The Indian military had its first taste of offensive drone warfare when two small UAVs, carrying 2.5 kg bombs each, flew uncontested over the Jammu airbase under the cover of night, and dropped bombs on critical areas on June 27th. This taste was indeed bitter, as two air force personnel were reportedly injured and the audacity of terrorists using armed drones shook military planners to the highest level.
These small drones are something experts actually term as weapons of the future. Indeed, unmanned systems shall be extensively used in future battlefields, starting from aerial drones. But what is this, exactly?
The Concept of Drone Warfare (sUAS)
Let’s take you through the basics.
Admit it, in childhood, we’ve always thought of attaching something to our remote control toys and transporting them from one room to another. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve seen kids put their packet of chips on a remote control helicopter and run around trying to fetch it while one of them controls the toy. If kids can be this innovative, you might be getting some sneaky things in your mind.
Well, the military planners have been sneaky all this time. Now, think how innovatively this remote control toy can be used by a terrorist, who could attach a small time bomb to this small r/c helicopter and fly it near a group of innocent people, killing them? And, after the explosion, no one would suspect the terrorist as he wasn’t even on the scene! (he’d just be two buildings away controlling the toy helicopter to which bomb is attached)
So, drone warfare is nothing but an innovative idea of using your toy remote control helicopter.
This remote control helicopter, is also commonly termed a type of “drone”. In fact, all of the aircraft without a human pilot, crew, or passengers are collectively called drones (or alternatively, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Systems[UAVs/UAS]). In civilian life, these are generally used for aerial photography, product deliveries, agriculture, policing and surveillance, infrastructure inspections, science, smuggling (as they can fly above checkpoints undetected easily), and drone racing.
However now, these remote control toy helicopters have been replaced by multirotors like quadcopters, hexacopters, octacopters, and so on which are available easily at online eCommerce sites. And, in a similar fashion to the r/c helicopter situation described above, terrorists put bombs on a drone and flew them into the night over Jammu Airbase to hit an important target (like IAF’s Mi-17 helicopter), and we know the rest of the story.
NOTE: While there are bigger drones, of course, like the popular MQ-9, TB2, Heron, etc., we’ll focus only on the smaller ones for today (sUAS).
How are these used?
These drones can be a strategically important asset for a country’s armed forces. These are small and hardly detectable from the naked eye (in varying terrain), and neither can be detected from large conventional radars looking for bigger fighter jets high in the sky. This makes for an easy surveillance platform fitted with high-powered cameras; flown over an enemy area to track their movements from above.
And as we’ve discussed their ability to keep an eye on someone and even kill with a weapon, imagine swarms of these small drones, hundreds or thousands of them, attacking an airport, dropping bombs or smashing themselves into radars, aeroplanes, and at large concentrations of people. This could be perhaps a bad, if not the worst nightmare for security personnel. If you’ve ever played modern FPS games like Call of Duty and Battlefield (series), it might be easier for you to understand.
These small drones have become a menace for armed forces around the world, be it United States, Israel, Russia, or even Turkey, who have faced these drones used by terrorists. ISIS has been one of the key developers of this tactic and used it effectively, and even dropped mortar-type bombs (generally 40mm UBGL grenades with/without fins) on troops in Iraq and Syria. This is becoming a smart and cheap weapon, perfect for use by asymmetric warfare elements:
According to our analysis, the bombs dropped during 27th June attack were very similar to the examples shown in the aforementioned tweets (used by ISIS). It should come as no surprise that militants from the middle east could’ve helped ISI to train Pakistan-based terror groups. Militaries are themselves coming up with own drone-swarm tactics, especially the Chinese. The Indian Army, too, demonstrated the use of such drones (must read):
The US Army terms these small drones as “rapidly proliferating, low-cost, high-reward ISR and lethal-attack threat to U.S. personnel and interests.” And the American forces are also rapidly pursuing a solution to this problem as a priority for troops deployed on the frontline. However, as usual, the Indian military’s top brass have lagged to fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation, needing an attack like the one at Jammu airbase to open their eyes wider.
How to counter these?
You might be thinking that if these aerial drones can be such a problem, why not use air defence systems to shoot them down? And frankly, this argument is pretty relevant.
First, the air defence missiles won’t intercept a low-flying drone at the first floor of your building. Second, and the most important one, is the cost of operation.
A small commercial photography drone can come in various sizes and shapes, and can cost anywhere from Rs. 10,000 to a few lakhs. And, a surface-to-air missile used by air defence systems cost well over 20-30 Lakhs (an Akash SAM system costs INR 2 Crore). Thus, using a missile worth 30 lakh to kill a small drone that costs around 20-50K doesn’t make for a good bargain—especially if hundreds of these drones are coming your way. Therefore, other options need to be explored.
These drones, however, often have some weaknesses that can be exploited to take them down. Being remote control flying UAVs having a range of only a few kilometres, the transmission from the controller to the drone can be easily jammed by playing with electromagnetic waves. Many of you reading this article might not be engineers, so I’ll stick to simple terminologies.
Jamming a drone can result it to stop moving and hover in its position, or descend to ground, or return to a pre-designated location (marked by its operator). This is called “soft kill” or CommJamm (communications jamming).
