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 centered 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 modeling 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.

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