Flying Terror: India’s new Achilles’ Heel
India has been hit by terrorism since a long time, like 1993 Bombay blast, attack on Parliament in 2011, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Pathankot attacks etc. The technology of today, while impressive, is developing the tactics and techniques of future terrorist attacks. The most prescient current technology that will enable future terrorist attacks is the drone. Drones have the ability of providing standoff, which can enable terrorists to conduct multiple attacks nearly simultaneously, rapidly magnifying their overall effect. A terrorist attack is meant to create an atmosphere of fear to influence a target audience—a civilian population or government—to force or impose political change. The massive increase in the number of form factors, capabilities, ease of access and ease of operation of drones at low cost will make them the weapon of choice for future terrorists.
Accordingly, for the first time, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)-mounted explosives have been used to target an Indian Air Force (IAF) base. Explosives were dropped by two UAVs close to a Mi-17 hanger late last night. Such was the intensity of one blast that it punched a hole into the concrete roof of a building close to the hanger.
Both the Jammu & Kashmir Police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) are probing the terror strike. It is still unclear whether the UAV came from across the India-Pakistan border or was it guided from a building or an elevated point close to the IAF base in Jammu. But the terror strike marks a paradigm shift in grey-zone warfare. One cannot fathom now that the future enemy attacks can be stalled by high perimeter walls, barbed wire and sentry posts. From a safe distance, the enemy can launch an attack from a stand-off distance. Some drones can fly up to 20 kilometres, carrying a couple of kilograms of payload — from pizzas to bombs — and there are unmanned combat aerial vehicles that can fly thousands of kilometres with an endurance of two days and can carry rockets and missiles.
Drones have emerged as a new security threat across the world and analysts had long feared it could be used by terrorists to launch attacks in India too. It is a matter of concern that despite a drone attack being a known threat, ample security measures did not appear to have been put in place and a drone could drop explosives at a high-security establishment like the Air Force Station at Jammu.
Islamic State and Iran-based militias have been using drones to carry out attacks in Iraq. In 2019, drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels had hit two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia that had damaged facilities that processed a vast majority of the country’s crude output.
In a recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the former have used drones to defeat Armenia. Azerbaijan used the armed drones bought from Israel and Turkey to hit Armenia military assets to devastating effect, which crippled its air defence system, tanks, artillery guns and its armed forces.
Indian Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane summed up the challenges faced by the securirty forces in India and said that the easy availability of drones allowed both state and non-state actors to use them, increasing the complexity of challenges faced by the security forces. Highlighting the easy availability of devices such as the ones used in Jammu on June 27 — and several other drones seen and repelled in the region’s Kaluchak area over the past week — he said that building drones was akin to a “DIY project that could be tackled at home”. The attack was the first-ever offensive use of drones to target an Indian military facility.
“Drones will increasingly be used in all sorts of combat in future by state and non-state actors. We will have to factor it in our future planning,” the army chief said at a seminar organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council, a think tank. Steps are being taken to counter the drone threat, he added.
In recent years, with the emergence of new terrorist organizations like ISIS, Boko Haram etc. terrorism has become a competitive industry. Like mafia organizations, where one-upmanship is often based on who has the most guns, money or local power, terrorist groups too have a pecking order.
The current competitive market in terrorism means that groups are trying to distinguish each other through the practice of more memorable violence (like the Charlie Hebdo attacks or the Peshawar attacks in December 2014). They need to do so because this is the only way in which they can be heard, become popular enough to attract recruits and distinguish themselves from other similar groups. In order to do so the terrorist groups are trying to out-do each other in the intensity and scope of violence and bloodshed they can cause so that more people can identify with them and join them. For example- while some years back, Al-Qaeda was the most dreaded terrorist group of the world, this position has now been overtaken by ISIS. One of the reasons for this can be because ISIS encourages lone-wolf attacks which are easier for its followers to carry out without actually travelling to join the group to fight in combat.
Various terrorist organizations are also in competition with each other to get control of various natural resources such as oil reserves in Middle East countries, cultivation of Opium, arms dealing etc.
Competition over establishing their ideologies all around the world has also instigated terrorist organization for example multiple groups are fighting with each other in Syria. So in recent time terrorism has become a competitive industry that has spread its influence all over the world and slowly spreading its tentacles in India too.
