Remote-controlled soldier boys, deadly killing machines which are armed to the teeth... that create more ill will than they extinguish, through indiscriminate collateral damage”, that is how Joe Haldman, the award winning science fiction author of Forever Peace, envisioned what the future weapons and warfare would look like. That was in 1998!
Fast forward 23 years, today the global market of Unmanned Aerial Systems has touched 21.47 billion dollars. US Predator drones have been used to carry out more than 1,100 air strikes. Turkish Byraktar TB2 have destroyed hundreds of Syrian armoured vehicles and the Azerbaijani forces have used the Israeli Kamikaze drones against Armenian military in the Nagarno Karabakh conflict. Haldman’s Forever Peace was more a prescient prophecy than just a snazzy a sci-fi novel.
Today drones have become an important part of military arsenals across the world. Conventional war fighting doctrines are singularly ill-equipped to respond to these new age offensive weapons. Their lethality is only going to increase in the future with advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence and precision guidance.
The use of drones to mount localised and virtually autonomous terrorist attacks marks the commencement of a significant new security challenge for India. The attack in the June of 2021, where low-flying drones were used to drop two improvised explosive devices (IED) on the Jammu IAF station, is a clear manifestation of this emerging frontier. The attack was significant not just because it was the first time drones were used to launch an attack on a defence establishment in India, but also because the Indian defence systems were completely caught off guard. Not a very unusual occurrence unfortunately.
A threat to India
The stupefied reaction of the national security establishment after the attack was disconcerting to say the least. It seemed as if they were only now waking up to the portentousness of the drone threat. However, the fact remains that the drone menace in India is not new. There have been over 300 drone sightings since 2019. A bulk of them have been reported from the Kanachak, Satwari, Samba, Hiranagar and Kathua sectors of the International border and Line of Control, respectively.
In June 2020, the BSF shot down a drone carrying a rifle, two magazines and a cache of grenades. There was even a drone hovering above the premises of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad when India had invited diplomats from other countries to commemorate 75 years of its Independence. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had seized 85-high end Chinese drones busting a ring of drone smuggling worth Rs.10,000 crores in 2019.
Not only government agencies but even strategic analysts and chief ministers of border states have been flagging the possibility of attacks via low-flying sub-conventional aerial platforms including UAVs and their use for the cross border smuggling of arms and ammunitions. These threats do not just come from across the border today even Naxalites, are now reportedly deploying drones in their operations against Indian security forces.
Why are drones now the weapon of choice for terrorists and insurgents? They are inexpensive. They can be easily procured off the shelf or assembled using retail-level components. This rudimentary but lethal assemblage is closely associated with the issue of drone availability. Modern drones, debuting with the expensive Predator drones of the US post the 9/11 attack ,are not easily available. This is because US tightly controls the export of its Predator and Reaper Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV’s). They are only available to close military allies. However, China, Israel and Turkey have started developing their own UCAVs, that they also widely export. It is not difficult for quasi military states like Pakistan, to now develop affordable ways to project force with greater lethality at a much lower risk for non-conventional operations.
India has an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) market pegged at $866 million, this essentially means drones are available in the country in large numbers and can be probably weaponised by anyone, anywhere and anytime.
Drones have low Radar Cross Section (RCS), slow speed and a small size lending to its stealth and concealment advantages in battlefields, and thereafter, making it difficult to identify and localise. Conventional radar systems are not meant for detecting small flying objects, and, even if they are calibrated that way, they might confuse a bird for a drone and the system may get overwhelmed. The small size also grants them weak thermal, and aural signatures. Swarm drones are even harder to track, as miniature drones attacking in wave-after-waves of swarms overwhelm enemy sensors with a deluge of targets — an eerie reminder of the 2012 sci-fi novel Kill Decisions.
While drones can be countered with drones, the technology to counter swarm drones is still a work in progress. Australia’s drone shield is an attempt at solving this problem. It disrupts radio frequency in the hostile drone’s video feed and forces it to land on the spot or return to the operator.
Then there is the matter of actually disabling such drones. Choosing between “soft” and “hard” kill options is not straightforward. While in some cases a soft kill would be preferable, in other cases like swarm attacks, rapid hard kill will be more appropriate. Whatever method of detection and removal is chosen, the protection required is technological in nature and far more costly than the actual danger. Moreover, differentiating between legitimate and potentially threatening drones will be a massive challenge itself.
The domestic research and development for anti-drone systems is at a “nascent stage”. While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed an “Anti Drone System”, they have been only used to guard VIPs during national day celebrations. If India needs to take up the challenge it needs to develop fast-track research and development for systems that can be operationally deployed for wider use. Then there is the challenge of the technology’s strategic deployment and the money the government is ready to spend.
Additionally, there is the problem of military’s unduly focus on major platforms and not enough on future technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber and electronic warfare to counter 21st century threats.
General M.M. Naravane rightly opined that “...the advent of drones and counter-drone systems, has radically altered the way we think and how we will fight in the future”. It is about time that our defence establishment starts to walk the talk....