Accept this for a fact – all big ticket defence purchases involving billions of dollars will be controversial. But no deal has been as controversial as the purchase of six Scorpene-class submarines by India from the French, in a deal that was signed in October 2005, when the Dr Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power.

The latest controversy erupted when The Australian newspaper revealed that 22,400 pages of secret material regarding the Scorpene submarines being built for India had been leaked. According to the newspaper, the leak was quite serious and could severely jeopardise its capabilities against adversaries.

The leaked papers contained several sensitive details, the report said:

  • The stealth capabilities of the six new Indian Scorpene submarines
  • The frequencies at which the subs gather intelligence
  • The levels of noise the subs make at various speeds
  • Diving depths, range and endurance
  • Magnetic, electromagnetic and infra-red data
  • Specifications of the submarine’s torpedo launch system and the combat system
  • Speed and conditions needed for using the periscope
  • Propeller’s noise specifications
  • Radiated noise levels when the submarine surfaces

These 22,400 pages included, The Australian said:

  • 4,209 pages on its above-water sensors
  • 4,301 pages on its combat management system
  • 493 pages on its torpedo launch system and specifications
  • 6,841 pages on the submarine’s communications system and
  • 2,138 on its navigation systems

A careful study of the documents reveals that this is a pretty serious leak.

The key to a submarine’s strategic advantage is its ability to stay silent underwater, a former Indian Naval submariner pointed out. This means it will have as many stealth features as possible, and details about how much noise it makes can make a massive difference in its ability to operate in enemy waters.

The fact that details of “levels of noise” the Scorpene submarine makes at “various speeds”, the “frequencies at which” the submarines “gather intelligence”, the “diving depths, range and endurance” are all part of sensitive data that needs to be guarded scrupulously.

In fact, how serious this leak is can be gauged by a key detail that the manufacturers of the Scorpene submarine had highlighted before the deal was signed. For years, the Indian Navy was looking for a fresh set of submarines that could replace its ageing Russian and German vessels. While the German submarine manufacturer HDW was black-listed for years, it was cleared just before India signed the Scorpene submarine deal.

At that time the German submarine manufacturer had claimed superiority of its vessels on the grounds that they did not need to re-surface as frequently as the Scorpene submarines to re-charge their batteries.

Every time a submarine surfaces, it increased the possibility of being detected by the enemy. This is the reason why nuclear-powered submarines are considered so lethal, since they can remain underwater for months. HDW argued that their vessels had the Air Independent Propulsion systems that would ensure the submarines could stay under water for long periods.

The Scorpene, a diesel-powered conventional submarine needs to surface, but its manufacturers argued that it had other features that could keep it underwater for a long period. It pointed to the stealth features and the “low noise” capabilities of the design, which have now been leaked in the 22,400 classified documents.

A controversial deal

Project-75 of the Indian Navy was one of its most ambitious and urgent programmes. The Indian Navy’s submarines were too old and were on the verge of retirement. A spate of accidents brought down the level of submarines effectively to nine vessels that could operate without any major hindrance. These six Scorpene submarines, part of Project-75, were supposed to be the first of several others that would follow.

However, right from the beginning, controversy dogged the French submarine makers. The French ship building company had also made the Agosta-class of submarines for the Pakistani Navy, raising questions about the same company making submarines for the Indian Navy. This would be a unique situation, bureaucrats pointed out, where two traditional adversaries were being armed by the same company.

The government of India signed a Rs 18,798 crore deal with a French company called Armaris, a joint venture between Thales and DCN, which was floated for this purpose. Reports indicated that this was just a one-room outfit, which was created only to sign the deal and then sub-contract much of the work to others. A French Naval officer, working with one of these sub-contractors is suspected to have “stolen” these 22,400 pages and given them to arms dealers in 2011.

Surprisingly, the Indian Navy was never alerted by the French authorities when the leak took place.

The price of the Scorpene submarines had also come under a cloud. First negotiated by the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government, the deal couldn’t be closed due to the high prices being quoted by the French. The deal was eventually sealed under the UPA government, which claimed in Parliament that it had saved Rs 313 crore by “renegotiating the deal”.

But the fact was that the price had actually been inflated by Rs 2,838 crore, something that was slammed by the CAG, years after the deal was signed. Clearly, the UPA’s claims in Parliament were not accurate. Since then, the execution of the project has undergone significant delays and is behind schedule by nearly four years. While the first Scorpene submarine, christened as INS Kalavari was put to sea trials early this year, delivery of the other five vessels continues to be delayed.

For over a decade, the Scorpene deal was one of the most contested purchases, with objections from several quarters. Revelations that a suspected arms dealer was found hobnobbing with one of the key stakeholders of Armaris, the French company floated to sign the deal, also added to the controversies dogging the deal. The alleged arms dealer was eventually arrested and jailed for the Naval War Room leak that occurred in 2005. His associate, who happened to be the nephew of the wife of the then Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, was allowed to flee the country.

Source of the Leak

The morning the story about the leak broke, defence minister Manohar Parrikar told reporters that this was a case of “hacking”. However, senior intelligence officials who were alerted to look into the case have a different story to tell.

The details of the current leak were first shared with arms dealers operating from Thailand in 2011, before they eventually found their way into the Australian media five years later. Intelligence officials, on the condition of anonymity, also confirmed that the details leaked are from DCN, the French government owned company which is building the submarines. The fact that details of other deals currently under process have also been leaked– the sale of French frigates to Chile and the Mistral class amphibious ships to Russia – confirms the source of the leak. Indian counter intelligence officials have already started making a detailed audit of Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited, the public sector undertaking in Mumbai that is building the Scorpene submarines. A similar assessment is also being carried out at naval Headquarters and its submarine directorate, but the sheer size of the leak makes them as unlikely sources, a senior Intelligence official told Scroll.

The defence ministry has issued an official statement stating that the leaked documents put up on the Australian newspaper’s website “do not pose any security compromise as the vital parameters have been blacked out”.

However, intelligence officials dealing with the case scoffed at the idea because they believe that these papers have been available to many entities since the leak in 2011. More significantly, the ministry seems to be admitting that the actual leaked documents contain “vital parameters” that have been blacked out.

The French have claimed that this is a case of “economic warfare”, which is not the first of its kind. In late 2006 the United States Department of Defense realised that the $ 337-billion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had suffered some major leaks from the private sector. An investigation revealed that Chinese hackers had got into the systems of private defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin and stolen data worth billions of dollars. With Indian private companies now stepping into defence manufacturing in a major way, this is a clear and present danger that India will have to deal with immediately.