High Time: Tech-based counter drone systems should be deployed across vulnerable areas to detect and destroy hostile drones

Henceforth, drones may be Pakistan’s preferred means for executing attacks due to the inherent advantages of deniability and economy of effort. Therefore, there can be no let-up on our side in ensuring fool proof protective and counter measures. A strategic message must go to Pakistan that lack of a strong Indian response cannot be taken for granted

by Lt Gen Philip Campose (Retd)

The June 27 terror attack on the Jammu airfield, using two small quadcopter drones, could well signify an escalation of the terrorist threat from Pakistan, which employs multiple dimensions — land, air, water and cyber — to reach the targets in India.

In the past, terrorist modules have mostly used the land route to infiltrate and reach their targets. Occasionally, maritime routes have been used — the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008 being the most prominent example.

This drone attack is the first known case of the use of the aerial route, possibly employing ‘off-the-shelf’ autonomous drones equipped with GPS sensors to bypass the checkpoints on the land route as well as the perimeter fencing and protective measures.

Alternatively, if these drones were ground-controlled, it implies that the controllers could be within a few kilometres of the target area. Such use of the aerial route by Pakistani terrorists to deliver explosive payloads to the target area poses special challenges due to the enhanced potential of wreaking damage to sensitive targets and assets — as experienced at the Russian bases of Hmeimim and Tartus in Syria and Caracas (Venezuela) in 2018 and in the Saudi oilfields in 2019. To that extent, the attempted drone strike can be described as a sudden escalation in terrorist capacity and efforts.

Defence installations, especially those close to the border, have been the preferred targets of Pakistan-based terrorist organisations because of the publicity and support it fetches them. Moreover, if these attacks are successful, as has happened on some occasions, it could lead to the lowering of the morale of the targeted units and the general public.

Significantly, the protective measures implemented by the forces after the January 2016 attack on the Pathankot airfield, based on the recommendations of the committee convened to review the security of the defence installations, have largely succeeded in preventing infiltration along the land and maritime routes from reaching the military targets.

To that extent, in keeping with the global trends, the use of armed drones was predictable, more so as there were recent reports of elements from Pakistan using drones for smuggling or carrying weapons across the border.

The Indian Air Force was fortunate that the drone attack against the Jammu airfield caused negligible damage. Nonetheless, the message was clear. Possibly, in view of the recent lack of success of their human terror modules in executing attacks, Pakistan has introduced another low-cost means of carrying out such attacks against Indian targets. The use of drones also enables deniability by Pakistan state agencies, which, predictably, will deny totally or ascribe responsibility to non-state actors.

This latest incident, therefore, can be described as another in the long list of hostile and provocative actions against India by Pakistan, which, as usual, has feigned ignorance about the attack. It appears that the aim of this attack was not only to cause damage/casualties and instil insecurity in military units close to the border but also to try and compel India and its armed forces to divert disproportionate attention and resources to deal with this threat.

On a higher plane, it would not be far-fetched to infer that the strike could be aimed at diverting capital funds from those aimed at modernising the Indian military to further beefing up protective measures opposite the Pakistan borders. Thus, the Indian security establishment and the armed forces must learn the right lessons. What are the lessons learnt from the latest drone-based terror strike?

First, it has been validated once again that Pakistan and its proxies will continue to carry out cross-border terror attacks against sensitive targets in India, especially against security establishments in the vicinity of the border. Henceforth, drones may be the preferred means for executing such attacks due to the inherent advantages of deniability and economy of effort.

Therefore, there can be no let-up on our side in ensuring fool proof protective and counter measures. More importantly, whatever its intent, a strategic message must go to Pakistan that lack of a strong Indian response cannot be taken for granted and Pakistan would invite appropriate retaliation across multiple dimensions if it continues with such misdeeds.

Secondly, it is time that a review of the security of defence and other sensitive establishments close to the border is conducted, this time with focus on the aerial threat from drones. Low-technology drones, due to their small size and ‘dumb’ nature, pose special challenges for detection and engagement by conventional systems. While technology should play a leading role in dealing with the threat, the thrust should also be on low-cost, easily deployable physical measures which would be easier to implement. The responsibility for coordinating measures to deal with the aerial threat should be with the Indian Air Force. Air defence assets and counter-drone measures of the other services should be coordinated by the Air Force.

Thirdly, it is high time that technology-based counter-drone systems are deployed across vulnerable areas to detect and destroy hostile drones. Counter-drone technology involving radars, acoustic mechanisms, radio frequency devices and electro-optical methodology, or a combination of such sensors, should be deployed at the earliest. Priority for such induction should be given to sensitive installations with high-value assets close to the border.

Over the last few years, especially after armed drones achieved a devastating effect in sub-conventional conflicts in West Asia and in conventional war conditions in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, it is a given that both state and non-state actors would choose to acquire and employ armed drones in conflict situations.

Hence, the efforts to induct armed drones into the armed forces’ inventory should be given an impetus. To that extent, available conventional systems must be reconfigured to deal with this sub-conventional threat.

Finally, this attack should serve as a wake-up call to our security establishment. We have to be prepared for the eventuality that the next attack(s) may be more sophisticated and lethal, using better technology and more dangerous payloads. Nonetheless, our response should focus on simple, easily implementable and cost-effective strategies.

Care should be taken to ensure that our response is measured and nuanced, in keeping with the actual threat that has unfolded or may evolve. A disproportionate response or extensive diversion of the existing resources would only support the interests of our adversaries.

To start with, reactive measures appropriate to the threat as well as some active measures using simple, cost-effective technology should be implemented immediately within the ambit of the protective measures that are already in vogue. Simultaneously, options for possible retaliation should be planned for and honed.