The Scorpene’s Sting


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in The Wire,

Submarines are anomic platforms of stealth, concealment and lethality. Each of these mortal attributes is integrated in the body of the weapon to form a very efficient and secretive marauder from the deep. The early years of deployment gave vent to some unsavoury remarks about the use of this weapon; most uncharitable was Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s outburst on the submarine: “…underhand…and damned un-English…treat all submarines as pirates…and hang all the crews.” But this perhaps echoed a visceral fear of the unknown rather than any sense of morality. A century later, the submarine’s tactical advantage remains its capability to use the medium to hide, to strike and then to hide again in waters that firstly complicates and then frustrates detection. To a target within its strike radius it continues to generate the same primeval anxiety that made Sir Arthur quiver.

To appreciate fully the impact of the more than 22,000 page leak of design parameters of the French Direction des Constructions Navales Services’  (DCNS, French naval defence company) Scorpene submarine being built in India for the Navy, one must first come to grips with the problem associated with combating modern conventional submarines such as the Scorpene. The aim of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is to deny the enemy effective use of his submarines. This can be achieved by adopting tactical as well as material measures. The former is achieved through intelligence gathering, surveillance, detection and localising the submarine before destroying it with stand-off weapons that permit the hunter to remain out of the kill range of the submarine. It involves adopting doctrines for co-ordinated operations, setting up dispositions that inhibit freedom of submarine manoeuvre, and tactics that trap it into a ‘destruction-zone.’ Material undertakings, on the other hand, are largely driven by advances in technology that keep platform design, sensors and weapons in a progressive state of change that enhance effectiveness in ASW operations. Marriage of intelligence, efficient tactics and resourceful doctrines with capabilities of contemporary sensors and weapons lies at the core of successful anti-submarine operations. Within this framework, for intuitive foreknowledge to be confirmed by information leakage boosts both probabilities of submarine detection as well as kill.

Anti-submarine operations begin with establishing a submarine probability area. This area is based on intelligence or on inputs from wide area surveillance networks which include remote sensing satellites and sea-bed sensors; and indeed it may be based on electronic or capability indiscretions (surfacing, use of active sensors, communications etc.) of the target submarine. The search phase which involves a systematic and continuing investigation of the area then commences. The area may be demarcated to confirm the absence of a submarine or the search may be launched to locate and destroy it; in the latter instance it is centred on a datum that is based on the last or best known position of the target submarine. Choice of scouts is determined by search rate and degree of vulnerability to submarine counteraction; for obvious reasons ‘time-late’ at datum is a critical factor that can enlarge the search area to an extent when probability of detection diminishes geometrically as it follows an ‘inverse cube law.’ For this reason the preferred scouts for ASW are anti-submarine aircrafts using sensors such as sonars, sonobuoys, magnetic anomaly detectors, radar and infra-red sensors. Inherent in the detection concept is sensor ‘sweep width’ which uses a definite detection law—no probability of detection outside specified range capability, while targets within the specified range are detected with increasing probability. Clearly, successful operations are critically founded on knowledge of enemy capabilities, the specification of adversary weapons and sensors, combat systems, acoustic signature, magnetic profile, and infra-red characteristics. Thoroughness of search, technically termed as the ‘coverage factor,’ is heightened if operating parameters along with design features of the submarine are known.

 Planning an anti-submarine search is a complex craft. It is based on the search theory and the discipline of operations research, both of which were born at the same time and indeed share a common lineage: the necessity of securing the survival of allied naval shipping against submarine attacks during World War II. Passage of time has not changed the need, though ASW is conducted differently today than in World War II, search techniques used in ASW have potentially remained unchanged in concept, structure, and application. Where changes are apparent is in the use of advanced analysis methods and data processing systems using computers, wide area networks and data bases with provision for processing, identification and cueing located ashore. Target characteristics form an important consideration in modelling, for simulation and combat preparation. The first determination in planning and deploying ASW searchers is the probability of contact necessary for accomplishment of the mission from which is obtained the coverage factor. Armed with this and knowing the sweep width of the sensor to be used, scouts are disposed at mathematically determined spacing and move along computed tracks such that early detection is rapidly followed by localization and destruction. This theoretically is how ASW works, but in the real hydrosphere many factors remain unknown. ASW is a complicated warfare discipline, and proficiency can only develop through extensive simulation and training. Destroying a submarine is the hardest task in naval warfare; it can never be the submariners’ case to make this task easier.

