Navy submariners (both serving and retired) are unanimously alarmed. A serving Lieutenant Commander I spoke to, currently deployed on a Kilo-class boat, said, “We’ve seen some of the pages that are out there. But we don’t know what else is out there. Until we know, we have to assume the worst. That’s how the submarine service works.” Nothing truer. The Indian Navy itself, in its official statement today, perplexingly pointed to the redacted documents published by The Australian, as if the Australian newspaper/website is the source of the leak. The truth is, at this stage, the Indian Navy and government aren’t fully clear about what’s been leaked. It’s a metaphor that reflects submarine operations perfectly: what isn’t known could sink you.
- But there’s something much more fundamental about the leak that isn’t being recognised as much as it probably should. A second submariner I spoke to illustrated the point in the gritty way submariners do. He provided me with the following scenario: “Imagine you’re sent into a large hall full of silent people and ordered to track down a particular person. You don’t know their name, what they look like, what they sound like. Now imagine being sent into that same room with a photograph of the person, a voice sample. How much sooner would you find the person?” He admits that’s a simplistic example, but he says it conveys a very fundamental message about submarine operations. In a world of darkness and silence, the smallest glimmer of light or sound is actionable data, information that helps decisions, speeds up processes, helps evasion and tracking. 22,000 pages that reportedly cover everything from the Scorpene’s vulnerabilities to its frequencies to its acoustic profiles sounds like a “nightmare” in the submariner’s words. I asked him to list the possible nature of data compromised in the leak. His list: propulsion and cavitation data, acoustics at ultra-slow speed, combat system acoustics, drive turbine sound profile, shifting sonar profile during rapid dive, frequencies at snorkling and shallow depth, acoustic dynamics shift between shallow stationary float and snorkeling depth. Conversations in media and within the Navy wonder if technical manuals and specifications of submarine platforms really provide any fodder to adversaries. I quote, once again, a submariner: “We don’t know what’s out there. And, yes.”