Revelations in The Australian over the past week concerning the capabilities of submarines being acquired by India from France have stirred interest in how Australia’s future submarines might similarly be compromised. The Indian navy will search high and low to find how damaging the leaked information is to its submarine force. DCNS, the French company concerned, will undoubtedly be doing its own forensic examination as to how such important information found its way into the public spotlight.

A lot of damage control will be taking place; experts can make revealing assessments from seemingly innocuous information. That what's been released into the public domain has reportedly been heavily redacted will be cold comfort to those concerned.

India's Scorpene-class INS Kalvari being undocked in 2015. Photo: Indian Navy

Keeping secrets secret has been a problem forever. It doesn’t only apply to the military. Secrets are the concern of any person, organisation or nation that wants to gain or keep an advantage over another, be it private, commercial, governmental or criminal. It is all about winning – and not losing, however that may be defined. Some secrets have a very long life because of the extraordinary advantage they confer. Being able to read encrypted German messages gave the Allies an enormous advantage in World War II and it took nearly three decades for that ability to be made public. Knowing, in a general sense, where Russian submarines were was a full-time task for the Western powers in the Cold War. Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel and then movie The Hunt for Red October purportedly contained more than hints at the sophistication and secrecy that had become real life for submariners in that period. For those who believed in conspiracy theories, there was a message to the Soviet Union about the superior capabilities of America.

The leak from DCNS may prove to be inconsequential. But it will certainly cause a shakeup of security arrangements in multiple places where such information is held, including here in Australia. We have access to some of the most advanced submarine secrets possessed by America, and now those of France. They will of course be protected, but somebody will check. Anybody who doesn’t think Australia is a target for espionage should take the time to watch yesterday’s Four Corners episode, that highlighted to the public what many in defence and other circles know to be true. Information technology has made it easier for spies to be spies, and for secrets to be stolen. But we shouldn’t forget that Edward Snowden (and ostensibly the individual who took the  DCNS data) were on the inside and would have had security clearances. Disaffected humans are as much a weak link as is the internet, if not more so.

Not knowing a secret has been stolen is potentially a war- or combat-losing situation for those who must rely on the secret being kept. This is the world that submariners live in. If you want to meet truly paranoid people when it comes to keeping secrets, spend some time with submariners.

Submarines and their crews depend upon secrecy for their survival. They represent an extreme expression of what it means to be clandestine. It is this way for several reasons. Living underwater is not a natural thing for humans. Particularly at great depths in the ocean in a long steel tube that has no windows and depends entirely upon sophisticated technology for life support systems and everything it does. Submariners were really the first astronauts. But it gets worse. The prospect of surviving serious combat damage in a submarine is low. Despite the amount of money spent on submarine escape systems, they are most effective when the boat is disabled, but not damaged by the warhead of an adversary’s weapon that has been designed to deliver a lethal blow. Even peacetime accidents can result in total crew fatalities, such as happened from an internal explosion in the Russian Oscar Class submarine Kursk in 2000, killing 118 sailors.

Submarines use stealth to increase their prospects of hiding, and  finding submarines is an extraordinarily difficult challenge for those doing the hunting. It can involve the use of satellites designed to detect electromagnetic transmissions sometimes made by submarines. Added to this are expensive aircraft (such as the new P8 Poseidon, to be acquired by the RAAF), surface ships with their onboard sensor and command systems and the new Seahawk helicopters used by the RAN. Those in the air and on the sea are supported in real time by hundreds of intelligence analysts sitting in comfortable offices in Canberra whose job it is to get the information to the hunters over a secure communications network before the submarine knows it has been found. 

This is all far from a trivial task, and it gets harder all the time because it is a never-ending game of one-upmanship. The submariners know how the hunters work. Hiding becomes second nature because their lives depend upon it. As an indication of their self-belief, submariners typically refer to warships as ‘targets’. But submarines also participate in the hunting business; it can take a thief to catch a thief. Any compromise of the acoustic signature of a submarine, or indeed any part of its overall signature which includes its magnetic field, infrared characteristics and other properties is a big concern to those who operate the submarine, and a very big plus for those doing the hunting.

Submarines being so hard to find can cause major headaches in any naval operation, but they give policy options to a government in how they can escalate or de-escalate a conflict. That is a primary reason why so many countries are now buying them, and Australia’s region is going to become one of the most densely occupied underwater locations in the world. Having a submarine is very different to knowing how to use it to its full potential. Having secrets makes a difference.

If you want to own something really expensive, buy yourself a submarine. The $50 billion reported cost of Australia’s future submarine program can be considered as the down payment, but the lives of our submariners are priceless, as is the value of our freedom. Our submarine secrets had better be kept safe.