The recent drone attack at Jammu airfield has brought out in the open the magnitude of drone threat. Who sent the weaponised drone is of no consequence? Can we protect our sensitive installations from near certain future drone attacks is the issue that merits in depth analysis? Do we really have an operational drone detection system available in large numbers as claimed by few on TV channels? For that matter does any nation in the world have a proven anti drone system? General McKenzie, US Military Commander in the Middle East has this to say "drones are the biggest threat to US forces in the region".
Weaponised drones visiting Jammu airfield in the wee hours of 30th June and dropping a few kg of explosives, fortunately did not result in any major damage to men or equipment, but it has woken up a nation from slumber. We react only when an event takes place. Drones being used by ‘non-state actors’ for anti national activities is nothing new. Use of drones in all fields has increased exponentially during the last decade, subversive activities and silent strikes, in particular.
The USA has used, as well as, faced weaponised drones extensively over the past three decades. Current drones are derived from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) concept. UAVs are prohibitively expensive and require a huge ground control set up to use it as a weapon, recce platform and/or surveillance facility.
Micro miniaturization explosion has broken all technological barriers enabling ‘make at home/assemble at home’ drones appearing in the marketplace as toys. The USA, in its initial years, used ‘single use’ drones extensively. Accuracy achieved was not satisfactory because radio controlled drones had three major limitations; firstly, even a momentary interruption in radio signal connectivity allowed the drone to wander off from intended track, secondly, it was prone to jamming and thirdly and most importantly a more powerful signal on the same frequency allowed someone else take control of the drone.
With the Global Positioning System (GPS) emerging as the new frontier of navigation, drone control philosophy also changed overnight. Drones following pre-programmed GPS coordinates can neither be jammed nor controlled by another agency because the absence of radio signal required for controlling the drone was no longer available to misguide/intercept/control the drone. A toy class of drone equipped with a GPS facility has replaced the proverbial ‘homing pigeon’. GPS enabled drone will reach its intended destination without fail unless physically intercepted.
The need for physical drone interception, therefore, has become paramount to prevent drone attacks. A GPS enabled drone can be used for delivering medicines to inaccessible areas but the same drone can also deliver an explosive with equal accuracy and reliability. There is no way of establishing which drone is carrying medicines for delivery or pizza from pizza hut or an explosive. As on date there is no Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system on the drones. Only known IFF system equipped drones are with USAF.
Are we then going to engage and shoot every drone that is seen? An impractical and unachievable task. Problem with drone detection are;
- Extremely Low Noise Level. Low noise does not permit spotting of drone until it is virtually overhead
- Insignificant Heat Signature. Insignificant heat signature rules out the possibility of engagement by heat seeking SAMs
- Very Small Radar Cross Section (RCS). Low RCS does not allow conventional ground/airborne radars to pick up drone signatures on radar scope.
- Visual detection is a possibility during daylight hours. In darkness it will be well nigh impossible to spot and engage a drone. Sharp Shooters cannot be considered to be a worthwhile deterrent against drone attacks. It might be an option, where protection from drones is envisaged for a limited window of a few hours during daylight hours viz for Republic Day Parade or 15th August PM’s address from ramparts of Red Fort. 24x7 protection of vital installations cannot be achieved in this manner. Comparing the two requirements and claiming availability of drone detection and drone neutralization capability, therefore, is factually incorrect.
Few countries have tried to develop drone detection technology but no detection system has achieved any degree of reliability/accuracy yet. In foreseeable future drone detection will remain a difficult, if not an impossible task
The US Military in Iraq has been flooded with small drones involved in recce, intelligence gathering, real time photography. In fact few drones, which were captured and/or shot down were found to have ECM/ECCM facilities as well. Every such facility on the drone operates autonomously and is virtually jam proof. Iranian drones used by proxy militias (in India we call them Non state actors) against the US military in Iraq have been a highly effective security threat.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US general in the Middle East said "drones are the biggest threat to US forces in the region." Drone attacks have succeeded in reaching high value targets without being detected. For instance an Iranian drone scored a direct hit on a CIA hangar in Erbil. Few drones that were shot down were due to visual sighting.
The US Military tried various methods to spot drones during dark hours by installing flood lights on the perimeter. Instead of helping in detection, the flood lights became the source of location of a sensitive location.
Most significant and devastating drone attack yet was on the Saudi Oil Refinery, which is heavily defended by a mix of AD Guns and SAMs. An unconfirmed report stated that the drones could have been launched from as far away as 100 km or more.
