Whether one looks at the Scorpène data leak from a commercial point of view or a state espionage point of view the facts simply don't add up.
Here is what we know thus far. Sometime before 2011 someone collated a document that by the laws of secrecy - specifically to compartmentalise sensitive information - should have never been collated. This was a comprehensive sheet of specification of three weapons
systems - The Scorpène class submarine, the FREMM class frigates and the Mistral class Helicopter Carriers/Amphibious operations support ships. This document was then according to The Australian
newspaper either stolen or transmitted to a South Asian Subsidiary of French shipbuilder DCNS and was then transmitted to a private company in South East Asia in support of a bid. That document was then transferred to a private company in the same South East Asian company and was mysteriously emailed to an Australian Company. DCNS surprisingly has yet to make any public statement at the time of writing. In private they have suggested that the leak may have happened on the Indian side - with Mazagaon Docks limited. Now the story has shifted that this was a French ex-naval officer who stole the document. The problem is none of these stories make sense and here's why.
In 2011 there were only two countries that were looking at all three systems in question - India and Singapore. India was looking at a follow on to the Scorpène under the P75I programme, at a new frigate design that would bring modular construction methods into Indian shipbuilding for the first time and a helicopter carrier under somewhat vague terms. The Singaporeans at the same time were evaluating the same three platforms. Their helicopter carrier plans remain vague and in 2011 it was still an expression of interest that solicited concepts ships from various shipyards. Singapore was also looking at the FREMM frigates at the time as a possible successor to their then brand new Formidable class. this was natural as Singapore likes to plan procurements well ahead of time. Finally Singapore evaluated and rejected the Scorpène for a German design.
The document therefore was either made for India or for Singapore, though as The Australian suggests this was probably Singapore. This in itself raises some serious questions. The specification in the leaked documents are heavily classified. They are not the kind of information as supplier put in during bidding, but rather after bidding when full disclosure is required. The problem is Singapore did not choose any of these platforms and yet was given specifications that should have never been shared except with a confirmed buyer. This points more to deliberate ethics breach rather than a sale. but this is also where the known facts don’t make sense.
If this was commercial espionage by a rival then the timing of the leak does not add up. The most damage that could have been inflicted on DCNS was in 2011. That was when India's Scorpènes had not yet been constructed with the possibility of cancelling follow on boats and retendering the whole process. Yet it was not leaked publicly at that time. Similarly if a DCNS rival had wanted to win the massive USD 38 billion Australian submarine contract they would have leaked the information before Australia announced its bid rather than after the decision had been made. In the period since 2011 at least 3 other nations have settled on new submarines and the leak was not made public in any of these cases in order to score victories.
The other possibility is state espionage. India had no need to acquire the extra data on the FREMM and Mistral and would have already possessed detailed specifications of the Scorpène. Singapore seems the only likely candidate for the acquisition of such information. But such information once gathered would have been a prized treasure not to be shared so lazily over the internet. Moreover Singapore has no commercial interest in its leak. far from it if the source of the leak is fixed in Singapore it gravely affects its credibility, and bring about great difficulties in Singapore's critical intelligence sharing relationships with other countries that it depends on. More importantly it also exposes Singapore to charges of industrial espionage which can be very damaging for a small country of its size. If the state party that had authorised the espionage were China or Pakistan, it begs the question what would they have to gain by making such information public? rather the course of action would have been to keep the information secret and develop countermeasures to the Scorpène capability to give a nasty surprise to India during wartime.
Ultimately none of these explanations hold water. The only possible explanation was that DCNS deliberately shared such sensitive information in order to win the Singapore contract, no matter how much it claims that the information was "stolen". that in itself was unethical but more importantly extremely short-sighted since it compromised sub-contractor information. this damages not only DCNS but companies such as Thales - and effectively the whole French defence
ecosystem. This information must have passed on to Singapore Technologies Marine Division. The question then remains why was it transmitted to an Australian company and why did that company chose to share it with a newspaper rather than its own government first?
It seems quite clear now that we are staring down a US$ 3.6 billion white elephant. If it can in fact be proven that DCNS crafted this document and shared it then India can sue for damages. If it turns out that the documents were stolen then India might have recourse to further punitive damages if DCNS chose to not inform India.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is an independent defence analyst. He has coordinated the National Security at the Observer Research Foundation & been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre. He writes about defence policy, technology & defence cooperation on his blog, Tarkash, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.