The BSF this week spotted three drones along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. This is the second time in a month that the BSF was put on alert after drone-spotting. Two other incidents of ‘drone terrorism’ in September led the Ministry of Home Affairs to issue directions to counter the threat.
The MHA, says a report in Hindustan Times, wrote to the Delhi Police and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) “ordering them to shoot at sight any “threat-possessing” drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) within the airport perimeter, as per the standard operating protocol (SOP)”.
And this is how the CISF, whose senior officer was quoted in the report, understood the order: “They are low-flying drones. There have been drone sightings at the Delhi airport earlier too, but we could never track down any of them as they were never captured by the radars. If a drone is about to collide with an aircraft or is spotted approaching any operational runway, our men have been authorised to shoot it down.”
‘Shoot’ with what?
Theoretically, it is possible to shoot down a small drone with an LMG/MMG firing at a high cyclic rate. But to bring down a drone of less than a metre length/width, which is flying at a speed of 40-100 kmph, will need a miracle. More so, when the standard of firing on static targets at the firing ranges barely makes the grade. Firing at cyclic rate will endanger the safety of all aircraft in the air.
Surprisingly, there is no talk on installing drone-specific radars and jammers or implementing other passive/active counter-measures.
Not just any other threat
In my column in February this year, I had warned about the magnitude of the drone threat and India’s utter lack of preparation to deal with it.
I wrote – “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.”
Meanwhile, the drone incidents in India are piling up.
Five AK-47 rifles, four .30 Chinese pistols, 544 rounds of ammunition and five satellite phones were smuggled from Pakistan in September using drones with a payload of 10 kg. This in all likelihood was the handiwork of the ISI and the ‘Khalistani’ terrorists.
Since then, the BSF has reported many more sightings with the latest being on the night of 21 October, when the BSF is believed to have fired at three Pakistani drones in Hussainiwala, Punjab. Knowing the ways of our police and other security agencies, much more ‘drone activity’ is likely to have gone unreported.
On 14 September, drones and possibly cruise-missiles attacked two facilities of Saudi Aramco, affecting half of its oil production or 5-6 per cent of the global oil production. Whether it was launched by Houthi rebels assisted by Iran or by Iran itself is still a matter of speculation.
How to prepare for this threat?
The fact is that we are defenceless against the threat of ‘drone terrorism’. There are an estimated six lakh rogue or unregulated drones in India, which can be used for drone-based terrorist missions. It is a disaster waiting to happen. Our ‘very low-density military air defence’ system is effective only against large-sized drones. Despite much talk for the last three years, no modern equipment has been bought as a counter-measure.
The regulations for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), effective since 1 December 2018, are ‘effective’ only on paper. The world-class drone ecosystem – ‘Sky Dome’— which will digitally control the movement of drones in the Indian airspace is still not in place. And with the number of drones multiplying almost every day, tracking them is a Herculean task. It may be prudent to lay down a cut-off date after which drones not meeting certain conditions will not fly. In my view, this process is likely to take three to five years.
World-class counter-drone systems that enable real-time neutralisation must be imported to cater for immediate needs. The police, down to the local thanas, and the Central Armed Police Forces responsible for securing vital installations and borders would have to be equipped on an urgent basis. Security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations would also require the equipment. The security of even the private industry needs to be looked at. Keeping in view our large requirement, indigenous production of such drone systems must be started as soon as possible.
Jihadi with an AK-47 is passé
With Pakistan under diplomatic pressure and the scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force, the traditional jihadi with an AK-47 or a suicide belt is passé. Drones are the best option for future terrorist attacks. Drones not governed by international or country-specific regulations can be easily smuggled or assembled. China is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and is the leading manufacturer of drones.
I predict a drone-based terror attack in India in the near future. It would be a shame if we have to lean on nationalism to justify an avoidable security failure.
Lt Gen H S Panag 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. Views are personal.