Probe panel to look at all angles; missing hard disk from Vikrant could contain valuable structural data, say experts

KOCHI: A day after a critical digital device was reported missing from India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant, being built at Cochin Shipyard here, details emerging indicate that it could be a case of espionage.

What went missing is not just an electronic component but a computer device containing operation details of the carrier and other critical information, sources said. The incident cannot be considered as a mere theft because what’s stolen is of no use to the common man, they said.

Official sources in New Delhi told Express that the gravity of the incident prompted the Centre to order a detailed probe, looking at the possible espionage angle. Experts from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will reach Kochi for a detailed assessment. Union minister of state for shipping Mansukh Mandaviya, who will visit Cochin Shipyard on Thursday, is expected to hold a review meeting about the activities of the shipyard.

As the vessel is undergoing strategically vital Phase 2 fitting and construction, a technical expert team will assess whether the loss has compromised any sort of data of the aircraft carrier, which is expected to be inducted into the Indian Navy in 2021.

A special police team, which began its investigation based on a complaint lodged by the shipyard, has started verifying the antecedents of the workers involved in the construction of the vessel. Though police suspect the role of an insider, the possibility of an intruder gaining entry from the lake side is also being looked into.

Kerala police chief Loknath Behera told Express utmost priority is being given to the investigation. “As the matter is of high sensitivity, we can’t reveal any details at this point of time,” he said.

Officers said the probe will ascertain how a component from the vessel was taken out when there is an integrated ERP (enterprise resource planning) module installed to monitor the movement of materials in and out of the shipyard. Also, Cochin Shipyard is under CISF cover. Its ability to safeguard critical installations pertaining to national security would be under the scanner.

The Vikrant project had gained international attention because only four countries in the world have the technology to design and build aircraft carriers weighing more than 40,000 tons. 

Sources said the missing device included the hard disk that may contain information regarding the ship’s structure. According to a former naval officer who served on the erstwhile Vikrant, the theft of the hard disk is indeed a serious matter.

“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,” he said.

Senior advocate V J Mathew, who is the chairman of Kerala Maritime Board, said there would be multiple servers and multiple hard disks for different purposes. “If it was relating to the operation of the ship, the data could be leaked. But there is no chance of missing data pertaining to defence and strategic planning as the carrier has not yet been handed over to the Navy,” he said.