Author : Abhijit Singh

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Sep 02, 2016
If The Australian story is true, the Scorpene data was removed from DCNS by a former French Navy officer and his friend.
Scorpene with a "sting" in its tail

It’s hard not to believe in 'conspiracy theories' when there is evidence of a real conspiracy. As French firm DCNS obtained an injunction from Australia’s Supreme Court against The Australian from publishing leaked documents of India’s Scorpene project, there are more questions than answers, and more than a whiff of a diabolical plan.

A report in the newspaper last week is said to have revealed that a person who called himself a 'whistle-blower' had leaked the information as an act of public goodwill. The disclosure is a continuation of assaults on DCNS’s reputation — meant squarely to weaken the company’s credibility and competence vis-à-vis data protection. Last week, the Rear Admiral (Retd) John Padgett, the president of the US Naval Submarine League, spoke of the need for "aggressive action" to probe the leak and a former commander of US Pacific fleet Submarine Force warned that the expose would undermine the confidence in the ability of French companies to protect classified information.

All of this makes one wonder if the 'whistle-blower' theory is in itself a cover for a deeper, more sinister plot. Whatever dark secrets The Australian may have uncovered, there is something eerily doubtful about its story.

To get a sense of the dire improbability of individual events, it is important to carefully recount the purported facts. If The Australian story is true, the Scorpene data was removed from DCNS by a former French Navy officer and his friend, both company subcontractors with the company. The former naval officer, apparently, illicitly removed the material — in this case a scanned technical manual — to serve as a reference guide for his new job at a private firm in a Southeast Asian country.

A few months down, the two men are allegedly dismissed by their employer. This time, they fail to smuggle their secret disc out of the office building. The company takes possession of the CD and sends it to the head-office in Singapore, where the IT chief tries to upload its contents to an internet server for a worker in Sydney, who is supposed to replace the two sacked French workers. Unable to dispatch a large file over the internet, however, the IT head sends it on a standard data-disk by regular post to Sydney. When it reaches its destination, the receiver is stunned to find among the contents the secret capabilities of the new Indian submarine fleet. He proceeds to make a revelation through the pages of The Australian, in an apparent bid to save his country from a potential security breach at the hands of an unreliable company that has been awarded a contract to build submarines.

Scorpene, The Australian, DCNS, Scorpene Leak, Data, Submarine

The story appears outwardly plausible, until one begins to consider the odds favoring the individual events. Then the questions begin to fly. Is it a mere coincidence that the workers get sacked around the same time as DNCS is awarded Australia’s biggest defence contract? That the French subcontractors have sensitive data on a disc without a password? And that they choose to keep their secret possession in their office building, with full knowledge of their employers and seniors, who then deny them entry into the building after their termination from service — even to collect their personal belongings?

Intriguingly, despite being aware of the disc's 'sensitive' information, company officials do not try and investigate its contents. Realistically, this could only be the case if there was a password protecting the disc's contents, or if the firm in question wasn’t a vessel-construction company at all. But we know neither of these possibilities is really true. According to the whistle-blower, company’s senior executives had full access to the CD’s contents (containing sensitive details of India’s premier submarine project) and recognised that the material in their possession could assist the replacement of the sacked French workers in an ongoing construction project.

Even assuming there were a series of coincidences that led to an unlikely set of actions by the protagonists, it is astonishing that company officials chose to send the disc to their head-office in Singapore without appreciating the data’s sensitive nature. Shockingly, the IT head in Singapore too has no idea about the material’s real significance. Yet, he tries to upload it on a server, in contravention of company laws that prohibit the placing of illegally obtained material on company servers.

What happens next, tests the limits of incredulity. The company’s IT head, unable to email the data over the net, cuts a disc and dispatches it to a contact in Sydney, who, in an amazing twist of fate, suffers a conscience attack upon viewing the CD’s contents — just in time to make a revelation in public interest.

There is more to confound the thinking mind. Apparently, the whistle-blower knows exactly when the data was placed on the server (April 18, 2013), but can’t remember when it was removed. "Could have been there from a few days for a few years", he says, raising two crucial sets of questions:

  • If the idea of cyber-transmission of the data to the whistle-blower proved unfeasible, why didn’t company officials immediately remove the data from the server?
  • If the whistle-blower took note of the exact data when the data is uploaded on the server, why didn’t he care to find out when it was removed? How is he even sure that the data was cleared from the server?

It is entirely possible then that the whistle blower theory is a convenient cover for a more dubious saga. The search for ammunition to scuttle DCNS' Australian submarine contract may well have begun the day the company was awarded the tender. The plan would have been to find material that could discredit the French firm — in a way that the Australian government has little option but to reconsider the merits of the case and scrap the contract. Contrary to what some analysts have suggested, the timing of the leaks does reveal a story. Until it was announced in May this year, no one really expected DCNS to clinch the submarine deal, and many were shocked when it finally emerged as the winner. The problem for the company’s opponents was that the transparent nature of the award made it impossible for them to level allegations of corruption, bribery or favouritism to force the Australian government to reconsider the contract. The only available option now was to discredit the company by gathering information that would show the firm as being incompetent to undertake a venture of the scale and sensitivity.

It is well known in maritime circles that data-proliferation is hard to contain in the ship and submarine construction business because of the multiplicity of agencies and interests involved. In recent years, the use of subcontractors has been the bane of submarine construction, especially since it does not allow for a centralised model of operations where secrecy can be effectively ensured. It is a problem that navies and shipbuilding companies have to routinely deal with. But when no other excuse works to discredit rivals, movable classified data comes in handy.

< style="line-height: 1.5;">< style="color: #0069a6;">It is well known in maritime circles that data-proliferation is hard to contain in the ship and submarine construction business because of the multiplicity of agencies and interests involved.< style="line-height: 1.5;">

< style="line-height: 1.5;">The express motive to damage the DCNS’ reputation, has become clear through the repeated references in Australia and the US to dangerous compromises of data, rendered "vulnerable to hacking or interception by foreign intelligence services."

The investigation team must now probe the culpability of media agencies in this expose. It would be interesting to know if there was really a quid pro quo involved. More importantly, it is worth investigating if there was intergovernmental collusion in engineering the leak. With the naval chiefs of India, Australia, Malaysia, Chile and Brazil — countries that operate variants of the Scorpene or have ordered the submarine — set to discuss the scandal during an upcoming symposium in the US, there is certainly a great deal of concern its revelations.

Contrary to appearances, investigators might well conclude that this goes beyond the conscience pangs of a "responsible Australian" acting "in national interest".

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

Read More +