Who benefits if the Scorpene projects in both India and Australia get disrupted? Who worries the most about the possibility of Indian and Australian Stealth Submarines sneaking into the South China Sea?
Earlier this month, The Australian broke the news that it had over 22000 pages of sensitive documents on India's Scorpene stealth submarine program, and published some of them. Six such submarines, designed by the French military-industrial giant DCNS, are being built in India, and the first of them is already undergoing sea trials.
According to The Australian, "The leaked DCNS data details the secret stealth capabilities of the six new Indian submarines, including what frequencies they gather intelligence at, what levels of noise they make at various speeds and their diving depths, range and endurance - all sensitive information that is highly classified. The data tells the submarine crew where on the boat they can speak safely to avoid detection by the enemy. It also discloses magnetic, electromagnetic and infrared data as well as the specifications of the submarine's torpedo launch system and the combat system."
So will India's submarine program run aground following the massive leak of sensitive data on the Scorpene project?
The answer to that question depends on who you ask.
The government has, of course, downplayed the incident. Though defence minister Manohar Parrikar did admit that "There are a few pockets of concern, assuming that what is claimed to have been leaked has leaked actually."
After first implying that the leak had originated in India, DCNS said the leak was likely a part of the "economic warfare" carried out by frustrated competitors.
While India has ordered an investigation, DCNS on Friday announced that "We filed a complaint against unknown persons for breach of trust with the Paris prosecutor on Thursday afternoon," and that the public prosecutor had opened a preliminary investigation.
The Indian Express had earlier quoted an unnamed French government source as saying that the data was allegedly stolen in 2011 by a former DCNS employee, "who had been fired while providing training on the use of the submarines in India."
"It is not a leak, it is theft," the source said. "We have not found any DCNS negligence, but we have identified some dishonesty by an individual."
The source also added that the documents stolen at the time were not classified and focused only on the Scorpene's operational elements.
"If, as DCNS seems to suggest, the data was stolen 2011 by a subcontractor who then moved to East Asia, then it was probably in the market for the highest bidder soon after," said a senior Navy officer who now works for the ministry of defence.
"Because this data pertains to the Indian program, it would probably have specific tweaks that the Indian Navy wanted, mostly in the weapons configuration and the electronics suites. This would certainly be of interest to Pakistan and China, among others."
"However," he added, "We must also remember that each of the five, perhaps more, Scorpenes that we will be building (one is already out on sea trials) will be an improvement on the earlier one. We will keep adding or refining each submarine by incorporating new technologies so that each one is better than the earlier one. So the specifications, at some level, will keep changing."
He, however, admitted that if the leaked data "includes intelligence on noise levels at different speeds and depths, that would compromise the submarine's stealth capabilities to an extent."
"There are two things to keep in mind here," said another official. "One, by all accounts this is data from 2011 and pertains to the specifications of the Scorpene being discussed between DCNS and India at that time. However, a lot may have changed since then. Two, while it might give a psychological edge to whoever possesses this data - I am sure Pakistan and China already have it, or will soon - it is mostly specifications, which are of limited strategic interest unless you have the operational or deployment charts. Knowing the specifications of an enemy submarine is all well and good, but knowing where it is likely to be when would be a game changer. And as far as I am aware, that hasn't happened, simply because we haven't even started working on those things yet."
"We are perhaps asking the wrong question," said a French analyst based in India. "Who gains from this leak, which appears in an Australian newspaper soon after Canberra signed a deal with DCNS to build 12 Scorpene Shortfin Barracuda submarines in Australia? Who benefits if the Scorpene projects in both India and Australia get disrupted due to this leak? Who worries the most about the possibility of Indian and Australian Stealth Submarines sneaking into the South China Sea?"
A recently retired bureaucrat, however, had a different take. "If the French knew that these documents had been stolen or leaked way back in 2011, I suspect our government did too. However, neither side wanted a scandal at the time, and brushed it under the carpet, Now that it has been leaked into the public domain, both parties are scrambling for damage control, hoping the uproar will soon cease and it will be business as usual."
That, however, is unlikely to happen soon. On Monday, The Australian has promised to publish sections related to the weapons system of the Scorpene, and more is likely to follow.
The author is a foreign and strategic affairs analyst.