Decoded | Use of drones for terrorism

Pushed through in public imagination by Hollywood films and successfully used for terrorism by the Islamic State, drone terror attack made its entry in India in the early hours of Sunday.

Two explosions took place at the Air Force Station in Jammu. No casualty was reported. But it is a major security breach and gen-next security challenge for India.

Indian security personnel and technology are not fully equipped to neutralise drone terror attacks. It is a work in progress. Let’s decode the use of drones for terrorism.

Read | Why the Jammu airbase attack is worrying

What is a drone?

Till a few years ago, drone principally referred to a stingless male bee whose only role was to mate with the queen bee in a highly stratified honeycomb society. But thanks to bio-mimicking by engineers and scientists, drone now refers to an unpiloted aircraft or spacecraft.

A drone is also called an “unmanned aerial vehicle” or UAV. So, simply put, a drone is a flying robot.

What is the use of drones?

Drones are essentially a military tool as they eliminate the risk on a pilot’s life in combat zones, and since they are unmanned, they don't require fatigue-induced rest, making them fly till fuel lasts or until some mechanical problems crop up.

Drones are now used for various purposes from delivery of merchandise, taking photographs or shooting videos to military warfare and space exploration.

The US military made the first big demonstration of the military use of drones in the 1991 Gulf War. It deployed UAVs to target its enemy forces.

In space, the US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane, which has made at least six clandestine forays into space, is perhaps the most-talked-about drone.

How drones became a tool of terror?

The Association of the United States Army (AUSA) in February 2021 published a report titled, The Role of Drones in Future Terrorist Attacks. Here, the AUSA said the Islamic State made the first successful use of drones for terrorism.

It cited a Washington Post article that said, “In ­August 2014, the terrorist group [Islamic State] began using drones to gather battlefield intelligence and to document the effects of suicide bombings, often broadcasting the videos online to bolster morale, according to the report by ­MEMRI [Middle East Media Research Institute, a non-profit press monitoring and analysis organisation].”

“Occasionally the group would strap an explosive onto a small drone and try to land it near a military outpost, as it happened in October when a booby-trapped toy aircraft exploded as Kurdish fighters were examining it near the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.”

Earlier in 2013, Al-Qaeda attempted a terror attack using multiple drones in Pakistan without success. From 2016 on, the Islamic State made drone attacks a regular feature in its operations in Iraq and Syria.

The threat was so serious that in 2019, European Union Security Commissioner Julian King warned that European cities could be targeted by terror groups using drones.

Besides the Islamic State, the Hezbollah — active in Palestine and Lebanon, the Houthi rebels, the Taliban and several terror outfits in Pakistan are known to employ drones for terrorism.

How serious is the threat of drone attacks from Pakistan?

The threat of drone attacks from the Pakistani side is very real. Sighting of drones near India-Pakistan border and the Line of Control (LoC) has been frequent. Some of them have carried weapons to the Indian side.

In 2019, security personnel reported 167 sighting of drones from Pakistan, according to the official figures. In the pandemic hit 2020, there were 77 sightings.

In September 2019, the Punjab Police had seized a drone-dropped arms consignment to bust a terror module, which was receiving supplies from Pakistan. The seizure included AK-47 rifles and China-made pistols.

Another drone-dropped arms consignment was seized in Punjab’s Gurdaspur in June 2020. The same month, the Border Security Force (BSF) shot down a drone in the Hira Nagar sector of Jammu. The recoveries included the US-made M4 rifles.

In January 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir Police caught two persons as they were picking up drone-dropped arms consignment.

Does Pakistan have such developed drone technology?

Pakistan does not have indigenous drone-making factories in abundance. But Pakistan and terrorist outfits operating from Pakistan get drones easily from China, which is the number-1 drone-maker in the world. Seized consignments dropped by Pakistan-sent drones often have arms and ammunition made in China.

Why preventing drone terror attack is difficult?

The surveillance technology including radar systems that India has deployed at the borders or lines of control is meant for tracking bigger objects, helicopters, planes and missiles.

Drones are smaller in size — as small as 2 feet or only 60 cm — than previously popular UAVs but can fly for several kilometres at a speed ranging from 125 kmph to over 950 kmph, according to the AUSA report.

Preventing drone attacks requires jamming of drone systems and shooting them down. Laser-based Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) are being talked about as a defence system against drone attacks.

In India, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed two anti-drone DEW systems. They can use powerful 10-kilowatt laser to engage aerial targets at a distance of 2 km. However, mass production of these systems is yet to take place.

What's a drone?

  • Drone is a flying robot
  • It can click photos and also drop bombs.

What are drones used for?

  • Drones are used in both civilian and military fields
  • US used drones to drop bombs in 1991 Gulf War
  • US Air Force’s X-37B space plane is a drone.

Drone for terror

  • In 2013, Al-Qaeda attempted drone attacks in Pakistan but failed
  • In 2014, Islamic State used drones in Iraq and Syria
  • Islamic State, Hezbollah, and Pakistan-based terror groups use drones for terrorism

Drone attack threat from Pakistan

  • In 2019, India reported 167 drone sightings
  • In 2020, there were 77 drone sightings along border, LoC
  • Punjab Police seized drone-dropped arms in 2019
  • In June 2020, seizures made in Punjab, Jammu
  • In January 2021, J&K Police held 2 receiving drone delivery of arms

Why drones are difficult to detect?

  • Surveillance and radar systems are meant for larger objects
  • Drones could be as small as 2 feet in size
  • Laser-based Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) are being developed
  • DRDO has made two DEWs but mass production is yet to begin 



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