In the early hours of June 27, the technical area of Jammu airport was rattled by two explosions of moderate intensity. Technical area of a dual-use airport means that section of the airport where air assets of the Air Force or the aviation wing of the Army are parked. Jammu airport being a dual-use airport essentially means that it is used both for civilian and military purposes; it has an extremely secure technical area for parking air assets. While the explosions did not do much damage, what has created ripples among the security agencies is the possibility, later almost confirmed, of the use of drones to drop the explosives from air. While the investigation is still on, the fact that the target was the technical area, and possibly the parked air assets of the Indian Air Force, this attempted drone attack was almost akin to an act of war.
The Tell-tale Signs over Last Two Years
While this aerial attack is definitely the first-of-its-kind in India, the tell-tale signs of drones being increasingly used by cross-border elements for subversive activities were witnessed extensively over the last two years. In the post-Pulwama scenario with the counter-infiltration grid along the international border getting more impenetrable, Pakistan started using drones for dropping both narcotics as well as weapon systems from across the border. For example, it was reported that between September 9 and 16 last year, in an operation planned and executed by Pakistan’s ISI, the network of terror group Khalistan Zindabad Force was used to drop around 80 kg of weapons that included AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition into Punjab through around eight sorties by Chinese-made drones with 10 kg of payload carrying capacity. Several such attempts to drop weapons were made in the Jammu sector too along the international border. In all, over 300 sightings of drones were recorded over the last two years along the India-Pakistan border.
Therefore, Pakistan’s deep state or its sponsored terror groups scaling up application of drones from dropping of arms and narcotics, to possibly using them for targeting India’s military assets should ideally not come as a surprise to India. In fact, dropping of payload in the Jammu airport technical area, irrespective of whether it was meant to just send a message or a genuine attempt to target military assets, requires precision GPS coordinates, sheer knowledge of technical area, access to possibly satellite imagery and, depending upon whether it was a line-of-sight operation drone or beyond-line-of-sight to take it back without crashing or getting hit by counter fire, skilled operators.
In all, the incident at Jammu airport was perhaps not the work of amateurs, and irrespective of whether the drone came from across the border or was operated from vicinity, it was pure tradecraft that perhaps can only happen with the support of some external military and intelligence agency as a mentor. And, there are enough reasons to point fingers at Pakistan. The worry for the security agencies however is this: Was this operation a mere sending of message? Was it a failed attempt of targeting military assets? Or was it a dry run for something more sinister?
How Cost-effective Drones Have Become a Nightmare for Best Air Defence Systems
World over, the application of drones for both counter-terror operations as well as subversive activities by state-backed militias have been increasingly gaining ground. While the US has been extensively using armed drones for neutralizing high-profile terror targets in Af-Pak region and Middle East for long, in the recent past, there has been a major trend of militias such as Houthis of Yemen effectively using armed drones, allegedly supplied by Iran, to target Saudi oil refineries and military targets.
In the ongoing conflict between the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis of Yemen, even the most advanced air defence system of Saudi Arabia under the aegis of Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces (RSADF)—equipped with some of the most advanced assets including long-range phased array radars from Lockheed Martin stable and air defence missiles systems including HAWK and Patriot from Raytheon among others— often failed to stop the relentless swarm attacks of armed drones by Houthis.
The Qasef-2K loitering munition drones with simultaneous surveillance capabilities have been extensively used by Houthi rebels. They have an operational radius of 100 kms, endurance levels of 100 minutes, can carry a 30 kg warhead, fly at a maximum speed of 250 km per hour, and have often devastated Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, which are critical lifelines of the oil-based economy. In most cases, the Qasef drones detonate the munitions around 10-20 metres above ground resulting in release of shrapnel pieces that in the momentum hit the target. In the eventuality of a swarm attack, even if some of the drones are shot down, the rest do reach their targets in kamikaze-style attacks.
Incidentally, the Samad-3 drones, also being used by the Houthis, are even more powerful and can almost be compared with military grade drones used by major armed forces, which itself is a cause for worry. Having a service ceiling of 8,000 metres, operational range of around 1500 kms, endurance of 5 hours with a potential to carry a 40 kg warhead, the Houthis were alleged to have used Samad-3 drones to target Dubai airport, around 1200 kms away, as well as Riyadh airport. The Samad drones were also used to target Aramco oil facilities as well as Saudi military installations, especially in Khamis Mushait and Jazan areas.
Why Conventional Air Defence Systems Falter against Low-flying Drones
The challenge that conventional armed forces and their air defence systems may often face while dealing with incoming drones launched by the likes of Houthis is that military grade radars, even those which were developed a few years back, were not programmed to identify low- and slow-flying loitering small-sized drones and identify them as a threat to raise an alarm. These are new and evolving dynamics of modern-day asymmetric warfare, which are yet to be addressed. This was also evident during the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia where Armenian Armed Forces were overwhelmed by Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones used by Azerbaijan.
For India, a Race against Time to Invest in Anti-drone Systems
The incident in Jammu does comprehensively alter the contours of asymmetric warfare in the subcontinent theatre and it goes without saying that Pakistan-backed terror groups and their sponsors have definitely studied the Middle East model of drone application and may be attempting to replicate it here. Even the Pulwama attack through ramming an explosive-laden vehicle on a CRPF bus was a concept that has been in vogue in Afghanistan and Iraq for long.
