The use of drones by non-state actors had reached an alarming landmark in 2019 itself, when the Turkish drones and Chinese manufactured drones were used by two opposing sides to aerially attack each other during Libya’s civil war.
By Milind Kulshreshtha
World over, drones are finding a steady application with the military forces for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions and as precision-guided munitions for air-operations. Remarkably, drones too are gaining popularity with extremist organizations and for covert operations by adversaries. The use of drones by non-state actors had reached an alarming landmark in 2019 itself, when the Turkish drones and Chinese manufactured drones were used by two opposing sides to aerially attack each other during Libya’s civil war. Later, in Sept 2019 itself, the ARAMCO oil refinery in Saudi Arabia was attacked using unknown drones.
Rapidly developing threat scenarios with an innovative use of new tools and gadgets like drones for efficiently carrying out covert operations by state and non-state actors is a reality today. The weaponized drones are the most cost-effective solutions and have potent lethality, making it a popular means to stealthily deliver explosives through the undetected aerial routes. Drones are versatile multi-role aerial units which can be launched from hills, jungles, deserts or from the sea. A weaponized drone in a how-so-ever basic form when in the possession of a non-state actor is a cause of concern.
Possible Mechanism of Jammu Drone Attack
Various configurations of drones are used in military operations as per their suitability for the mission. By nature of propeller configurations, drones are classified either as rotary drones (hover/move like a helicopter) and fixed-wing drones (which work on aerodynamic principles similar to a remote-controlled plane). The rotary drones are further categorized as Quadcopter, Hexa-copter or Octa-copter as per number of propeller sets. The fixed wing drones could be launched from a small flat runway, catapult or hand-launched. A combination of fixed wing and rotary drone is called a Hybrid drone, which has a vertical take-off of rotary drones and once in air, cruises like a fixed-wing drone.
The specific details of the Jammu drone attack are expected to emerge after the thorough internal investigation being conducted by the Governmental agencies. As reported in the public media, the aerial distance of the attack point from the international border in the West is only approximately 14 Km, and this distance can be covered by any commercial rotary or a fixed-wing drone. Further, the remote activation of detonation is feasible from these ranges reported. This makes it possible that the attack was carried out by a pair of ‘kamikaze’ drones, the drones which crash into the target locations along with the explosive payload. On the other hand, it is possible that the two separate explosives were dropped by an overhead drone (or drones).
Fixed Wing Drones
Usually, for long range missions, the fixed-wing drones are preferred since they have longer flight endurance capabilities (like more than one hour flight time etc.) when compared to the rotary drones. They too have an ability to recover from a power loss, whereas a sudden loss of power in a multirotor can result in complete loss of the drone in an enemy territory. However, a fixed-wing drone is able to continue flying and land safely without power. These drones are designed to ensure that the propeller noise is usually inaudible on ground when flying above 100m altitude.
The fixed wing drone usually picks up altitude after the initial take-off, so as to avoid detection. The fixed-wing flight path trajectory for such a stealth operation is usually to glide the drone closer to the target so that propeller noise does not reveal its presence. Every drone attacker prefers that the drone is not captured to avoid any details of the originator and, therefore, either crashes the drone along with the detonation or, after the payload has been dropped, the drone is recovered for a safe landing within friendly territory. Such drones also have the default Return-to-Home (RTH) feature in-built so that in case of technical glitch, the drone traces back the waypoints to return and land at the original spot of launch. Such features are already common in the high-end commercial drones also and makes these drones capable of covert operations.
Though the exact nature of drone used is not known yet, but as per what is known in the drone industry, use of a low flying fixed wing UAV cannot be ruled out here since a rotary drone makes enough buzz at lower altitudes to alert the guard sentries in the silence of the night. Further, a rotary wing drone-under-control is less likely to miss a target since it can be always guided to the exact point using the precise ground spatial resolution image continuously fed back to the handlers till the last stages of the mission. Probably, uncontrolled impact detonator explosives were dropped using fixed-wing drones but the planned targets were missed.
The exploitation of innovative technology for extremism makes it imperative to not only prepare for the last known attack methods but also to anticipate new forms of threats. While well-known terrorism techniques like small-scale attacks in public areas using IEDs or car bomb have been well handled through physical means, regular border troops find themselves limited when it comes to countering advanced drone attacks due to lack of specialized equipment and training. Nowadays, even consumer grade small drones armed with triggered explosives or grenades can be used for covert missions to attack India. Regular drone attacks are a reality in this era and future scenarios like AI driven attacks by ‘swarms of killer drones’ shall only make the challenge more complex to handle.
However, the inability to defend assets and international borders against drone attacks leaves the experts guessing on the appreciation of the serious threat the drones pose in regular and irregular warfare. The import of anti-drone systems may not be a quick-fix solution here since the nature of India’s threat is unique to the geography and adversaries. The local R&D organisation are producing anti-drone systems which are maybe enough to ‘show-case’ lab-trials as success criterion, but are ineffective in the field where it matters the most. The drones as part of asymmetric warfare are here to stay and drone incursions shall only grow more complex in the due course. Despite such an awareness, there is a lack of robust solutions to counter any future drone strikes emanating from within the borders or, from across the borders. Drone experts believe that the recent unsuccessful Jammu drone attack is just the beginning. The Defence forces have to be lucky every time, whereas the terrorists only once.
(The author is a Strategic Analyst and C4I specialist who designed the first ‘kamikaze’ weaponized drones in India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)