Somewhere nestled in those 22k compromised pages, there is certainty of a small section that outlines the Scorpene’s operating “Tactical and Technical Parameters” which is the distillate of all those many thousand folios. And herein lies the rub. We have noted in previous paragraphs (at some length) the various considerations that go into an adversary mounting a search, localizing and then prosecuting a submarine and how ready availability of specifications that answer these considerations largely increases the efficiency of the search-and-destroy operations. They in addition provide critical inputs required for computer modelling and simulating the manoeuvring and operating characteristics of the Scorpene. All this simplifies classification and confirmation of a detected contact. Even to the uninitiated reader it must now be substantially clear that what has been provided on a platter is the ability to generate a computer based virtual reconstruction of the vessel. This ‘cybernetic Scorpene’ can be played with over and over again on a simulator in a variety of hydrological and meteorological scenarios till sensor operators and tacticians gain a very high degree of proficiency in recognizing and fingerprinting the noise, magnetic, electromagnetic and infra-red signatures under all conditions of machinery loading across the entire spectrum of speeds and operating depths. So now the question that begs to be answered is: has the Scorpene lost its sting?

 Investigations are currently in progress to establish just how the leak occurred and to what ends the information found its way to the public domain. There is no clarity why the leak took the tortuous route of passing from the hand of a “disgruntled” DCNS employee through two unknown South East Asian agencies where a fourth hand is alleged prior to falling into the disc drive of the associate editor of The Australian from where it cascaded into the public domain. While reasons for the leak may be many ranging from incompetence at DCNS, cyber hacking by mala fide parties to cut-throat antagonism and resentment between competitors (Japan, Germany) at the loss of the $ 50 billion new design Short fin Barracuda submarine contract for the Australian Navy to DCNS; clearly the strategic beneficiaries of this significant disclosure are the Chinese and Pakistan Navies.

In the meantime, understandably, the Indian Navy have gone into damage control mode. Besides the enquiry that has been launched, it would be in the fitness of things that they also constitute a Special Operations Research Group that begins with two premises: firstly, that compromise has occurred and secondly, that major design changes to the ‘Scorpene’ are not practicable (at least not for the first block if at all there is to be a second). The Special Operations Research Group may then be mandated as follows:-

  • Establish what specific tactical capabilities have been compromised.
  • Device signature masking and spoofing techniques through material and tactical measures.
  • Adopt innovative manoeuvring and operating profiles that stretches and provides permutations to its operating envelope.
  • Ensure that crew turn around is such that expertise aggregates.
  • Identify clauses in the Scorpene contract that have been violated by the leak and replace them with instruments that oblige DCNS to accommodate material alterations that may be warranted to fulfil the mandate of the Special Operations Research Group without prejudice to contractual liabilities of DCNS.

Some portions of the Scorpene’s invisibility cloak may indeed have fallen off in the recent episode, but its brain and sting-lethality remains as potent as was. To regenerate its combat effectiveness may well mean to re-invent operating profiles and devising astute masking techniques. This no doubt is a tough ask, yet by no means beyond the capabilities of the professional savvy of the Indian Navy; there is only one caveat, keep DCNS in a response-only mode.

“Rewarding Thugs”

By Vice Admiral Shankar (retd.)

(This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website on 16 August 2016.)

On 12 July 2016, a long delinquent inspiration struck key members of the US Congress concerned with terrorism, non-proliferation, and trade. In concluding the hearing of the Joint Sub-Committee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs on “Pakistan, Friend or Foe in the Fight against Terrorism,” the Chairman, Mr Matt Salmon drew an unequivocal inference: “For the record, I personally believe that we should completely cut off all funding to Pakistan. I think that would be the right first step. And then, a State Sponsor of Terrorism declaration. … Right now we have the worst policy that we could possibly have; all we are doing is rewarding thugs.”