It is therefore clear that for India, creating robust physical security architecture around the perimeter of defence installations or critical infrastructure may not be enough, because the potential aerial threat emanating from incoming drones has to be adequately addressed as well. While it is not to say that conventional terror attacks are a passé, nevertheless, for anti-terror forces such as Rashtriya Rifles or the Central Armed Police Forces operating in the Valley, the hunt henceforth may not just be for the gun-toting terror operatives but also assemblers and operators of rogue drones that perhaps would be used for terror attacks. Tracking and neutralizing them on a perpetual basis would need a new kind of skill-sets and equipment.
Also, from now on, it is almost a race against time for India to equip every critical installation, be it in the realm of critical defence infrastructure or critical economic infrastructure, with robust anti-drone systems. One has to remember that the Houthis deployed drones for attacking even the oil refineries of Saudi Arabia, which are the lifelines of the Saudi economy. Can that possibility be discounted in the Indian case? Certainly not. The bigger challenge for India’s security agencies is what if the terror groups scale up from using generic civilian drones to Samad -3 or Qasef-type drones? Would it be too difficult for them to procure similar drones from China?
India’s Tryst with Anti-drone Systems
Over the last couple of years, one could witness some impetus in India in the realm of both development of drones and anti-drone systems as well as acquisition of drones. While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed an anti-drone system with capacity to target incoming drones from a range of 2-3 kilometres and jam their frequencies, in private sector as well, Bengaluru-based startup IIO Technologies has developed some kind of an anti-drone system. Likewise, one of India’s leading drone makers, namely ideaForge, which recently bagged Rs 140-crore contract from the Indian Army for an undisclosed number of SWITCH tactical drones, has tied up with industry behemoth L&T for making drone and anti-drone systems in India.
In the recent past, Adani Defence Systems has also demonstrated its anti-drone system to several government agencies for securing critical installations. It was also reported that the Indian Navy has shortlisted Israeli SMASH 2000 Fire Control System for securing its installations against incoming drones. The Border Security Force (BSF) likewise has approved, in the recent past, the acquisition of 436 small and micro drones as well as anti-drone systems.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that India’s drone and anti-drone systems development sector is still at a nascent stage and may need impetus and major nudge from the top leadership of the government, much on the lines of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), with its success stories enshrined in the development of Prithvi, Agni, Akash and Nag series of missiles, if India has to catapult itself into the league of makers of cutting-edge drone systems and reduce dependence on import of military grade anti-drone systems. Given the proficiency the country has in the realm of IT-based application development, and given the right kind of incentive, India’s leading technical universities and industry can do wonders in creating a whole array of startups to develop systems to deal with this impending drone menace.
What Next for India?
In the short run, meanwhile, the Jammu incident would invariably act as a catalyst or a ‘bolt from the blue’ to push a major acquisition drive for anti-drone systems, much on the lines of massive military acquisitions that India witnessed post Balakot airstrike as well as during the Sino-India face-off in Ladakh last year, and general rise in spending on acquisition of offensive military platforms that India has witnessed over the last 6-7 years. Anti-drone systems, per say, were perhaps much down the hierarchy of priority then, but no more.
India’s massive augmentation of air defense system through acquisition of one of world’s most advanced systems namely S-400 that can detect incoming missiles or aircraft from a distance of 400 km, or its acquisition of Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missiles, Short-Range Surface to Air Missile Systems or indigenous Ballistic Air Defence System, may fall short of expectations while dealing with these small-sized drones because they were never meant to deal with this menace.
Also, there is a question of cost. Would it make sense to expend missiles worth crores to bring down drones worth a few lakhs every time a drone is spotted near a key installation? It is, therefore, a combination of anti-drone systems and positioning of small arms including Light Machine Guns (LMG) that would be put in place for the time being to counter this threat. The government may also nudge India’s defence research agencies to work on a new range of radars to detect such low-flying drones.
Is Another Cross-border Strike by India in the Offing?
Last but not the least is the issue of whether India would retaliate like in the recent years through cross-border strikes. While that option is always open as part of India’s redefined counter-terror response mechanism, it is highly unlikely that any cross-border strike of that proportion would happen anytime soon even though this attack was almost akin to an act of war. The priority of the Indian government would perhaps more be on creating a robust anti-drone architecture and put it in place. Also, given the situation along the India-China border, it is highly unlikely that India would open up another front on the western side unless of course another attempt of a drone strike happens in this manner anytime soon. Then it becomes a different issue altogether.
The next few weeks perhaps would be extremely critical that may decide the contours of how the dimensions of counter-terror operations would take shape in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere, and whether India would up the ante and send a strong message to Pakistan. Was it a dry run with more potential attempts in future? Is something deliberately being done by terror elements to push India towards another cross-border strike? Is there a China angle in all of it? Only time would unravel the mysteries and the answers to these questions. India meanwhile would have to work on a mission mode to secure the country from this evolving aerial threat. But even as it would put in place anti-drone systems, it would have to trade cautiously between keeping rogue drones at bay while not going for the overkill and instead keep allowing drones to play a critical role in the economy as a force multiplier.