However, some drones can be resistant to jamming (capable of hopping signal frequencies) and need to be stopped with a kinetic force, something inherently liked by a military guy. This would be termed “hard kill”, which involves physically shooting down the drone with a bullet, or by trapping it into a net, or by ramming it with another suicide drone, or by directed energy weapons (which is another cool name for LASER). Here are some examples developed by other countries:
Soft kill measure; SRC Tech’s FS-LIDS (being backed by US Army):
The Turkish handheld soft-kill İHASAVAR:
And one of my favorite ones, the autonomous drone police, FORTEM’s DroneHunter (hard kill measure):
The Indian Navy Chief last year announced that his force is in process of acquiring the SMASH-2000 optical systems to be used in C-sUAS (Counter- sUAS) roles. The system is also one of the key anti-drone systems being evaluated by the US Special Forces in Syria. It could be [sarcastically] the hardest kill method of all hard kill methods, probably:
The basic concept is simple: one needs to first detect these small drones (which requires a high-powered radar scanning at very low altitude), then identify them (generally by using electro-optical sensors), and then taking them down (using soft-kill or hard-kill measures).
And for a piece of good news, India’s own DRDO hasn’t let it down. The organisation has also developed a point-defence solution for the armed forces, that combines soft kill and hard kill measures in one package. The system is operational and is installed on key government installations to prevent drone menace, and was first seen publicly when it was deployed under PM’s security detail during Republic Day parade 2020. It has also been deployed to secure Donald Trump’s visit to Motera Stadium, Independence Day 2020 and Republic Day 2021.
The DRDO’s anti-drone system, if works as said, comprises of a radar that can track incoming drone threats from 4 kilometres away, electro-optical sensors to track and identify the targets, and can engage the drones with soft-kill jamming methods from 3 kilometres. If the threat is still not neutralised, it would use a high-powered laser to shoot it down. Plus, it can also be mounted on military vehicles for a portable option.
As explained by a DRDO official himself to HindustanTimes, “The RF/Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) jammer can detect the frequency being used by the controller and jam signals from a distance of 3 km. The laser-based hard kill system can neutralise micro drones at distances between 150 m to 1 km. The system is integrated through a command post.”
The system packs a lot of promise for Indian security forces, challenged by this new threat of asymmetric warfare. Using a high-powered laser ensures that the system is always working without worrying about its ammunition capacity. The June 27 attack was the first offensive use of drones against an Indian Military facility—but make no mistake, the forces have been fighting with them since long. Especially at the border areas, the BSF has managed to shoot down many drones used for smuggling narcotics, and even weapons (rifles, grenades) into the Indian territory.
Who can Fly drones in India?
Under the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021, the Government of India has classified UAVs into 5 types based on their weight. These are:
- Nano UAVs: Drones weighing less than or equal to 250 grams. No licence or permit is required.
- Micro UAVs: Drones weighing between 250 grams to 2 kilograms. Require UAS Operator Permit-I (UASOP-I).
- Small UAVs: Drones weighing between 2 kilograms to 25 kilograms. Also require UAS Operator Permit-I (UASOP-I).
- Medium UAVs: Drones weighing between 25 kilograms to 150 kilograms. Require UAS Operator Permit-II (UASOP-II)
- Large UAVs: Drones weighting more than 150 kilograms, also require UAS Operator Permit-II (UASOP-II).
Under the provision of UAS Rules 2021, drones of all categories are prohibited from flying in strategic and sensitive locations, including near airports, defence airports, border areas, military installations/facilities and areas earmarked as strategic locations/vital installations by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Penalties for breaking these rules range from Rs. 10,000 to 1 Lakh for individuals, and for organisations, a 200, 300 and 400% of the amount specified for individuals, based on the size of the organisation.
Indigenization v/s Importing: What’s more optimal?
A bigger question at this time is how India would cater to such lapses at the earliest: will it import such systems or will it develop them indigenously. A potential deciding factor to solving this issue would be the perspective of the sitting top brass. Short-sightedness in defence procurement has caused a lot of hindrance to the Indian military arsenal, be it over procurement/under procurement or removal of systems from weapons, only to refit them later at an additional cost. Examples include HF-24 Marut, Jaguar, Mirage-2000, etc, for which we shall talk about in another article.
Another Indian system developed by a Hyderabad-based company Grene Robotics named “Indrajaal” claims to develop an air defence dome, which can protect an area of 1,000-2,000 sq.km of area per system (compared to 28 sq.km with point-defence systems) against low-RCS threats like UAVs, loitering munitions, and incoming missiles. The main feature is the system’s capability to operate in fully autonomous mode. It ties together multiple C-sUAS (Counter-small Unmanned Aerial Systems) and related components to detect and take down small drones.
“Point defence Anti-UAV systems will not be able to counter and protect large defence bases, NCR and linear infrastructure like international borders and such sensitive areas against aforementioned threats. A minimum of 300 systems are required to be deployed to protect the entire western border and this is financially not a viable option. On the contrary 6-7 sectorally deployed Indrajaal systems with their seamless connectivity can protect the entire western border,” the company’s press release stated.
Indrajaal, introduces the much-needed network-centric warfare in which multiple air defence assets can be integrated into one network, capable of providing an effective counter against drone threats in a collective approach (along similar lines of US Air Force’s MEDUSA).
Keep in mind, single point-defence systems are not a viable option against drone swarms, but an integrated network of multiple systems has the potential to counter any number of drone attacks. Indrajaal packs a lot of promise, and if worked as theorized, could a very, very operationally effective & futuristic solution for the Indian armed forces.
Drone warfare shouldn’t be taken lightly. While India has already acquired the capability of using drones for offensive operations, there’s clearly a lack of both technology and vision for defensive uses; especially against more unconventional civilian drones being converted to perform such acts of terrorism. The military leadership should realize this threat and perhaps, have a more long term and flexible vision of asymmetric warfare instead of having reactive measures.
If India needs to become a truly 21st-century fighting force, reforms and the absorption of newer technologies becomes an inevitable necessity- and should be implemented at a faster pace before it gets too late.