The expert’s panel was led by Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan. His testimony was woven around what the Pakistani strategic calculus was and how its aims were the anti-thesis of the global war on terror; the exposition was substantiated by facts. Pakistan, he said, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was coerced into providing support to overthrow the Taliban; this was, at best, backhanded support roused more by survival instincts rather than conviction. Fifteen years and $14 billion of funding later, Pakistan has shed all pretensions of being an ally in the war on terror and its blatant duplicity stands exposed. Khalilzad surmised “One may conclude now that Pakistan is a State Sponsor of Terror.”

Within the Indian security establishment, there has been little doubt that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies provide the substructure for terrorist operations both in Afghanistan and India. It is also well known that the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and a host of other jihadists are virtual arms of the Pakistan military and their deployment a cardinal feature of strategy. Former President Musharraf more recently has boasted that Pakistan trains and equips the Taliban and Haqqani Network for operations in Afghanistan; while his military, through the devices of the LeT, HuM and JeM, were actively training, bankrolling and stoking the insurgency in Kashmir and terrorism elsewhere. The fact is that leadership of the Taliban form the Quetta and Peshawar Shura and are located there; while the LeT, Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (HuM) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operate freely between Karachi, Lahore and Muzzaffarabad from where they control terror activities in India. Both are denotive of the extent to which Jihadists hold sway within the state of Pakistan.

It is apparent that global policy to tacitly accept Pakistan’s deceit and characterize terror groups as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and then neutralize the ‘bad’ while venturing to reform “well-disposed” groups (well-disposed to who? One wonders) has failed. And failure, to a large extent, has been machinated by Pakistan towards preserving, what they consider instruments that served them well during the Soviet occupation, current Afghan campaign and insurgency in Kashmir. With Pakistan’s stratagem now laid-bare, the time has come to impose penalties for its perfidy. The irony is that the state continues to believe that they can dupe the world at large, get aid in billions of dollars, while selectively nurturing Islamic terror outfits. The reality, however, is that these very terror organisations have infiltrated every limb of the establishment. Global peril raised by a nuclear state in this form has now become their central bargaining chip for relief, despite the obvious fact that derangement of Pakistan has already occurred!

The recent drone attack on Mullah Mansour in Pakistan, capture of Let terrorist Bahadur Ali in Kashmir, flagrant inflammatory activities of wanted terrorists Hafiz Sayeed (LeT), Massod Azhar (JeM) and Sayeed Salahudeen (HuM) and Prime Minister Modi’s strategic shift to expose atrocities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and for bludgeoning the Baluchistan independence movement provide a pivotal moment to work a change in the UN policy towards Pakistan. India must now direct its diplomatic efforts to bring the USA on board (to some extent this is already happening) and then orient its strategic exertions along three prongs:

  • Politically, orchestrate through the aegis of the UN, isolation of Pakistan from international collaboration and impose sanctions on the military and the ISI in their ability to move freely out of country through the instrument of a UN resolution specific to that country (on the lines of UNSCR 2255 concerning terrorist threat to international peace and security).
  • On the economic and financial fronts; embargo trade with Pakistan except for humanitarian assistance. Terror financing must be traced and cut (UNSCR 1373).
  • On the military front, action must be stepped up targeting terror leadership and infrastructure. In this context for Pakistan to be designated as a “major non-NATO ally in the war on terror” is strange; rather, Pakistan must be placed internationally on the list of sponsors of terrorism.

Pakistan’s strategic calculus has to be debunked on all counts; particularly the conviction that Afghanistan, with the pull out of NATO troops along with the drawdown of US combat forces, once again provides the space for a return to the “happy-days”. It must not be allowed to thrive under the belief that it can be both the legatee of international largesse and cavort with Jihadists. The international community and India have taken some measures to challenge Pakistan; it began with UNSC resolution 1373 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack which proscribed terrorist organisation, to the more recent UNSC resolution 2255 that identifies threats to international security by terrorism. Blockage of military sales, cutting financial aid, calling to attention atrocities in Baluchistan, Gilgit and POK, increased attacks on terror leadership are all representative of these measures. In this context how does one see Pakistan’s all weather friend China respond? The question ought to be: Can China really afford to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (it appears to be distancing itself from North Korea)?

