Why countering ‘low-tech drone terror’ is going to be a big challenge for India
New Delhi: The drone attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) station in Jammu not only adds a new and deadly dimension to terrorism in India but also exposes chinks in countermeasures, sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint.
Sources said that the terrorists chose the timing of the attack — 1:30 am on 27 June — and the drone carefully to beat multiple layers of security at the Air Force station that is more tuned to counter traditional threats — both on the ground and in air.
“The attack happened around 1:30 (am) when the moon was very bright and would have helped in maneuvering the drone to the spot. The drone is likely to have taken route along the Tawi river as it would have meant less electricity lines running across it. Or it could have flown from the civilian area close to the air station,” a source said.
Another source pointed out that although there are multiple layers of security at the Air Force station, the drone used by terrorists seems to have been smaller in size and modified to carry a small payload of explosives.
“The smaller drones, that are available commercially, are difficult to be spotted at night as the sound is also less. They also fly below radar-capable heights. Moreover, they have very less infra-red or radar signature to be picked up by the traditional air defence systems which are tuned to take care of the larger remotely piloted aircraft (RPA),” thesource said, making a clear military distinction between RPA and drones, which are smaller in size and easily available commercially.
“With multiple layers of security, theoretically we might have a good mechanism in place, but practically it is not, and the latest attack just brings that point to the fore,” a third source said.
‘Paradigm shift’ in terror attacks
Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen D.S. Hooda told ThePrint that the drone attack on the IAF station reflects a paradigm shift in terror tactics.
“We have had routine cases of arms and ammunition being dropped from across Pakistan into our side through drones. So technology was there. If arms can be dropped, so can explosives. The threat is that commercially available drones can be modified and made into a lethal weapon. We need strong countermeasures to tackle this new threat which opens up every garrison to the threat,” Lt Gen Hooda said.
Commander K.P. Sanjeev Kumar, a former Naval test pilot, said that the existing countermeasures or air defence are catered for larger unmanned aerial vehicles.
Kumar — who pitched for measures which involve soft kill techniques, such as jamming of radio frequency and GPS settings, spoofing of navigation links, besides hard kills options like laser directed energy weapons — said the problem was that “we will keep going high-tech and they will go low tech to beat the system.”
India’s countermeasures catered for traditional threat
The mushrooming number of commercially available small drones can be modified to give even small terror groups an aerial combat capability and dominance that is traditionally available to modern air forces, sources said.
Multiple sources ThePrint spoke to confirmed that the Services do not have the complete technology to counter such small drones which have a Radar Cross Section (RSC), a measure of how detectable an object is by radar, of a bird or less.
“If the traditional air defence system is tuned to pick up even small radar signatures, then it will throw up a lot of red flags and will lead to a confusion. Plus smaller drones fly below the radar operating heights,” one of the sources cited above said.
Another source wondered that even if one assumes that the traditional air defence systems like the Israeli Spyder or the Russian OSA-AK detect such small drones, would using them justify the cost.
“The Spyder uses the Derby missiles which cost about USD 2 million a pop. The OSA-AK is one-third the cost but is still very expensive compared to quadcopters and smaller drones which are commercially available,” the source said.
Sources said that the Smash 2000 Plus anti drone system bought by the Navy and under consideration of the Army and the Air Force works on the line of human eye contact with the drone and not based on any other radar, radio, or IR frequency.
Sources added that all Mi-17V5 and older Mi-17 choppers are cleared for anti-RPA roles. But this is primarily to shoot down spotted drones as they carry Light Machine Gun in the cargo compartment.
Similarly, the Apache attack helicopters can be used for anti-RPA roles. Among the air defence systems, the Sypder is the most potent anti-RPA weapon.
Asked what happens in the case of smaller drones or quadcopters, which are much less than the military-grade RPAs, one of the sources cited above explained that OSA-AK can be used. But first, the incoming drone has to be visually located through the CCTV of the air defence system. Even then it has certain restrictions of operations depending on what time the system is being used, he said.