Problems and Solutions
Incoming small drones are hard to detect, and expensive to interdict. Perhaps more importantly, unlike Fidayeen suicide-squad operations from 26/11 to the Pathankot Air Force base attack and the strike on the 12 Brigade’s headquarters in Uri, they do not need Pakistani nationals to be directly used. This lowers the risk of exposure and international condemnation.
Although technological means exist to trace the drones’ route—especially if they were GPS-guided—it is entirely possible they were released by jihadists already on the Indian side of the Line of Control, adding a further layer of deniability for Pakistan. As per a report on moneycontrol.com, “the idea of using unmanned aerial platforms to deliver lethal ordnance had been around for generations. In the summer of 1849, the Austrian artillery officer Franz von Uchatius had sought to attack forces besieging Vienna using hot air balloons fitted with 15 kg. timed explosive charges. Winds, however, ruined the plan.
In 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigations discovered Lahore-born Maryland resident Ali Asad Chandia, helped the Lashkar-e-Taiba purchase drones, night-vision equipment and wireless video-cameras for the Lashkar. Those drones, however, seem to have been intended for surveilling infiltration routes, not delivering ordnance.”
Ever since 2015, anti-drone systems have come to be deployed by military forces in many parts of the world, including India. The technologies include radio-frequency jammers which can sever communications between drones and their handlers, as well as spoofed Global Positioning System signals, that fool guidance systems into believing they are in locations other than where they actually are.
Lasers and electromagnetic pulses fired from directed-energy weapons can destroy critical circuitry on drones; there are also less exotic weapons, like cannon firing slowly-descending nets.
The problem with these technologies is simple: their high cost, and the low cost of over-running these defences by swarms of incoming drones. There’s simply no tech-fix that can protect all of India’s 740-kilometre Line of Control, leave alone the 3,200-kilometre border with Pakistan, against drones. Inside Kashmir itself, there are hundreds of potential targets, from military convoys to force headquarters.
In most cases, Government sources told Network18, the drones are too small to be detected by military radar, designed to spot large, conventional aircraft and missiles. Flown high, and descending just short of their target, the drones cannot even be heard by ground troops; guards stationed around Jammu airport’s perimeter could not detect the incoming assault. According to the IAF, radars can detect some military drones but not small quadcopters. There are special Kurf radars for smaller, slower flying UAVs but the effort so far has been to educate troops on ground and police to identify the threat and then neutralise it.
Keeping our assets safe is the biggest challenge for security forces. Fighter jets can be kept in blast pens but radars and multiple other assets remain exposed to the threat from the skies. Therefore at sensitive Bases on the basis of threat perception, specialised radars, lasers and anti aircraft guns will have to be deployed. There are guns with a high rate of fire — 4,600 rounds a minute — to neutralise incoming threat. Lasers can destroy the target in the sky. Drones in the hands of terror groups can be lethal and Indian security forces need to think seriously about this. Today, forget about military assets, a lone wolf can now effectively target civilian assets like Schools, Hospitals and public gatherings too resulting in damage and spread terror.
The rapid popularisation of drones for average consumers and businesses has created a market that will continue to drive the technological improvement of drones for the foreseeable future. Improvements will extend to sizes, form factors, energy storage, techniques for propulsion, sensors and the ability to utilize and integrate advanced computer capabilities. Collectively, these improvements will increase the range, lifting capacity and overall capabilities of drones, making them both more lethal and more difficult to counter.
Current commercial uses for aerial drones include inspection of roofs with thermal cameras, surveying large areas (such as agricultural fields, or acting in response to disasters), chemical application on agricultural fields, product delivery, photography, videography and drone racing, to name a few. Non-commercial uses can include all of the above, as well as personal use by hobbyists. Not surprisingly, each of these uses can be modified to support terrorist actions.
Terrorist groups have already begun to use aerial drones to conduct and coordinate attacks. As these groups learn lessons from previous attacks, most notably the Islamic State’s use of drones during military operations in Mosul, they will continue to adapt. The rapid improvements in drone technology and its increasing capabilities will provide terrorist groups with multiple new avenues to sow fear. The ability of a small group or individual to conduct multiple simultaneous attacks, at a relatively low cost and with significant standoff distance, will lead to the use of drones as a primary tactic of future terrorist attacks. The advantage is with the attacker; expensive counter systems for drones can be defeated with the addition or removal of specific onboard systems or a change in modality. Terrorists have already begun to experiment with the use of drones in their attacks—it would only take one high-profile attack for all terrorist groups to realize and exploit this technology.
By Nilabh Krishna