On 6 April last year, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar undocked the fully-fitted, first of its class, Project 75 submarine. It is scheduled to be commissioned in September 2016 after mandatory sea trials. The project, as per the contract with the French shipbuilders DCNS, had already suffered many slippages in delivery schedules and (in naval parlance) is astern of the original intent of expeditious delivery to address the force-level shortages of diesel-electric submarines.
The earlier attempt at Mazagaon Docks to build the German origin, state-of-the-art submarine – designed by HDW – had to be terminated in the late 1980s owing to the allegation of corruption in the deal. The Indian Navy was deprived of a well-established production line when the political decision, more of a knee-jerk reaction, was taken to terminate it. The costly investment in infrastructure and technical manpower was thus wasted. The opportunity cost of terminating this prestigious project can be best summed up with the idiom, "cut off your nose to spite your face" because the cost was exorbitant, to put it mildly.
Even though the Soviets stepped in to supply the EKM submarines to bolster the depleting force levels, a 30-year build programme which was approved at the end of 1990s was to ensure that our build capacity was augmented by creating the necessary infrastructure and technical manpower in two indigenous yards. Inordinate delays in executing the plan resulted in Mazagaon Docks speeding up the construction of much-delayed Scorpene. The other is yet to take off.
This is the backdrop against which the today's leaked documents need to be viewed.
The Australian newspaper which broke the story of the leak has carefully redacted the sensitive data contained in the leaked documents, keeping in mind the advice of military and legal experts. A few pages sourced by Firstpost confirm that the redaction has been professionally carried out. Whether it covers the whole document of over 20,000 pages is yet to be ascertained. Responsible and ethical reportage makes it incumbent on newspapers to blank out those parts which might otherwise have undesirable geopolitical implications. Australia too is on the threshold of building submarines with similar assistance. They ought to know the implications of this action.
With regards to the sensitive data, acoustic signatures and 'cavitation appearance' are indeed closely-guarded secrets with the shipbuilder being its sole custodian. The builder creates a data bank based on simulated and empirical studies which are carried out over a long duration. The customer, in turn, can hold him accountable for such data that needs to be proved during sea trials. Hence the actually recorded and analysed data during sea trials would be more valuable than what is stated in documents. Tactically, a submarine has many options to deceive sonars by masking its radiated noise. Hence the impact of such a disclosure (authentic or not) depends on the quality of submarining. Indian submariners have decades of experience on both Western and Eastern origin submarines.
As far as the timing of this leak is concerned, the competitors of the second line of production are the biggest gainers. It means billions of dollars worth of business at a time when both economy and employment are at a critical stage. It is not that the defence ministry would terminate orders on DCNS, which would be another folly of even greater proportions if they do, but the second line of production is round the corner. Builders from East and West are possibly salivating on the quantum of order.
The very nature of this leak of over 22,000 pages makes it amenable to hacking. Considering that we are not a fully-wired society, it is unlikely that any single in-house source would have all such data on a single but networked computer. This could have also been hacked from those original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in Europe who were associated with this project. We can at best speculate at this stage.
Is it critical for operations? Most of the pages, as would be the case in any documentation, would consist of data which is common to all builders. With the operational profile being common to all submarines, it is likely that factors related to the detection of the submarine from ship, airborne or a hunter-killer submarine, are critical to operations. But this is the raison d'être of the submarine arm. Experienced submariners know how to avoid detection.
Furthermore, the data on weapons, whether torpedoes or missiles, are well known to all submariners. The greatest advantage that we have is that our submariners have for decades operated both Western and Eastern origin submarines and have learnt to innovate when required.
Recent reports suggest that the choice of torpedoes, which is the primary weapon, has not been finalised. In the existing case, it has turned out to be an advantage as the torpedoes are the main weapon of submarines and this leaked document pertains to discussions held in 2011.
The navy needs more submarines to address the depletion of conventional units. Delays caused by events like these ought not to result in further reduction in force levels.
Parikkar's statement this morning is noteworthy for its sobriety.
The author is a retired vice-admiral of the Indian Navy and former chief, Southern Naval Command. Views expressed are personal