No cause for worry

SCORPENE security breach

The recent expose in an Australian newspaper of restricted data about the French company DCNS, designer and builder of the Scorpene class submarine under construction at Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai, caused consternation in India. Undoubtedly, it was a major breach in information security. Whether or not the nature of classified data revealed adversely impacts the operational effectiveness of the Scorpene as the mainstay of the Indian Navy’s (IN) submarine force, is the issue.

Typically, the overwhelming majority of all documentation which pertains to a submarine is technical and comprises operational, maintenance and repair instructions, which may be relevant to rival commercial entities – but minimal use for an adversary at sea. The frequent reference to the number of pages that have been “leaked” should be seen in this background.

The state of the art in various aspects of submarine technology such as sensors, weapons, control systems, propulsion and power generation is known to those in the game, whether naval or shipbuilding industry. Defence industry publications especially, Jane’s Fighting Ships, Aircraft, Weapon Systems or similar ones are all exemplars of this and publish surprisingly authentic data. Generic data and performance capabilities are known or can be assessed in broad terms. The assumption that more specific details will totally tilt the balance in the adversary’s favour is, thus, highly debatable.

In all likelihood, a former DCNS employee with commercial motives shared the documentation to embarrass the company. Given that the data was written even before the submarine was built, this content must be considered largely indicative and would be subject to valid-ation by extensive tests and trials at sea.

The leaked information could be useful to two kinds of entities. Firstly, rival submarine manufacturers who offer a competitive product might desire such leaked information. Secondly, it could also interest other states for which our military capabilities are a subject of surveillance and analysis.

A major factor that differentiates submarines from other war-fighting platforms is that the submarine relies entirely on passive means of detection and identification and makes no electronic or sonic transmissions throughout its operational time at sea, except with great deliberation and under tightly controlled conditions. This method of operation drastically minimises the impact of any interceptions that may be made of submarine emissions, and neutralises any advantage the adversary may gain by knowledge of its sensor operating characteristics.

Today, even conventional diesel-electric submarines that fighting navies operate, remain submerged throughout their sea patrols, and their infrequent radio communication is made from under water through buoyant radio antennae, which obviates the need for the vessel to come near the surface.

There appears to be an impression that if parameters such as the sonar frequencies of the submarine are divulged its stealth and surveillance capabilities are neutralised. This is far from the reality – submarine sonars passively monitor the entire spectrum of underwater noise generated by other ships, which the ships can do little to prevent.

Even if they did have prior knowledge of the frequencies being monitored by the submarine, they can in no way reduce their noise signatures, nor can they affect the submarine’s effectiveness as an intelligence gatherer. This applies equally to all forms of surveillance – whether acoustic or electromagnetic – that the submarine carries out.

The most vital operational data about a submarine are the fields of energy of various types that it unavoidably generates in operation. These energy fields can be mapped to form the submarine’s signatures. Thus, the submarine has a noise (acoustic) signature, a heat or infra-red signature, an electromagnetic signature and a magnetic signature.

Combination of these signatures
Obviously, such data cannot exist in the manufacturer’s documents as it is compiled by a navy through extensive tests and trials at sea after the submarine becomes operational. It is the combination of these “signatures” that finally determines the ability to detect and identify the submarine. Thereafter, this closely guarded information is accessible to only a few officers – even within a navy.

Knowledge of frequencies of the submarine’s radiated noise as reported in the present case will not simply lay it open to detection and attack, as appears to be the conclusion in some writings. It is of little benefit to an enemy warship which has first to detect the submarine’s radiated noise.

Therein lies the basic challenge; the warship’s detection equipment can detect and analyse radiations within a broad spectrum, but the submarine will detect the warship much earlier, at several times the distance, because of its innate quietness (lower acoustic signature) compared to the warship.

The adversary requires actionable information related to a submarine’s manoeuvres and any indication to launch weapons. As far as a submarine’s weapon control and other systems are concerned, these are internal operations of the vessel to manage its fire control system, machinery, manoeuvre systems, and so on. They do not enter the adversary’s information system or impact his engagement, and are of little relevance or interest to him. 

Whatever the latest technology advances may be, one fact should never be lost sight of: it is not technology alone but knowledge, professionalism, dedication and discipline that will spell success in any battle. Fortunately, the IN’s submarine arm is endowed with all these qualities and, therefore, the nation need not have to worry on this count.

(The writer is former Director-General, Nuclear Submarines project and Director, Asia Centre, Bengaluru)

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