The Indian Armed Forces have been deploying UAVs for three decades now — mostly for surveillance. Even looking at futuristic drone-attack scenarios, the technology to counter them is in place, but some gaps need to be filled.
The June 27 attack by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) commonly called drones, on the IAF station in Jammu and the subsequent sighting of more such aerial intruders in nearby places, have the appearance of probing movements to test the efficacy of delivering destructive payloads from safe havens across the border.
The damage to structures and personnel was minimal in the IAF attack; but to neglect it for this reason, may be unwise. The incidents probably established for their faceless perpetrators that lethal loads could be delivered by low flying platforms like drones, escaping radar surveillance. And the distance to the border, of less than 15 km, was within the capability of small drones one can even purchase from e-commerce sites. A next possible attack could be the real thing — larger craft, flying faster, carrying a bigger destructive payload and better on-board navigation for precision delivery.
Is India Prepared?
The Indian armed services have been deploying drones since the mid-1990s, mainly for surveillance and intelligence gathering. They were early customers of the Israeli company IAI’s “Searcher” UAVs, which typically travelled in a radius of 18 km, at 200 km per hour and carried a payload of around 70 kg; mostly radar and camera equipment.
But it is known that the Indian Army also deploys IAI’s “Heron” drones which are designed to carry munitions.
The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has been mandated with developing indigenous capability in military drones for almost a decade. Its flagship is the “Rustom” drone. In October 2020 it was reported that Rustom-II successfully completed key trials, flying at a height of 16,000 feet. Now renamed “TAPAS BH-201” (for Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance), the drone has been tested with a 350 kg payload, with an endurance of 8 hours and a range of 1000 km.
Private players like L&T, Godrej Aerospace and Tata Power-Strategic Engineering Division, are known to be bidding to transfer the technology and bulk-manufacture TAPAS.
One Indian private player has gone it alone: The Navi Mumbai-based IdeaForge has developed a fixed wing, long range (15 km), surveillance and security UAV, named “Switch”, tested for extreme environmental conditions with a 6.5 kg payload that can be tailored for anti-terror, counter insurgency and border security operations. In January, IdeaForge received an order worth Rs 148 crore from the Indian Army for the supply of undisclosed quantities of a high-altitude variant of the “Switch” drone.
Recent procurement actions of the Armed Forces point to the strategic thinking that drones could play a role in conventional battlefield scenarios. The Army has floated tenders for fixed wing drones to operate over a distance of 100 km and with an endurance of 4 hours and with 30 kg payloads.
Another tender speaks for the Army’s interest in, and awareness of, a new and emerging role for drones — the so-called Drone Swarm. This has drones in a cluster of 12, with a radius of 7.5 km.
Such swarms would typically be sent ahead of conventional forces, to attack enemy tanks, fuel dumps etc.
The Bangalore-based New Space Research and Technologies has partnered with the Army to develop these drones. The high-end of offensive drone technology comes with the “Reaper” or “Predator”: a class of Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles or UACVs which typically have a range close to 2000 km, can carry missiles and reach speeds in excess of 400 km per hour.
Made by General Atomics, a division of the US-based Honeywell corporation, these drones have seen wide international deployment by the US, France, Germany — and are known to have been leased in small numbers by Indian defence services. In the light of recent developments, this could well translate into a quick acquisition of this class of long-range hunter-killer drone to plug any perceived gaps in the country’s defence arsenal.
When it comes to defence against drones, India appears prepared. The Defence Research and Development Organisation has indigenously developed a portable anti-drone system that offers a combo of detection and destruction. It involves jamming an incoming drone’s communication systems , when it is still around 3 km — then destroying it with a laser beam if it penetrates to 1.5 km. These portable units were deployed in Delhi at Red Fort on Independence Day 2020 and earlier, in February 2020, along the route during US President Donald Trump’s India visit.
To cover a wider swathe, what are known as drone defence domes can be created. These combine integrated meshed networks, multiple honeycombed cells and artificial intelligence. Such domes can cover 1,000 sq km or more. A Hyderabad-based company, Grene Robotics has developed what it claims is India’s first-wide area autonomous Drone Defence Dome — “Indrajaal” — which works against UAVS as well as other incoming munitions.
Rifle-Based Drone Killer
For the type of small drone increasingly seen to be intruding in the western border states, which escapes conventional radar-based detection, more basic technology is called for. A leading weapon in this arena is the Israeli-made Smash — a fire control system and optical sight that can be latched-on to an AK47 or similar infantry weapon.
This helps the operator to line up on the incoming drone when it is around 120-150 metres away and to destroy it. In December 2020, the makers announced having received an order for the latest Smash 2000 Plus from the Indian navy. In the wake of the Jammu incidents, the Army is widely expected to arm itself with this defence.
The developments reviewed above, suggest that India has a well-crafted strategy to address this latest technological innovation, that has morphed into a key weapon in the arsenal of today’s asymmetric warfare, practised by irregular armies.
There is enough evidence that conventional forces could ignore the danger posed by drones only at their peril.