X

Scorpene Episode A Wakeup Call

BINAYAK DATTA

IT quite beats me when we are truly competent to make our own Mars satellite orbiter in just $74 million against a similar US programme of $671 million and when we can make the deadly Brahmos and Agni missiles ourselves,  why in 70 years we have still not been  able to use indigenous technology and design to manufacture ‘conventional’ submarines here in India in spite of a hefty Defence Research and Development Organisation and a multitude of stately state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities? But ironically we can make the sophisticated nuclear missile subs, the Arihant ATV here! Why should we be importing technology and spend Rs 20,000 crore?

And this overdependence on foreign suppliers of costly technology have been in a way a bane to our military equipment acquisition programme;  not only from the view of high costs and the associated question marks on the integrity of the deal itself, but more importantly on the time content thereon. These deals, I noticed, typically take nothing less than three  to four  years of negotiations and finalisation and then another 12 years to manufacture in this case in India only.

The Scorpene programme

Some 22,400 pages of confidential military specifications and technical data have been reportedly leaked out and are available on the public domain as published by ‘The Australian’ and is easily accessible by quarters who should best not be doing so!

Just to put this in bit of a perspective, the Scorpene deal was signed in October 2005, by India with ‘Thales’, a 35 per cent  stakeholder in DCNS the French energy major to manufacture these six  boats in Mazagaon Docks (under the Project 75); and the technology fees were to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore. And as is usual in nearly all of our costly foreign acquisition of arms and equipment – the deal quickly ran under clouds of alleged kickbacks. Finally, CBI could not find enough evidence and as a result the case just like several others went into a limbo. In 2009 manufacture started and the first boat was scheduled to be commissioned now in September 2016 followed by the remaining five  within nine  months. We are in heavy backlogs already in any case.

I read a report which has said  the costs indicated would eventually be much more now if the rupee erosion and inflation are factored in followed by the cost overrun on the delay in the deliveries. Compared to this the costs of six nuclear Arihant class indigenous subs would be significantly lesser. I further read that the Navy already has a submarine design facility in moulding the Arihant class of subs. I think citizens have a case to know then, what sort of compulsions ruled, in decisions to expend thousands of additional crores of rupees in the first place.

So the dreaded possibility did happen and important and confidential data did flow out putting the nation in a state of high anxiety – since a stealth weapon is as good as the secrecy in its movements!

Channel of communication

I think we need an official channel of communication imperatively on any such matter where diverse sources cause damaging results, very often detrimental to national security and international confidence.

Although it is being surmised that this could possibly have resulted from actions of certain disgruntled elements and of a probable marketing rivalry consequent, the final truth is yet to be investigated. In all of the melee that followed, we heard contradictory statements from the government and the Navy that there could be a hacking behind this or that we are taking it very seriously and at the same time exclaiming it’s not much a matter for worry. I have also seen in recent times – our leaders would run to  pass their judgements on a matter, even before an inquiry has been instituted – I wonder what then should be left for the committee to inquire? It is good that the Navy now has  mandated a committee to submit its  findings on what data exactly has leaked out and what should be done as mitigations.

But my point is different. A submarine by its very implication, operates in stealth and any information which relates to its specs on sounds produced, frequency ranges and on its overall navigational parameters are bound to be top secret. Although there are conflicting reports on exactly what has really leaked out,  as our Minister correctly remarked in this case, we must operate on a worst case scenario and take steps for mitigations accordingly. But in my view the choices could be limited – the enforcement of the confidentiality clause might not be the best choice because of the sensitivity of the subject itself. I don’t also think significant tweaks on specs are technically feasible as well since the constructions as understood seem to be in an advanced stage. It is a matter to ponder over why the data leaked mostly pertain to India and Malaysia when there were host of countries buying Thales subs worldwide.

The fact that DCNS have approached the Supreme Court in Australia praying restraint on ‘The Australian’ on these “highly valuable” data in a way indicates the importance of the matter. Therefore, in my view we have to be cautious. In the short run therefore a proper secret inquiry by a small team comprising  a sitting Supreme Court judge and a retired senior naval officer with a time-bound plan could be good. In the long run the ‘Make in India’ programme should be strengthened and prioritised. It is best to trust Indian private companies rather than these International arms suppliers and agents and be vulnerable forever.

Following from General George Patton’s famed saying: “…The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other (guy) die for his…,” I think at least in this one field secrecy is essential and so are long-term strategies to preserve secrecy.

Categories: Commentary
nt :