As Indian and U.S. perceptions on terrorism converge and the growing disquiet over Washington’s bottomless and ineffectual aid to Pakistan attains critical mass, India must work vigorously with America and the UN to ensure that “thugs”, in fact, are not “rewarded.”

South China Sea: China’s Double Speak and Verdict at The Hague


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

When Premier Xi rubbished the 12 July 2016 verdict of the International Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on China’s claims over most of the South China Sea, what exactly was meant? For no international justice system had thus far ever called China to order for its expansionist strategy.

What the Hague had in fact done was not only to uphold the case filed by the Philippines in 2013, after China seized a reef in the Scarborough Shoal; but also condemned China’s conduct in the South China Sea over construction of artificial islands and setting up military infrastructure. In an unequivocal rebuke, it found China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis, historical or otherwise. The verdict gives motivation to the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan to pursue their maritime disputes with Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Small wonder then is Premier Xi’s fulmination.

The central issue before the PCA was the legality of China’s claim to waters within a, so called, “nine-dash line” that appears on official Chinese charts. It encircles 90 per cent of the South China Sea, an area of 1.9 million square kilometres approximately equal to the combined areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar put together. Philippines contention was that China’s claims were in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines have ratified. In its decision, the tribunal said any historic rights to the sea that China claimed “were extinguished” by the treaty. And its failure to be a party to the deliberations in no way bars the proceedings. The UNCLOS lays out rules for drawing zones of control over the world’s oceans and seas based on coastal orientation. While the concept of Historic Waters means waters which are treated as internal waters where there is no right of innocent passage.

As far as the “nine-dash line” (originally eleven-dash) is concerned; following the surrender of Japan in 1945, China produced a proprietorship chart titled “Position of the South China Sea Islands” that showed an eleven-dash line around the islands. This map was published by the Republic of China government in February 1948. It did not hold onto this position after it fled to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party, however persisted with this cartographic notion, modifying the 11 to 9 dashes when in 1957, China ceded Bailongwei Island in the Gulf of Tonkin to North Vietnam.

Map: The Nine-Dash Line  Slide1

Source: BBC.CO.UK

The PCA concluded that China had never exercised exclusive authority over the waters and that several disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea were too small for China to claim control of economic activities in the waters around them. As a result, it found, China outside the law in as much as activities in Philippine waters are concerned. The tribunal cited China’s construction of artificial islands on the Mischief Reef and the Spratly archipelago as illegal in addition to the military facilities thereon which were all in Philippine waters.

The episode has besmirched the image of Xi Jinping, his politburo and indeed the credibility of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Tolose their legal case for sovereignty over waters that they have heavily invested in must come as a rude shock to their global aspirations. A complaisant response may set into motion the unravelling of the CPC’s internal hold on the state as defence of maritime claims is central to the Communist Party’s narrative. Any challenge to this account is seen in Beijing as a challenge to the Party’s rule. But the die has been cast; it remains to be seen how more regions and neighbours respond to China’s unlawful claims wherever it is perceived to exist. An indication of the regional response was Vietnam’s immediate endorsement of the tribunal’s decision.

Thus far China has responded sardonically with a typical Cold War propagandist style avowal “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up any patch that is ours. The activities of the Chinese people in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago.” said the front-page in The People’s Daily, which ridiculed the tribunal as a “lackey of some outside forces” that would be remembered as a “laughingstock in human history.” Such dippy doublespeak has no place in contemporary geopolitics. For China to do nothing about the matter will be difficult in the extreme. It does not take a political pundit to note that some form of immediate coercive military manoeuvre in the South China Sea is in the offing. Also, it would hardly be realistic to expect China to scurry away to dismantle the military infrastructure it has so far set up; more likely it is their revisionist policies that would be reviewed.

Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, China brought out a movie titled “Great Wall in the South China Sea,” it was not about the inward looking narrative of Chinese civilization but of “expansive conquests that would knit together all of South East Asia.” The Hague’s verdict has grievously injured the latter strategy. And if the free world is to rein in China’s bid to rewrite the rule books including the right to unimpeded passage in the South China Sea then, it would do well to convince her of the illegitimacy of her position. In the meantime Indian diplomacy should promote the littorals of the South China Sea to seek arbitration for their maritime disputes with China at The Hague.