Drones captured the imagination of the Indian public last week by dropping explosives on a military target close to the India-Pakistan border. Fear ensued, with Pakistan and drones coalescing in the public perception. Terrorism has revealed another arrow in its arsenal, and India seemed unprepared despite threat recognition for several years.
The truth is, that even the US has not been able to evolve adequate defensive measures against this form of threat – small-sized, difficult to detect, terrain-hugging drones armed with explosives and, used in Kamikaze mode. US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have repeatedly been targeted.
Small drone strikes on US bases have also increased since American drones killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad International Airport in 2020. The strike prompted Iran to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country. The US achieved tactical success but the downstream political and strategic costs indicate the killing was counterproductive. Nations often confuse between tactical and strategic success. The former is about defeating the forces of the enemy, while the latter is about utilising that defeat as an opportunity to advance the goals of policy. And Pakistan, it seems, continues to emulate the Americans.
India’s counter-terrorism actions must evolve beyond such mistakes. But the challenges on offer on the counter-drone menu have met with poorly crafted policy responses aimed, primarily, to regulate the use of drones. The latest rules governing drones, issued in March 2021, unlike the 2018 version, attempt to also regulate nano-drones, signifying the recognition of security threats from them. But typically, it has magnified the level of bureaucracy and complexity of compliances in the solution. It can be expected to be observed more in the breach.
Small drone strikes as a terrorist weapon may witness a boom until countermeasures are found and put in place. This may take several years and even if it does, it will be difficult to protect targets. But drone size will dictate the explosive power that it can carry, and also its range. Drones could be based on modifications to commercially available drones. India’s border areas and hinterland are both vulnerable.
Important factors in drone strikes
Border areas like Jammu & Kashmir could be a natural target with drones launched by Pakistan or terrorists in the area. Targets are plenty and will be difficult to defend. For drone attacks orchestrated by Pakistan, the only deterrence that can work is retaliations through instruments of hard(force) and soft(cyber) power. The Government of India has not treated the Jammu strike, which was supposedly carried out by quadcopter drone, as a ceasefire violation, indicating the preservation of the ceasefire as the policy preference for the time being.
Pakistan’s interests are best served if the ceasefire is preserved and it can continue to launch strikes either from its territory or get terrorists to do so from Indian territory. Deniability is an important factor here.
The threat contours of small drones armed with explosives indicate that they can encompass the Indian hinterland. The explosives in these attacks may even be restricted to a couple of kilograms but in a terrorist strike, it need not matter much. What matters is, which target is struck and how much publicity can be generated. The act is only an instrument of fear that generates significant political and strategic impact, and that is dependent on the transmissibility and fear permeating the minds of the populace. The aim is to cast the net as wide as possible, which is easily achieved in an interconnected world. The challenge for the Narendra Modi government is to not look helpless when such incidents occur and make moves that will serve its policy goals.
So, what should these goals be?
Policy readjustment needed
Preserving strategic stability could be a policy goal but that can only be maintained if the Government has a wide range of defensive and offensive response options to drone strikes, aimed to punish the perpetrator and strengthen deterrence. So far, India’s policy has largely been reacting only to significant attacks from Pakistan. The small drone is going to pose a challenge to this policy as terrorist groups in any part of India can be used by Pakistan to carry out smaller strikes over a long period. As observed earlier, the small drone terrorist action by itself may be insignificant but it can be effective as it has a plethora of targets to choose from. Worse, most of these targets cannot be guarded. India, therefore, must adjust its policy of retaliation accordingly. Otherwise, small hinterland drone strikes may become the preferred mode for terrorism in India, despite the limited access to explosives.
Pakistan-based drone attacks have various degrees of sophistication – from crude and small devices to military-grade drones – supplied by China and Turkey, both equipped with advanced drone technology. We can expect both these countries to boost their transfer of technology and components as the years progress. Small drones have already found their way to Afghanistan through Pakistan and the Taliban, and could already be permeating into J&K and other parts of India.
Defence against medium and large-sized drones may already be part of the Indian arsenal, and if they are not, it should only be a matter of time. Pakistan will be wary of using them as long as it cares about preserving the ceasefire. So, the policy for Pakistan-based small drone attacks has to be crafted with sufficient flexibility to cater to the political and strategic context created by the attack. Each attack will have to be weighed in its scale and reactions tailored to promoting policy goals. Importantly, the implements of the reaction must be ready to be applied at short notice.
This means India’s strategic disposition towards Pakistan must be geared to strike without posturing, and strengthen deterrence by displaying the political resolve for retaliation. This is not a call for war, but an imperative for India due to the nature of the threat – deniable, difficult to defend, and harbouring the potential for magnifying the strategic effects through relatively minor tactical actions.
India’s preparations must be based on the assumption that political deftness and diplomacy could fail. When they do, India must retain the option to strike in a manner that is aimed at strengthening deterrence. Any other policy plays into Pakistan’s hands.
Integrated thinking and coordinated action
In the India-Pakistan context, the decision to develop instrumentalities for a ‘strike without posturing’ should be the thrust of national security preparations. To this end, on Army Day 2021, India demonstrated swarm drones. It will also require a major reconfiguration of deployment and employment of hard power, especially armed forces, against Pakistan. The idea of large-scale battles aimed at capturing large tracts of territory must be jettisoned to fulfil the political objective to inflict pain while shielding ourselves adequately. The danger of escalation will be omnipresent, but the stakes must influence decisions on risks.
The arrival of kamikaze drones, albeit with limited explosive power, adds potential to terrorist acts and countering it will be a challenging task. It requires integrated thinking and coordinated application between several ministries and agencies at the state and national levels. The paranoia generated by the spotting of drones on the Indo-Pak border must not be allowed to cloud its restricted potential for destruction. India’s policy on commercial use of drones in the hinterland must not be imbalanced by security considerations and tantamount to throttling the utilisation of drones for civilian applications.
In terms of reaction and deterrence, we must guard against confusing tactical and strategic success. The overall challenge of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism has gained lethality with the kamikaze drone. But counter-terrorism is a long haul and should not be motivated by political myopia, because in the larger picture, Pakistan is a distraction that must not blind us to China’s potential to slow down India’s development.
The advent of drones does not change the fact that ‘offensive defence’ remains the best deterrent. Political will equipped with a broad range of innovative capabilities to inflict pain, remains the best defence.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)