The drone-driven attack on the Air Force Station in Jammu has changed the dynamics and planning of the Indian defence and security establishment.
As expected, the Narendra Modi government and the security forces are going on a shopping spree of counter-drone systems even as they focus on enhancing indigenous capability with regard to unmanned aerial systems for the military.
In the coming months, multi-million dollar contracts would be signed with both indigenous and foreign firms to get hold of systems that can counter the drone menace, especially by smaller ones that are commercially available and can be rigged to carry out Jammu-type attacks.
In itself, the Jammu attack did not cost much but it has forced India to eventually spend billions of dollars to counter the threat of drones that are cheap, costing anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh.
While systems to counter the bigger military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), both for combat and surveillance, are available, there is hardly anything with the Indian security forces to counter the smaller, commercially available UAVs that fly below the traditional radar coverage. A senior officer in the military establishment told me: “To say we have counter-drone systems in place would be too naïve. We have the technology for it but in limited capability and capacity”. India’s security forces still depend on detection through human eyes and shooting down such drones with assault rifles. Even the latest anti-drone system bought by the Navy, SMASH 2000 Plus, works on the line-of-sight mechanism.
Bigger challenge for the Army
The Army too tested the Smash 2000 Plus earlier this year along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir but it was not very impressive.
It is said that while the system might work for the Navy, which usually counters open terrain, it might not be feasible for the Army, which faces frequent vagaries of nature and terrain, compared to the other two Services. Moreover, the Army is widespread and has larger installations and bases to protect than the Navy or the Air Force. It would be a herculean task and a highly expensive affair to have counter-drone systems covering every single Army base and the entire borders. Even if we have such systems to cover all our bases, we cannot ensure 100 per cent immunity from attacks. One can’t forget that despite having multiple anti-infiltration grids and lakhs of soldiers deployed on the borders, terrorists do manage to get in.
The Army currently uses both fixed jammers and portable hand devices to counter drones. But sighting the drone is still a prerequisite. Limited range of both these systems is another constraint.
The forces are looking at both soft kill and hard kill systems to tackle drones. But there is no equipment in the world that can guarantee 100 per cent protection against such attacks. Even countries such as the US, Russia and Israel, which are pumping billions of dollars into research and development of both drones and counter-drone systems, have not been able to establish a foolproof system. As I had mentioned in my previous column, these countries rely on multiple systems that are hand-held, fixed as well as mobile to counter smaller drones.
The DRDO has developed a system that offers both jamming and lasers to take down drones. But it needs to be further developed, going by the input the forces will provide, to ensure it can be productively deployed.
Another issue before the Army is the fear of jamming devices, meant for enemy objects, interfering with the frequencies used for operating our drones. The Army uses quadcopters and tactical UAVs for surveillance along the borders and in the hinterland. In one of the trials carried out by the security forces, the issue was flagged.
Jammu Air Force Station is one of the bases for India’s military drones such as the Searcher Mk II and the Herons, both of Israeli origin. That’s one reason why the installation did not have any anti-drone jamming devices in place till the attack.
An evolving tech
The immediate challenge, a military officer explained, is that drones and counter-drone systems are still evolving. While the focus currently is on tackling single or maybe 2-3 drones attacking simultaneously, the bigger worry is swarm attack, a prospect that India’s defence and security establishment fear could be the enemy’s next step.
The Jammu attack or the strike on the Saudi oil installations is just a fraction of what drones can do. “What we are seeing right now is the initial potential of the drones. This will evolve eventually and so will counter measures. The same people who manufacture drones will also come up with systems to counter them,” the officer said.
The Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict showed how drones and loitering munitions have changed warfare.
Many in the defence circles believe future wars would be contactless. Drones and cyber warfare will define the course, and not the infantry soldiers and armoured columns fighting it out in the trenches.
While some experts point out the limitations of UAVs — they can operate only in an air space lacking air defence systems — one should remember that countries are now focusing on pilotless fighter aircraft – the future of drone technology.
The only solution to countering drones in the long term is to change the way India’s defence budget is spent and to invest money on research and development of own systems.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)