Iran and Turkey have made exponential progress in drone development, which are much smaller in size as compared to US drones/UAVs viz Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper. Both countries have excellent relations with Pakistan and may have supplied/ may supply in future, these inexpensive but highly effective instruments of war. Needless to state that these will be/are being used against Indian targets.
Drone threat to Indian establishments is real. Iranian drones are in different sizes varying from five feet to 15 feet wing span and are capable of carrying up to 30 kg of explosives. A point attack with GPS enabled drone carrying 30 kg explosive can destroy an aircraft, radar antenna, vehicles and many other targets. It can drop the load and return to a pre designated place, which can be different from the launch place.
DRDO has developed drone detection equipment, which has already been tried out successfully. But like all other systems developed by other nations, the operating effective range of detection and hard/soft kill is barely a few km. Swarm drone attacks over a military establishment, oil refinery, industrial units will result in catastrophic destruction. Soft kill capability of the DRDO developed system is claimed. Deployment of an operational drone detection system in large numbers is still a long way off.
Even if drone detection systems are deployed operationally, it will not guarantee 100% success of kill before weaponised drone releases the explosive. In case of a ‘KAMIKAZE’ drone, the explosives will still drop at/near the target, even if drone were to be shot down in the vicinity of intended target.
Pak aided terrorists, commonly known by fancy names such as ‘non-state actors’ have access to weaponised drones with multi mission/single mission capability. Unlike a rocket, which must be launched from near the target, the drones can fly up to much farther range and can be launched from anywhere. Smaller ones can simply be dropped off of a roof. The larger ones can take flight from the back of a pick-up truck, according to sources familiar with the technology.
Chinese drones must have been inducted in Pakistan. These lightweight drones capable of carrying explosives must be on top of the terrorist demand list. Media has already reported supply of 50 WING LOONG weaponised drone of Chinese origin to Pakistan recently. But more significant is non reporting of huge sale of ‘TOY’ drones of Chinese origin all over the world, which can be used for delivering explosives.
Drone threat is real and is far more difficult to neutralize than a modern fighter. Stealth and low cost of drones makes it an extremely affordable weapon in the hands of disgruntled non-state actors. China, Iran and Turkey are known to be the largest producers of small drones. Pakistan has excellent relations with all three.
In spite of all the advantages that drones have, there are huge limitations as well. These are;
- For a successful drone attack the drone has to be GPS enabled. Accurate target coordinates should be available,
- For a pinpoint attack Drone programming for navigation as well as selection of weapon release point will require adequate expertise.
- Depending on drone capability, flight altitude can vary from a few hundred meters to a few km. For accuracy weapon release will have to be from relatively low altitude.
- Drones are fragile machines and can be destroyed/damaged with a direct hit from a rifle bullet.
- Rotary wing Drones fly at low speeds as compared to fixed wing drones. InfraRed sensors fitted drones have already been operating in the Middle East.
In view of readily available ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) kits, drones proliferation cannot be controlled. Add ons viz GPS, Weapon Holding Basket/Claw, Onboard Camera for transmitting live pictures enroute/target area can be readily assembled. As on date a slap on Laser Range Finder (LRF) equipment is not commercially available, however in near future drones might be equipped with LRF, which will enable the drone to deliver weapons with pinpoint accuracy.
- Ideally there should be a total ban on any drone flying, including toy drones. Most, rather all radio controlled toy drones are of Chinese origin. Merely establishing ‘no-fly zones’ in close proximity of sensitive installations will serve no purpose.
- Indian Military must consider the use of drones for round the clock surveillance of sensitive areas viz airfields, both during day and night by evolving suitable SOPs to stay out of aircraft flight path. Presence of a ‘friendly’ drone might restrict freedom of operation of a hostile drone.
- Introduction of administrative procedures viz licensing for possession of drones must become as important and stringent as owning a handgun.
Until a genuine drone detection and neutralisation system becomes operationally viable and available, drone threat will remain a threat, especially in close proximity of disturbed border areas. As on date there is no anti drone system, which can be considered to be even 10% effective anywhere in the world. GPS enabled drones carrying explosives will invariably be used during night.
About the Author
Gp Capt. Tej Prakash Srivastava has served in Iraq and is a graduate of both DSSC and AWC. He was Directing Staff at DSSC and Chief Instructor at College of Air Warfare. He Served at Air HQ, commanded a MiG-21 Sqn and headed the IAF establishment of Strike Corps during 'Operation Parakram'. He has authored a book titled 'Profligate Governance – Implications for National Security'. He has written extensively on international and strategic affairs and Defence Procurement Procedures. The IAF officer graduated from the NDA in June 1970 and trained at AFA with 107th Pilots Course. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]