The move came as India last night expressed “grave concern’’ at the revelation in The Australian yesterday that 22,400 pages of secret French documents on the combat capability of its six new Scorpene-class submarines had been leaked. News of the security breach, one of the largest of its kind, has become major news in India where an investigation has also been launched.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said it appeared to be a case of hacking and he had asked his navy chief to investigate. India’s Defence Ministry said the source of the leak appeared to be “from overseas and not in India”, suggesting India believes the leaked information came from France.
Experts consider the leak to be a serious blow to the navies of India, Malaysia, Chile and Brazil, which either operate, or will soon operate, the French-designed Scorpene submarines.
The documents reveal the stealth capabilities of the submarines, their intelligence-gathering abilities and data relating to diving, sonar, noise and the combat and weapons systems.
The Australian can also reveal the leaked French data includes secret information on sea trials for Malaysia’s Scorpene submarines, 12 documents relating to DCNS radar systems for Chilean frigates and deals with Russia on the sale of the amphibious assault ships.
The secret documents on the Indian submarines were written by French shipbuilder DCNS, which this year won the lucrative bid to design 12 new submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, raising concerns that a similar leak from DCNS could occur on the Australian project.
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne yesterday came under fire for trying to play down the relevance of the DCNS data leak for Australia. Mr Pyne said he had received advice from the Defence Department that the leak of DCNS documents had “no bearing” on Australia’s submarine program. “The (submarine program) operates under stringent security requirements that govern the manner in which all information and technical data is managed now and into the future,” he said.
“The same requirements apply to the protection of all sensitive information and technical data for the Collins-class submarines, and have operated successfully for decades.”
Malcolm Turnbull also sought to minimise the significance of the issue, saying that while such leaks were “a concern” the documents related to the Scorpene submarine, not the proposed Shortfin Barracuda submarine that DCNS will design for Australia.
Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon said the government’s response to the leak was “woefully inadequate” and it should consider suspending negotiations with France until the issue was resolved. “For the minister to say that the leak of internal documents from French company DCNS in relation to their Indian submarine contract, ‘has no bearing’ on the Australian program is extraordinary,”
Senator Xenophon said. “This leak is extremely concerning, and Minister Pyne cannot make such glib statements without finding out exactly what happened with this leak.”
Senator Xenophon said the issue was relevant because the leak came from the same company that would design Australia’s new submarine fleet.
“This is such a serious breach that the government should consider suspending negotiations until it gets to the bottom of this,” he said.
Labor’s defence spokesman Richard Marles said the government needed to hold talks with DCNS to boost security and ensure the safety of the project. “This is a really concerning moment and we need to know what steps the government is taking in its relationship with this company and make sure Australia’s national security, that the information contained by this company, on Australia’s behalf, is completely safe,” he said.
DCNS announced yesterday the French government would conduct a formal investigation into all aspects of the data leak to be conducted by defence security officials. “This investigation will determine the exact nature of the leaked documents, the potential damages to DCNS customers as well as the responsibilities for this leakage,” the company said.
“As a serious matter pertaining to the Indian Scorpene program, French national authorities for Defence security will formally investigate,” the company said.
It said the leak would have “no bearing” on the Australian submarine program which operated under the “Australian government’s arrangements for protection of sensitive data’’.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute head Peter Jennings said DCNS would have work to do to convince Australia and the US that it had the highest levels of information security surrounding the Australian submarine project.
“It (information security) is something that the three parties — Australia, the French and the Americans want to be absolutely confident of because a repeat of that event as we have seen with the Indians would be very serious damage to our project,” Mr Jennings said.
“This is something that you have got to be worried about in this type of work — not just the ability of external players to hack into it but the role of trusted insiders.”
The data on the Scorpene project was believed to have been removed from DCNS in France in 2011 and taken to a Southeast Asian nation. It is then thought to have been transmitted to a second regional country before being posted on a data file in regular post to a company in Australia.