On 27th June 2021, India woke up to acknowledgement of a new weapon introduced in cross border low intensity conflict being waged by Pakistan for decades now. The Air Force Station in Jammu was subjected to two explosions, caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) dropped by drones flying over the station, within a period of six minutes, injuring two AF personnel and ripping a hole in the roof of one of the buildings. The DG of J&K police DGP Dilbag Singh has given a hint that Lashkar-E-Taiba, Pakistan based terror outfit, could be the one behind it.
As media cameramen jumped over each other to get the same repetitive shot of AF station gate whole day and anchors in studios turned into drone warfare specialists, the investigating agencies rushed to start their investigations to gauge impact, origin and modus operandi. This single attack, though not much in damage and injuries, sent reverberations down the spine of security forces when they realized their helplessness against this new tactic and weapon. While we have state of the art radars that can pick up an enemy aircraft the moment it takes off from its base, sadly we do not have anything to detect these cheap, light weight and low flying devils.
Drones have been in international news for a while now, given the American propensity to take out specific human targets and bases with super precision using them. But these are high cost, high altitude and long flying hours UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that carry either devastating and lethal precision bombs or surveillance equipment. American RQ 170 Sentinel and MQ 9 Reaper are examples of these capabilities. Just couple of weeks back, in Jun 2021, US finally tested MQ 25 Stingray for Air to Air refueling. India has been operating flights of Heron, Rustom etc and plans to buy 30 MQ 9 Reapers from US/s company General Atomics for 3 Bn USD. But all these are conventional military grade Drones that are extremely costly and limited. Whereas the weapon of choice for Jammu attack was a low cost, easily available and non-regulated drone, which can be bought by almost anyone from open market or online from e commerce sites.
The threat is real and mature. These petty flying and hovering machines can achieve a lot, given their capability to pass through defences undetected. In ‘Kamikaze’ roles, they can wreak havoc by crashing into positions laden with explosives and can easily take out few soldiers huddled together, an unarmored vehicle, a radar or even an aircraft. The damage may not be huge but can be very precise and lethal in that limited range of blast. These drones are 3-4 feet at max and never be detected on high capability radars deployed on international borders, LoC and LAC in Anti-Aircraft and Anti-Missile roles. Using them for surveillance is not the best use of them because their capabilities lie in stealth and quick attacks and not hovering over heads for long time. Also, they will not be equipped with costly cameras given their vulnerability to ground forces fire if detected. Hence, we can safely assume that the only role they will be deployed is dropping explosives or diving down with suicidal tendencies.
The sudden reaction to this attack is everyone clamoring for buying anti drone system called SMASH 2000 from Israel. It is a rifle mounted system that can be aimed at the drone, tracks it through its sights and enables the soldier to fire on the UAV, thus destroying it. On May 30 2020, US Department of Defence posted images of US fighters in Syria testing SMASH sights on static and Drone based targets and the results were tremendously positive. However, even if the technical and on ground data supports the theory of giving SMASH systems to Indian soldiers against drone attacks, we still have to figure out, how and where do we distribute them. India shares nearly 750 km of Line of control with Pakistan, that’s part of nearly 3300 km border. Where Israel has limited border challenges and more or less definite zones form which threat emanates, India does not have such luxury. We have infiltration, terrorists operating within India, Sleeper cells, Over and Underground supporters of terrorism, smugglers and what not. The attack on Jammu, most probably was carried out by someone operating the drone from within Indian territory. The International border is around 14 kilometers from the Airport, and it would require a high powered drone to carry this payload, drop it and go back. The chances of which are highly unlikely given the possibility of this size and range drone being detected and plan being foiled. Even if India does get the Israeli SMASH 2000 systems, the first utilization of these sights should be for troops guarding important and critical installations.
Drones gained new respect in recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, where they devastated Armenian armor and troops with impunity. Though different drones than the ones used in Jammu, the concept remains the same. How do we tackle these unseen and untracked monsters in skies, ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause and can be overwhelmingly destructive? The answer lies in review and reorganization of our security plans that need to sharpen and prepare themselves for threats of future. Because this threat and model is more pernicious yet efficient than Palestinians’ Balloon IEDs and can easily graduate to a full scale chaos that we may find ourselves unable to understand and control.
(The author is a decorated veteran, who now works in Energy Innovation and Rural Development. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)