September 27, 2022

Drone attack and Elephant tales

Most significantly, the Maoists have been using drones in Chhattisgarh since 2019 albeit for surveillance. This does not mean they will not use weaponised drones in the near future given their links with the ISI. In fact having seen our unpreparedness to the drone attack in Jammu, the ISI would be encouraged to replicate such attacks across India.

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd)

Following the drone attack on the Indian Air Force base in Jammu on June 27, General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for past 18 months told media next day, “We have to start preparing for future generation warfare. Drones, swarms and other such elements will change the nature and character of warfare.” On June 29, DRDO chief Dr. G Satheesh Reddy said DRDO’s counter-drone technology could provide Armed Forces capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones; giving both soft kill and hard kill options – first jamming the hostile drone and second using a laser-based kill system. Newspaper headlines of June 30 read: ‘Centre decides to fast-track policy to counter drone threat – PM, Shah, Rajnath, Doval Brainstorm Ways to Regulate Civilian Use’.

Above developments are encouraging but late by few years. The question is have we kept abreast with technological developments around the world or will the elephant (read India) continue to doze and wake up only once kicked. What is our forward planning? The Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap (TPCR) 2018 (second such document after TPCR 2015) issued by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which gives an overview of equipment that is envisaged to be inducted into the Indian Armed Forces up to the “late 2020s” does not mention anti-drone systems, leave aside technologies like quantum communications and the focus required on artificial intelligence. The segment on unmanned platforms too is pathetic. It is doubtful if then Defence Minister (now Finance Minister) Nirmala Sitharaman even glanced through it.  

DRDO’s anti-drone system came up more because of political compulsion to cover the visit of US President Donald Trump to Gujarat in February 2020 including his road move from the airport to the Motera Stadium for the ‘Namaste Trump’ event. But when Satheesh Reddy says DRDO anti-drone system can meet the military’s requirements, there are multiple issues that need to be considered, like: military is not the only target for drone attacks by terrorist; what is DRDO’s production capacity for anti-drone systems to meet the military’s and national requirements, and; has any threat assessment and prioritisation of terrorist targets using drones been done or is the general one done earlier considered sufficient?

Many would be unaware that three years before the terrorist attack on our Parliament, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) had done an appreciation of likely terrorists targets in India and placing Parliament as the number one target in Delhi. But when contacted after the attack, NSCS response was that they are only in advisory capacity, not the executants. Government had obviously not shared the appreciation with the security agencies. As for the DRDO, we have been importing UAVs for years. DRDO provided ‘Bharat’ drones to the Armed Forces ‘after’ the 2020 Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh. Can DRDO explain when China has provided portable anti-drone systems and anti-drone rifles to its police forces to counter mini-drones like the ones used by ISI or terrorists to attack the IAF base at Jammu, why has the DRDO not been able to do so?  

Twenty six years ago in 1995, the Tokyo Subway suffered multiple Sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo Cult. The cult planned to spray Sarin gas using two drone helicopters to kill one million Tokyoites for which they had enough Sarin. But mercifully both the drones crashed during trials forcing the cult to attack on foot. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and Afghan Taliban have all been using weaponised drones for undertaking attacks. Houthis have used swarm drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities twice. Using Turkish drones, Azerbaijan played merry hell into Armenia in the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pakistan has been using drones to deliver weapons to equipment to terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Punjab past two years. According to official figure our security forces sighted 167 drones from Pakistan in 2019 including 77 in September month only in that year. In the same month, Punjab Police seized an arms consignment including AK-47 rifles and Chinese pistols dropped by a Pakistani drone. The seizure helped in busting a terror module, which was receiving supplies from Pakistan. Most significantly, the Maoists have been using drones in Chhattisgarh since 2019 albeit for surveillance. This does not mean they will not use weaponised drones in the near future given their links with the ISI. In fact having seen our unpreparedness to the drone attack in Jammu, the ISI would be encouraged to replicate such attacks across India.

The drone attack in Jammu on June 27 signals a massive intelligence failure with plethora of intelligence agencies in this region, lack of drone detection systems and of course the inability to shoot them down before they reach the target. Building the required capability across the nation will take time. Another important issue is that such actions are part of asymmetric warfare and Balakot-type of strikes is no answer. The response must be in the same coin. Besides, India and UK are the largest importers of drones and any amount of controls for civilian use is unlikely to work fully in a chaotic democracy as ours especially where smuggling of narcotics has political patronage. Also, smuggling mini-drones into India is hardly a problem.

Pakistan has access to Chinese and Turkish drones and training of terrorists in operating drones is no problem by the ISI and Chinese intelligence. The answer lies in speedily putting in place required anti-drone defences and follow a policy of tit-for-tat through proactive use of drones coupled with ‘other actions’. There are enough targets on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB). Why not buy some kamikaze drones and make the ISI sleep under their cots ignoring the veteran diplomat’s advice to not disturb the ‘ceasefire’ – rats galore!

We must also remember that in December 2011 Iran electronically captured an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and reverse engineered it. IAF’s Sukhoi 30 jet fighter which crashed near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in May 2017 was downed because of China’s cyber interference as per foreign analysts. Same was the case for the Indian drone that crashed on the Chinese side of the border with Sikkim in December 2017.

Our problem is that the bureaucracy has little interest, forethought and urgency in such issues, which is indicative from TPCR 2018 notwithstanding that the Defence Secretary is charged with the defence of India. The Defence Minister is dependent on the bureaucracy and will approve anything that is put up to him. The compendium of 20 reforms undertaken by MoD in the past 12 months released by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on June 7 proves this.

The military is looked down upon but does the hierarchy exert ‘where required’? The CDS stating that we have to “start preparing” for future generation warfare since drones, swarms and other such elements will change the nature and character of warfare says it all. Drones and swarms have been on the scene for quite some time and should we have not been prepared for the Jammu-type of drone attack way back?

Yes the Armed Forces and the Border Security Force (BSF) are evaluating anti-drone systems, and some systems are being developed by the private sector as well. But the biggest irony is that while we have the brains and expertise in the country, the private sector is forced to play subservient to the DRDO or the DPSUs unless it is a blue-eyed corporate that contributes to funding elections. Changing this will need a herculean effort looking at the corporatisation of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) into seven DPSUs retaining the same workforce and the bureaucratic control.

Finally, will the elephant wake up or are we destined to be a reactive nation?

-Lt Gen Prakash Katoch is a veteran of India Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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