It is vital that we do not let ourselves get trapped in a defensive and reactive stance, confined to consequence management. The emphasis must shift from mere protection to punishment

On Sunday, 27 June, Pakistan crossed a significant escalation threshold in its asymmetric war in Jammu and Kashmir. Two drones struck the strategic air base of Jammu between 0127 and 0130 hours in the morning. They came at the height of 100m and dropped 2 kg charges of high-grade military explosives (probably RDX) with impact detonators. Their likely targets were the helicopters hanger and Air Control Tower (ACT), but they missed. One created a hole in the roof of a concrete building and the other exploded on the ground. Two Air Force boys were injured slightly. This was a significant qualitative escalation in the asymmetric war being waged in Kashmir. By using drones to target a strategic air base, Pakistan had ushered in the era of drone warfare in South Asia with a low cost- high impact strike using COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf Technology) of quad copter drones. The simple fact is that such plastic, battery operated drones have a zero radar cross-section and are very difficult to detect and even harder to stop. Thus, they are a very optimal and cost- effective solution for any attacker. The defender will always be at disadvantage in such a scenario.

Post the strike, there was the usual strident media outcry. How were we caught napping again, especially since intelligence agencies had warned us that drones may be employed? Such scapegoat seeking narratives betray a complete ignorance of the technological complexities involved in detecting and shooting down such small drones. The fact is, Indian Air Force (IAF) is well equipped to detect and deal with HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) and MALE (Mid Altitude Long Endurance) class of larger drones, but such small and cheap drones present an entirely different set of problems.

Era of Drone Warfare

Drones have been extensively employed for decades now. Surprisingly, their use in fact dates back to the Vietnam War. Their employment in the Bosnia conflict indicated their vulnerability in a dense AD environment. The mid-sized drones (mostly used for recce and surveillance then) suffered very high levels of attrition. Weaponised drones have been extensively employed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria by the US. In November 2017, the Russians used a drone carrying a thermite grenade against a Ukrainian ammunition depot at Balakliya (over 90 km inside Crimean borders) and destroyed the depot completely. In September 2019, the Houthis used drones to blast the Saudi oil refinery of Aramco and cripple it for months, halving the Saudi oil output. The highly sophisticated, US supplied AD systems of Saudi Arabia, failed completely to detect or destroy these primitive Iranian drones. ISIS terrorists have been using drones in Iraq and Syria; the Hamas has been using them in Gaza and the Taliban have been using them in Afghanistan. The war last year (September-November 2020) between Armenia and Azerbaijan, saw the latter cripple Armenia with a massive use of Turkish and Israeli drones. The drones actually brought Armenia to its knees. Media reports indicated that Pakistan and Afghan Taliban had sent terrorists to participate on the side of Azerbaijan. As such they had a first-hand feel of this war and came back very enthused about the use of drones as a war-winning factor.

DRONES IN INDIA: Coincidentally, around the same period, Pakistan started using Chinese drones to drop weapons, ammunition, currency and narcotics to Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. On 13 August 2020 a crashed Hexacopter was recovered in Punjab. Between 6-9 September that year, Chinese made drones made eight sorties in the Taran Taran area and dropped AK-47s, M4 carbines, ammunition, grenades, radio sets and Rs 10 lakhs in currency. From June to September 2020, Pakistani drones made repeated sorties in Kathua (Hiranagar, J&K). One Hexacopter, in fact, was shot down here. From 18-22 September, Pakistani drones dropped AK rifles, M-4 carbines and ammunition in Akhnur in J&K. Overall, it has been estimated that Pakistani drones have made over 300 sorties in Punjab and J&K to deliver weapons, ammunition, etc. 27 June this year however marks the first time Pakistan has used drones to carry out a kinetic attack (albeit unsuccessful) against an Indian military target. That the attack was unsuccessful, should in no way detract from the overwhelming significance of this event. It marks a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s asymmetric war and constitutes a very dangerous escalation. It may be noted that after the Indian airstrike in Balakot (post the Pulwama terror attack) Pakistan had greatly sobered down, as it realized that nuclear deterrence could no longer be relied upon to prevent a limited conventional war in retaliation to mass casualty terror strikes. Despite its song and dance about shooting down Abhinadan’s Mig-21, it was sufficiently chastised to refrain from any more spectacular terror strikes. When India Abrogated Article 370, Pakistan made only pro-forma noises. That was the degree of caution that had been imposed on it.

