The drone attack on the Air Force station in Jammu on Sunday is a paradigm shift in the way terror is being waged in India. The fear in the Indian defence and security establishment is that this is not just a one-off incident but a signal of what lies ahead.
The most threatening aspect is the use of swarm drones to target specific installations – military or non-military assets.
We saw it coming
For many, what happened on Sunday is not surprising. The possibility of such attacks has been under discussion since 2018. It gathered momentum in 2019 when Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck two key Saudi oil installations, about 500 miles away from Yemini soil.
Until this attack, drone strikes were largely considered part of the military realm with the U.S. leading the charge with such operations to target terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, besides Iran’s military officials.
In 2018, when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was attacked by a drone, the threat of these flying objects mainstreaming only got real. In India, during deliberations within the defence establishment in 2016, it was discussed that terrorists may use vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This fear was realised in 2019 during the Pulwama terror attack.
In 2018, a discussion within the establishment pondered the possible use of drones – a kamikaze-style attack. An intelligence alert in late 2019 had informed that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was working on an IED rigged drone attack plan.
The only thing that startled the security establishment about Sunday’s attack was something that they had assumed it to be the distant future of terrorism.
There will now be slew of voices on the need to have counter-drone measures and mass procurement of such systems.
Once again, India has failed to be proactive where it should have. Steps should have been taken much earlier to tackle this menace which everybody had anticipated.
It is quite troubling to know that the Jammu Air Force Station, which is a sensitive location, did not have systems in place to tackle an attack from a non-military drone. Of course, now that an attack has happened, Anti-drone systems and more lights have been installed after the incident.
The DRDO has already developed a system that offers both jamming and lasers to take down drones. But then if the system, which was also installed during the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech at Red Fort last year, was so good then why was it not procured? Were we waiting for an attack to happen for things to start moving?
India has a lot to catch up
Almost all major countries have introduced counter-drone measures, not only to tackle the larger military drones, but also the smaller commercially available ones that are cheap and capable of carrying different payloads.
Interestingly, in 2016, a Dutch Police initiative to train eagles for countering small drones created quite a buzz on the internet. Although the Dutch police stopped employing the tactic in 2017, the attempt in itself was pertinent. It shows that other countries had already realised the dangers of rogue drones and started taking countermeasures in whatever way they thought fit.
As military.com reported last year, the US Army had come up with an initial list of the best usable counter-drone technologies to destroy or deter quadcopters and other unmanned systems that pose a threat to troops and bases overseas. This is besides the already existing systems with the US military to counter drones.
In November 2019, the US Army was made the primary force for the Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft System, or C-sUAS, office to counter hostile drone systems.
These systems fall into three categories – fixed and semi-fixed, mobile-mounted, and handheld dismounted systems, the US Army had then said.
Each Service had been assigned to sponsor one of the shortlisted systems so that there is a joint approach.
The US Navy has gone in for CORIAN, or the Counter-Remote Control Model Aircraft Integrated Air Defense Network, a system developed by CACI International Inc.
Out of the 40+ systems under consideration, the Department of Defense selected CORIAN as one of three fixed/semi-fixed systems.
The company described CORIAN as “a modular, scalable mission technology system which detects, identifies, tracks, and mitigates UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) threats using precision-neutralization techniques that ensure little to no collateral damage to the surrounding radio frequency (RF) spectrum and existing communications.”
The US Air Force has gone in for what is known as the NINJA system, or Negation of Improvised Non-state Joint Aerial-threats, which was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).
“The Ninja, as it’s known, is a two-segment counter-UAS system AFRL is developing. It can either disrupt enemy UAS communications and veer the UAS away from friendly territory or send out a friendly unmanned aircraft dragging an actual net to capture the enemy UAS, its flaps getting stuck in the holes of the net,” the Air Force Magazine reported.
There is also the mobile-mounted anti-drone system called LMADIS, or Light-Mobile Air Defense Integrated System which is a portable jammer in service with the US Marines.
There are also handheld systems like Bal Chatri, used by the Special Operations Command and Drone Buster and the Israeli Smart Shooter systems, which has been procured by the Indian Navy too.
The Russians are also not behind. They have put together multiple counter-drone measures. They are also working on a drone ‘aerial minefield’ that could intercept enemy drones.
Given its operations in Syria and the threat of small UAVs besides the military ones, Russia has invested heavily into counter-drone technologies.
Interestingly, at the beginning of 2019, all major military exercises and drills included the defence against massed drone attacks by portable and wheeled Electronic Warfare systems.
The Russian forces use Stilet and Stupor portable counter-UAS rifles, along with their latest Krasukha-C4 EW, besides others.
Russia is also investing big in new counter-drone radars and UAV systems like ‘Carnivora’ capable of attacking and incapacitating other drones and UAVs.
Russia’s adversary, Ukraine, has also developed drone countermeasure systems and has even offered them to India.
Israel has also developed a large counter-measure called Drone Dome, which works like the famous Iron Dome.
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the makers of Drone Dome, say it is capable of “identifying unknown targets, generating alerts and operating without causing interference to non-target airborne assets by utilizing specific jammer bandwidth and an advanced directional antenna.” The system enables both soft and hard kill options.
It is time for India to showcase and add to its technological capabilities. While New Delhi will go in for emergency purchases of required systems to ward off immediate threats, it is important to have a long-term policy for developing niche technology.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)