As crude drones change the nature of terror, India needs to prepare better
The fact that drones made from scrap and duct-tape carrying improvised explosive devices are able to damage conventional aircraft on ground, worth millions of dollars, brought forward a new set of challenges for defence policymakers
The attack on an Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Jammu, reportedly conducted using crude drones not far from the Line of Control with Pakistan, highlights the introduction of a new phase of threats faced by India’s military installations. The writing was on the wall, of asymmetric warfare eventually finding its feet in the volatile Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) region as well.
In 2018, Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia in Syria, operated largely by Russia, came under attack by drones. The attack gave a view of the proliferation of this technology, usually synonymous with United States’s counterterror policies, led by the silhouette of the infamous MQ-9 Reaper, as a weapon that was now accessible to terror groups as well. The Hmeimim attack is closest to what happened in Jammu, as Russian jets and other equipment placed at the Syrian base reportedly faced significant damage in the attack. Moscow claimed it had taken down some of the drones using a mixture of short-range anti-aircraft missiles and radio jammers.
However, the fact that drones made from scrap and duct-tape carrying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were able to damage conventional aircraft on ground, worth millions of dollars, brought forward a new set of challenges for defence policymakers.
The history of drones in the hands of militant and terror groups can be traced back to the villages of Syria between 2013 and 2015 when well-educated and technology-savvy fighters from Europe and beyond joined the then fledging Islamic State (IS) juggernaut, bringing with them the ideas of how to have an air wing. This began first with drones made from scratch, using scrap found in the war zones of Syria and Iraq, and then modifying commercially available quadcopters to carry IEDs and other similar explosives.
During the height of IS’s run, quadcopters used for shooting film or sport, purchased from everyday electronics shops from around the world, made their way into Syria and Iraq via smugglers. In fact, according to Conflict Armament Research, a drone purchased in India in August 2016, and activated in the United Kingdom in October of the same year, was eventually found in Tal Afar, northern Iraq, a few miles from the then IS stronghold of Mosul. Later that year, IS had claimed that its fleet of drones had killed or wounded 39 Iraqi soldiers in a one-week period. And beyond the kinetic effects, many IS drone attacks were also recorded by on-board cameras, providing fodder for the group’s tremendous online propaganda outreach.
However, there are caveats in deciphering the threat perceptions. While the successful use of Turkey-manufactured Bayraktar TB2 drones by Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year did present a significant upscaling of use of drones in warfare, it cannot be compared to the Jammu incident. The Azeri–Armenia war was conventional, between states, and the Bayratkar drones are designed outrightly for military purposes and are not crude drones. This comparison, often used in Indian public discourse, needs course correction.
The use of crude drones over the past years has only escalated. In 2019, reports suggested even Maoists had used a drone to conduct surveillance over a paramilitary camp in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. From attacks on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the Yemen war to an assassination attempt against Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro in 2018 using exploding drones, the proliferation of this technology, balancing itself between civilian and military use, has already become a challenge.
The threat of asymmetric warfare such as crude drones from an Indian perspective is not new. In fact, the air force chief highlighted rogue drones as a risk in December 2020. This should have already been factored into base protection and response. While technology itself is at the core of a response, Jammu is a reminder that technologies themselves are not exclusive to a military or a State anymore.
Kabir Taneja is fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, and the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia
The views expressed are personal