Quite obviously, the Chinese were seriously perturbed over India’s marked assertiveness in J&K and its bold airstrike in Balakot. It has been speculated that the Chinese made their moves in Ladakh to cow down India and reassure Pakistan. The Chinese have tried to embolden Pakistan to resume its terror war in J&K and Punjab to keep India tied down. That is why Pakistan’s quest for a ceasefire some three months ago was a bit of a surprise. Possibly it was because of the US pressure on both India and Pakistan to tamp down hostilities. Was it to give Pakistan a free hand in Afghanistan? One of the best ways for India to mount pressure on Pakistan is via activating the Eastern front. So why is Pakistan ramping up the asymmetric war against India by switching to the Turkish model of Azerbaijan? As always, the tendency to miscalculate and overreach is endemic to Pakistani generals. They tend to be highly subjective in their planning and fail to factor in likely enemy responses. There are media reports that a Pakistan Army UAV brigade has been entrusted with the task of orchestrating logistics support to the terrorists via drones and has now carried out this drone strike in presumed retaliation for the bomb blast in Lahore. An ISI -sponsored Op Parinda is being talked of. This opens up a Pandora’s box. The Pakistani drones could target key military installations, headquarters, ammunition dumps and even hit vital civilian infrastructure like oil refineries. Drones can also be used for targeted assassinations and cyber warfare, apart from the normal surveillance tasks. The theory that India should retaliate only if such an attack is successful, is highly dangerous. Inaction and lack of a firm response could just invite further such attacks. For all we know, this may just have been a probing attack to test our responses. A do nothing Gandhian response will tempt Pakistan to do much more of the same.

Response Options

The use of small Quadcopter drones presents a host of challenges that must be understood before we can devise effective and deterrent responses. These drones are small in size, battery operated and made almost entirely of plastic. As such their radar cross-section is zero. It is, therefore, very difficult to detect them. To do so, we need to deploy millimetre wave radars, Kurf radars, electro-optic and IR based sensors in a fused grid to detect such low flying drones. Having detected them, how do we destroy them? There are two broad options using soft kills and hard kills.

SOFT KILLS: This involves use of electronic jammers, to interfere with and destroy guidance electronics and disrupt satellite or video command links and spoof the GPS.

HARD KILLS: Kinetic kills can be inflicted upon such small drones using the Israeli Smash 2000 plus like systems. This mounts computer controlled electro-optic sights on to machineguns and assault rifles etc to tackle such small drones both by day and night.

DIRECTED ENERGY LASERS: DRDO has been working on two laser systems to destroy small drones or at the very least, fry up their circuits. One is the 20 kilowatt laser system with a range of 2 km. The other is a smaller tripod based and portable 2 kilowatt laser with a 1 km range. However, both are still under trials and given the glacial pace of the DRDO projects, may not be available in real time.

Now the problem is these are highly expensive systems. Hence, they simply cannot be deployed in mass to provide a comprehensive defence grid all over the country to protect lakhs and lakhs of potential targets—military and civilian infrastructure, command and control centres, ammunition dumps, refineries and even key personnel who could be assassinated using drones. The key is the highly skewed ratio of costs for the attacker and defender. Most commercial Quadcopters cost between Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000. Larger capacity drones cost a few lakhs. Deploying a massive anti-drone grid (for small drones) would cost in thousand crores. India is not small sized country like Israel where 8 to 10 Iron Dome batteries can cover the entire country. Quite obviously, we will have to prioritise targets and deploy such detection and neutralization systems only for critical targets. That will leave literally thousands of targets open to such attacks. That is why we should not get side tracked into a purely defensive and reactive response that will be highly wasteful of resources and still not ensure fool proof coverage of all targets in the country.

PROACTIVE RESPONSE: Hence it is vital that we do not let ourselves get trapped in another defensive and reactive stance confined merely to consequence management. This is what the Indian state had confined itself to from 1980s onward when Pakistan started terrorism first in Punjab and then in J&K. It was only with Uri that we switched to a proactive and offensive stance of hot pursuit operations to transfer the war to the enemy’s territory and raise costs and consequences. Uri was merely a warning shot across the bow. It was only with Balakot airstrike that a serious and militarily dissuasive response was given. Its impact lasted almost for 22 months and it took massive Chinese deployment and intrusion attempts in Ladakh to once again embolden Pakistan to resume its asymmetric war in J&K. It has now come up with a Turkey and China inspired strategy to replace Fedayeen foot soldiers with cheap and inexpensive drones. Simply defending against such drones will lead to inordinate costs and a cycle of frustration. India must ingest past lessons and respond aggressively across the LoC and border to deter and dissuade Pakistan from such asymmetric adventurism and seriously raise costs and consequences for Pakistan. The emphasis must shift from mere protection to punishment. We might as well ensure minimal coverage of key targets and spend much more on offensive systems to respond across the border and retain the initiative at the strategic and tactical levels. Supinely surrendering all initiatives to the enemy is an invitation to military disaster.