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Drones are low-cost, high-dividend threats. But India is still shooting in the dark

Never in history has a weapons system offered so much to terrorists at so low a cost.

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The first ever offensive use of drones on Jammu Air Force station on the night of 27-28 June has sent India’s security establishment into a tizzy. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and discussed “futuristic challenges” in the defence sector.

The only thing surprising about the attack was that we were surprised. The evolution and maturing of this low-cost technology was well known and its extensive use by the terrorists in Syria is on record. For the last two years, Pakistan has been using drones for landing arms, ammunition and explosives in Indian territory in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Over 300 drone sightings have been made along and across the western borders. Defence analysts have been warning about this threat for a few years now.

It is pertinent to quote what I wrote on 7 February 2019 :

“It is a matter of time before terrorists use drones to launch attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, the Red Corridor and the hinterland of the country. India is virtually defenceless against drone terrorism and is doing little to gear up despite warning signals from across the world.”

 The dilemma now is what to protect and how? Such is the potential of this ‘low cost, high dividends’ threat, which can manifest from across the border or from within, that the Jammu attack has led to placing all military installations and other vulnerable points/areas on high alert. But what is the use of being on high alert if we do not have even have fundamental countermeasures against such a drone threat?


Also read: Jammu drone attack seen as an attempt to harm LoC ceasefire, disrupt Kashmir political process


What happened?

Two back-to-back omni directional-shaped and improvised explosive devices (IED) were dropped by one/two drones at 0137 and 0142 hours on 27 June. One device exploded near the helicopter parking area and the other near the Air Traffic Control – the likely targets. The roof of a building was damaged and two Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel suffered minor injuries. No damage was caused to the helicopters or other equipment. The drone/drones as such remained undetected and made a safe exit.

This attack was followed up the next night by one/two drones detected at 1145 hours and 0240 hours flying over Ratnuchak/Kaluchak military areas. The drones were engaged by Quick Reaction Teams with small arms. Our helplessness, ignorance and inadequacy are reflected in the statement of the Defence PRO. “Both the drones flew away. A major threat was thwarted by the alertness and proactive approach of troops,” he said. Only a miraculous hit by a small arm can bring a drone down, and an unmanned robotic device is not deterred. It is just that the intent of the handler was not to strike.

There are also reports of sighting of drone/drones on the night of 28-29 June and 29-30 June over military areas of Ratnuchak-Kaluchak-Sunjuwan. The aim of flights over military areas seems to be for reconnaissance. However, given the “fear of the unknown enemy” the reports could also be due to anxiety of the night patrols. Despite drone sightings on four nights, so far, the drone launch sites or flight paths have not been identified pointing to our inadequacy in detection systems.

The pattern of attacks and reconnaissance indicates that this was a trial run, opening the possibility of bigger and more sophisticated operations in the near future. I would rate the probability as very high.


Also read: Nano, micro, small: The different drone types in India & if Jammu-like strike can be averted


Whodunnit and why?

The airbase and the military areas are 14-16 km from the International Boundary with Pakistan. The drones could have been flown from across the border or could have been operated by terrorists from within our own territory. It has been speculated that the attack is the handiwork of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from across the border based on the arrest of a terrorist with 5-6 kg IED delivered by a drone. Rumours are rife in Pakistan that the car bomb that exploded in the vicinity of Hafiz Saeed’s house on 23 June was the handiwork of a ‘foreign intelligence agency’ possibly implying involvement of Indian intelligence agencies.

The motive behind the drone attack could also be to derail the Narendra Modi government’s political initiative to facilitate delimitation and elections in J&K, and boost the morale of the terrorists. Deniability allows Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to either launch cross-border drone operations or use terrorists to do the same from internal launch sites.

There is a possibility that rogue elements within the ISI or LeT/JeM terrorists acting independently may also be targeting the thaw in India-Pakistan relations and the political process in Jammu and Kashmir. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions and the overt mending of relations with India have restricted Pakistan’s direct involvement in J&K. Low-cost untraceable assembled drones offer Pakistan a way out to continue to keep India under pressure.

Low cost, high dividends

Acts of terrorism in India have been dominated by AK 47-wielding terrorists, fedayeen human bombs, and planting of IED. Initially, the first was the preferred mode because there was a chance for the terrorists to escape, but it was the easiest to tackle due to superiority of security forces. The human bombs require phenomenal motivation and brainwashing, making it a rare occurrence. Maximum casualties in Afghanistan were caused by IEDs. While these have to be physically placed, the terrorist remains safe and unknown. Use of drones provides terrorists with maximum safety.

Till recently, the cost of drones was a prohibitive factor. Advances in technology have made the cost so low that it is cheaper than an AK-47. The cost of commercial off-the-shelf drones that are capable of lifting a weapon-sized payload is $1,000-2,000. Improvised, assembled drones are much cheaper. Former United States Air Force officer Mark Jacobsen experimented with building the cheapest ‘insurgent’ drone. “The result required $4 of foam board, packing tape and hot glue, and about $250 in cheap Chinese components. It was ugly, but it could deliver two pounds [1kg.] at a range of six to 12 miles (10-20 km),” he noted.

Now look at the missions that an insurgent drone can perform and the dividends that accrue – assassination of political leaders and military/police personnel; targeting commercial/military aircraft on ground and during take-off/landing; attacking crowds at political rallies, religious gatherings, markets and sports stadiums to cause casualties and stampedes; chemical biological and radiological attacks; targeting electricity grids and fuel depots; causing train/bus accidents; logistic carrier for trans/intra-border movement of arms/ammunition and explosives; and surveillance/reconnaissance.

Never in history has a weapon system offered so much to the terrorists at so low a cost. More than that it provides anonymity and safety. Imagine the impact of a mini swarm of 10 such drones striking in unison.


Also read: Jammu drone attack shows the difficulty of separating Kashmir issue from geopolitics


Countermeasures

The focus of security forces so far has been to counter the threat of high-end military unarmed/armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Conventional and specifically designed air defence systems including lasers are in vogue. The high cost of these systems is commensurate with the high cost of military UAVs.

Existing military radars cannot pick up the signatures of small drones for which special radars are required. Plastic parts and simple autopilot reduces the radio signals to the minimum. A host of active countermeasures have been developed like lasers, rapid-fire cannons, protective nets fired from weapons systems to ensnare drones, hunter drones and command/navigation/GPS signal jammers. The cost of these systems is still disproportionate to that of the drone.

Currently, barring adaptation of existing conventional radar and radio jammers, we have no countermeasures in place. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a composite detection, jamming and destruction system to counter small drones. The technology for the production of the anti-drone system has been transferred to Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and is also available for private companies. Commercial production is yet to start. Cost details are not public, but it is unlikely to be cheap.

Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, in an interview to a news channel Monday, said that India has to start preparing for future generation warfare. He said the three services, DRDO, academia and other stakeholders were working together to develop technology to counter the threat from drones at the earliest.

In a nutshell, the CDS admits that the countermeasures are either still on the drawing board, or at best in a long pipeline. That the IAF has to borrow the drone detection/jamming system from the National Security Guards to protect Jammu airbase, confirms this inadequacy. 

Make no mistake, the traditional terrorist armed with an AK-47 or wearing a suicide vest is passé. His new avatar in the form of a small drone has far more devastating capabilities for which India, at this juncture, is ill-prepared.

Lt Gen H S Panag @rwac48, PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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