INS Vikrant in construction
India is building its first indigenous aircraft carrier in Cochin.Twitter/SpokespersonMoD

The data theft at INS Vikrant, India's first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), has taken a national security dimension with reports saying that the espionage angle cannot be ruled out. The theft of computer hard discs, random access memory (RAM) and processor from the ship, which is being built at the Cochin Shipyard in Kerala, had come to the light over the weekend.

Vikrant, which holds key value in India's naval warfare strategy and is in the advanced stages of testing, is slated to be delivered to the Navy in 2021. 

After preliminary investigation into the massive security breach, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) unit, which is in charge of the security of the under-construction vessel, had said it appeared to be a case of internal sabotage. The Kerala police had aso formed a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the rare and serious security lapse, which has embarrassed the Cochin Shipyard.

As per the latest reports, the central government is seized of the gravity of the security breach and ordered an investigation. Citing sources in New Delhi, the New Indian Express reported on Thursday that the missing computer hardware might have contained operation details of the carrier and other critical information.

Widening probe

The centre's investigation will look at the possible espionage angle, the report said. Mansukh Mandaviya, Union minister of state for shipping, will arrive at the Cochin Shipyard on Thursday, the report said, adding that experts from the defence and home ministries will also go to Kochi for detailed investigation into the incident.

"As the matter is of high sensitivity, we can't reveal any details at this point of time," Kerala police chief Loknath Behera told the newspaper.

Vikrant, weighing 40,000 tonnes, will operate Russian origin MiG-29K fighters. The Project 71 carrier with a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) configuration is expected to add depth to India's naval warfare capabilities at a time when regional rival China is briskly going ahead with the construction of multiple aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy currently has only one aircraft carrier, the 45,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya, which was bought from Russia.

Strategic depth

What also adds strategic depth to INS Vikrant is the fact that India will be only the fifth country to design and build an aircraft carrier weighing 40,000 tonnes or more. The US, Russia, Britain and France currently have the technology and experience.

The plan to build Vikrant, the Indegenous Aircraft Carrier-1, was approved in 2003 with an estimated cost of Rs 3,500 crore. The Cochin Shipyard started construction in 2005.

Inasmuch as the ship is not commissioned, there's ambiguity over the gravity of the data theft. While some experts say the chances of losing strategic information were minimal, a former naval officer who served on the erstwhile Vikrant told the NIE that the theft of the hard disk was serious issue.

"Even though the ship has not been commissioned, the hard drive could have critical information like structural details. Information regarding the decks, aircraft fuelling points, weapons hold, wiring, pipeline network, etc., are key structural details," the officer said.