On 27 June, two quadcopter drones (mini/micro-drones) carrying small explosives were used to execute attacks on a building in the Jammu Air Force Station.
Although the damage was minor, the attack signalled a major development in the subcontinent that is the arrival of new age sub-conventional warfare using small drones and related technologies. The attack on the Air Force Station was followed by the sighting of two more drones at night over the army camp in Jammu. The 27 June attack is the first such attack in India.
Welcome to the new age warfare of small drones, cheap and simple technologies, and swarm tactics that will challenge traditional heavy weapons and high-tech warfare.
Validation of Drones as Effective War Machines
According to various reports, the attack on the Jammu Air Force Station involved the use of two quadcopter drones which carried small explosives. The attack resulted in minor damage to the building and injuries to two air warriors. Since then, there have been at least seven intrusions of UAVs, mostly at night.
The attacks were carried out using—in all probability—small quadcopters. These could have a range of 10-50 kms. They could be equipped with a GPS sensor, which means each drone could be launched in a pre-programmed mission route. If it is not autonomous but controlled from the ground, it would mean the controllers were within a short range from the target area. Given the risks involved, this may be unlikely. It is also possible that some of these drones have electro-optical sensors to enable target reconnaissance.
For quite some time, the BSF and other security agencies have highlighted increasing attempts at using small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), including quadcopters for carrying drugs, small arms, surveillance, and reconnaissance etc. It was only a matter of time before terrorist outfits gained the confidence to use them for executing attacks.
The current incidents may just be a validation of their capabilities, and hence, one can expect more serious attempts in the future.
Fast and Steady Growth of Unmanned Aerial Systems
The possibility of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) becoming very potent tools in the hands of non-state actors, insurgents, and terrorists has been foreseen by many researchers and strategists.
When UAVs became operationally viable over 30 years ago, it was exclusively a military domain and the focus has been on larger platforms of medium and size, designed to operate at medium to high altitudes and with long endurance. They were largely used for surveillance and reconnaissance, with subsequent developments in target acquisition and armed roles.
By 2010, the idea of micro and mini-UAVs for civilian applications developed exponentially. This has led to commercially off-the-shelf availability of inexpensive autonomous drones that can carry a small payload. Operation of these does not require great skill, thus making it an easy and affordable option for non-state actors.
By 2015, insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and terrorist outfits like ISIS began to exploit the advantages of these inexpensive, small, and autonomous drones for their tasks. Autonomous capability is achieved by combining tiny sensors, GPS modules, microprocessors, and digital radios, all of which are commercially available and inexpensive. The natural marriage of IEDs to inexpensive, autonomous drones was inevitable.
The drone attack on the Jammu airbase could be a prelude to mass drone attacks in the future. It was only a matter of time that anti-India terrorist organisations like Let, Jaish-e-Mohammed imitate their partner organisations like ISIS.
What India is Now Faced With: Small Drones and Large Damges
The small size of these drones, materials (largely wood and plastic) used in their construction, their low noise engine etc ensure they produce very small radar signatures making them harder to detect by air defence radars. The adaptation of commercial drones for attack roles is easy.
For example, a commercially available quadcopter that can carry a 100gm sensor can be replaced with a detonating warhead good enough to damage an aircraft skin. A heavier payload in a larger platform is enough to carry a more complex explosive penetrator. The availability of commercial air and space data of less than half-a-meter resolution, with multiple revisit times from CubeSat constellations, will enable the drone to achieve high-precision target attacks.
New technologies such as nano-energetics or nano-explosives can enhance their effectiveness. Non-state actors like the Islamic State have been able to acquire personnel with engineering and technical backgrounds to innovate and create potent asymmetric strategies in the use of cheap and small drones.
Recent research by a Harvard scholar, based on the Islamic State’s data and materials captured in Iraq in 2016, shows a good strategic grasp of the use of drones as well as a high level of planning. They were aware of the power to inflict losses at both tactical and strategic levels. The Islamic State proved this in their extensive use of COTS drones during 2017, including a spectacular attack on an ammunition depot in Deir Ezzar.
The first instance of a mass drone attack was on the Russian airbase Khmeimim in Syria on 6 January 2018 when a swarm of 13 drones attacked the airbase.
The Russian air defence system was able to track these drones. Seven were shot down by their anti-air assets, in this case by Pantsir-S1. Six drones were intercepted and taken control of by Russian electronic warfare assets of which: three landed successfully; three exploded on landing. The attacks came close to delivering a strategic blow to Russian air assets. More than a week earlier on 31 December 2017, the same base had come under attack possibly from two drones. Some fighter aircraft were damaged and two Russian soldiers were killed.
Can India Counter Such Drone Attacks?
Recognition of asymmetric threats that could emerge from the innovative use of small drones by non-state actors and terrorist groups began as early as 2014.
Technology and techniques developed as part of counter-UAS strategies have been underway in leading countries since 2015. Since drones/unmanned aerial systems are heavily dependent on computers and communication systems, they become vulnerable to interference and jamming. Most drones use standard 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies for communication, these channels are easy to jam neutralising their command and control.
Similarly in a swarm, the drone-to-drone communications that are essential, can also be jammed. However, once a drone is autonomous it will need to be physically neutralised.
The main challenge is to detect the drone early enough for neutralisation and mitigation.
Counter-UAS capabilities involve lawfully and safely disabling, disrupting, or seizing control of the drone or the UAS. The detection technologies are based on acoustic, vision, passive radio frequency, radar, and data fusion. Mitigation technologies relate to physical capture or jamming. These capabilities range from using a net to grab a drone out of the sky to ones that can hack a drone forcing it to land to ones that can disable the camera or other sensors of the drone.
The Jammu attack should be a wake-up call for Indian security planners. India will need to acquire counter-UAS capabilities on a wide scale and across the country to deal with this emerging threat.
More importantly, the integration of artificial intelligence, robotics, and swarming drones could transform the very nature of warfare in the future. What could happen if such capabilities fall into the hands of terrorists is well-captured in a short documentary film ‘Slaughterbots’ - where terrorists unleash swarms of tiny drones capable of identifying and killing people.
(Air Marshal M Matheswaran AVSM VM PhD (Retd) is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Currently, he is the President of The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)