Facing up to the drone challenge
Recently, two drones dropped an IED each packed with high grade-explosives on an Indian Air Force base in Jammu.
Army Chief General emphasised this new threat and said DIY (do it yourself) drones can be easily accessed and used by state and non-state actors, and India is building its offensive and defensive capabilities to prevent such attacks.
Since when have the military and terrorists been using drones?
- Over the last one decade, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are being increasingly used for law and order, courier services, and surveillance and attack in the military domain.
- Modern drones are being used militarily since the 1990s, including by the US during the Gulf War.
- UAVs range from 250 g (maximum altitude 2,000 ft and range 2 km) to over 150 kg (300,00 ft and unlimited range).
- In India, the most commonly known drones are quad- and hexacopters used for civil and commercial purposes, and Heron drones used for military surveillance.
- Different UAVs operate under various technologies ranging from remote control by a human operator to using GPS and radio frequencies, and autopilot assistance.
- The first attempted drone attack by a terror group can be traced to 1994 when Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, used a remote-controlled helicopter to spray sarin gas.
- In 2013, al-Qaeda attempted an attack in Pakistan using multiple drones but security forces prevented it.
- The Islamic State has regularly used drones for attacks in Syria and Iraq, while the Taliban has used them for surveillance in Afghanistan.
- Hezbollah and Houthi rebels too have used them for attacks.
- a swarm of 13 drones attacked two Russian military bases in Syria.
- An assassination attempt was made on the President of Venezuela, using two IED-carrying GPS-guided drones that exploded during a military ceremony the President was attending.
- Drones were used to counter traditional platforms like tanks in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war.
- Between 1994 and 2018, more than 14 planned or attempted terrorist attacks took place using drones.
What’s the Indian experience?
- In the last few years, India and its enemies have frequently used drone surveillance against each other.
- The last three years have also seen drones dropping weapons, ammunition and drugs.
- The BSF detected weapons dropped by a suspected Pakistan drone in Jammu.
- Sources said in recent years there have been an estimated 100-150 sightings of suspected drones near India’s western border annually. Most of these are suspected to be surveillance drones.
How to tackle them?
- The entire world is struggling with the problem of drone attacks.
- 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.
- Currently, border forces in India largely use eyesight to spot drones and then shoot them down.
- It is easier said than done as most rogue drones are very small and operate at heights difficult to target.
- India has been exploring technologies to detect and disable drones using electromagnetic charge or shoot them down using laser guns.
- Technology to disable their navigation, interfere with their radio frequency, or just fry their circuits using high energy beams have also been tested. None of these has, however, proven foolproof.
- One would ideally like to have a tech wall that can disable drones coming from across the border. But drone attacks can be launched from within as well.
- Then there is the problem of swarm drones, where scores of drones overwhelm and confuse detection systems, resulting in some of the drones sneaking through.
What are the other challenges in tackling small drones?
- A senior armed forces officer, who has worked on UAV projects earlier, said the use of small drones to attack is a “totally different spectrum”.
- Drones have control and delivery mechanisms, and to counter them, he said, “either you can counter the control mechanism by jamming, or can control the delivery mechanism”. It depends on what kind of radar is being used, which is critical for the size of the UAV that needs to be detected.
- “When you have to look at any kind of counter-strategy, it should give you enough warning to positively identify that it is not a bird, to fire. If you are firing, you don’t know what it is carrying.”
- He said it raises multiple questions, like who (the armed forces or the civilian forces) would be responsible for such mechanisms. “It is a sub-tactical threat, but requires a strategic response. Entire threat perception has to be relooked.”
Does India have anti-drone technology?
- The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a detect-and-destroy technology for drones, but it is not yet into mass production.
- Then there is the challenge of the technology’s strategic deployment and the money the government is ready to spend.
- The DRDO’s Counter-Drone System was deployed for VVIP protection at the Republic Day parades in 2020 and 2021, the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech last year, and former US President Donald Trump’s visit to Motera Stadium, Ahmedabad last year.
- The DRDO system, developed in 2019, has capabilities for hardkill (destroying a drone with lasers) and softkill (jamming a drone’s signals).
- It has a 360° radar that can detect micro drones up to 4 km, and other sensors to do so within 2 km.
- Its softkill range is 3 km and hardkill range between 150 m and 1 km.
- It has been demonstrated to various security agencies including at the Hindon Air Force station in January 2020 and National Security Guard Manesar in August 2020 and again in January 2021.
What are India’s plans to use them in warfare?
- The armed forces have been slowly inducting capacity.
- Last year the, Navy got two unarmed SeaGuardian Predator drones on lease from the US.
- The three forces want 30 of these UAVs between them.
- The military has been working towards using small drones for offensive capabilities as well.
- The strategy to defend space must be based on adapting to the need of the specific environment where the deployment of the counter-drone system is intended. Integration of various sensors and finally redundancy for sensors in number is also imperative. There is a definite need to align the timeframe taxonomy with the prevailing threat at all levels. Disruptive techniques that have been brought out in this brief will also pave the way for future research and development of whole some systems to thwart adversarial designs.
- Endless possibilities exist in designing a system to counter drones which may extend later to UAVs as well as collaborative swarms. A committee needs to be formulated at the apex level which has stakeholders from the defence forces in addition to judiciary, the academia, and industry (to include Defence Public Sector Undertakings). The anti-drone systems will definitely be expensive owing to the technology involved.
- However, costs involved should not thwart the innovations. Better rules and regulations need to be formulated to regulate the Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM).
- Systems like HyperTechTraxerTM (UK-registered firm, based in Finland) which use non-lethal weapons as well as swarms to monitor sensitive installations have also been made available in the world market.
- In order to harness niche technologies like AI, exploit the depth in IT and realise the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat, we need to shed old mindsets and make our procedures more flexible and adaptive.
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