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Analysis of Sansad TV Discussion: ”Keeping Drones in Check”

Relevance

”GS 2: Government Policies & Interventions”
”GS 3: Defence Technology”

Introduction

  • From the days of their inception, remotely piloted aero models (known popularly as drones) have been feared as a means of spreading terror.
  • Recently, the use of drones by Yemen’s Houthi rebels has brought those fears to the fore. Experts fear that the drones have given terrorists a near-perfect solution for spreading terror and a major terror act may be around the corner as legal and illegal drone activities are on the rise.
  • Many solutions have been put forth but none are foolproof, and the governments are looking for more reliable and acceptable solutions by seeking answers in technology.
  • No doubt, the potential use of drones in a terrorist incident or attack against critical infrastructure and soft targets is a growing concern for law enforcement agencies worldwide as the availability of drone technology becomes more widespread globally.

What happened in Abu Dhabi?

  • On the morning of January 17, Houthi rebels targeted the Musaffah ICAD 3 area and the new construction area at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
  • The attacks, which led to the explosion of three petroleum tankers, killed two Indians and one Pakistani national and injured six other civilians.
  • The UAE government has ordered to stop all flying operations of private drones and light sports aircraft in the Gulf country for a month.

Global Scenario

  • In the past few years, there have been several cases of drones being used by terrorists for planned and attempted attacks in various parts of the world.
  • India has also witnessed increased rogue drone activity along its Western border with Pakistan in recent years with drones dropping weapons, ammunition and drugs.
  • Drones have also been increasingly used in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, by the US to carry out targeted assassinations.
  • In 2018, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also claimed he survived an assassination attempt involving drones rigged with explosives.
  • In 2020, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the most powerful figure in Iran after its supreme leader, was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq.

History of Drones used by military and terrorists

  • Over the last decade, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are being increasing UAVs range from 250 g (maximum altitude 2,000 ft and range 2 km) to over 150 kg (300,00 ft and unlimited range).
  • In India, the most commonly known drones are quad- and hexacopters used for civil and commercial purposes, and Heron drones used for military surveillance. Different UAVs operate under various technologies ranging from the remote control by a human operator to using GPS and radio frequencies, and autopilot assistance.
  • According to the Association of the US Army (AUSA), the first attempted drone attack by a terror group can be traced to 1994 when Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, used a remote-controlled helicopter to spray sarin gas but failed as the helicopter crashed.
  • In 2013, al-Qaeda attempted an attack in Pakistan using multiple drones but security forces prevented it.
  • The Islamic State has regularly used drones for attacks in Syria and Iraq, while the Taliban has used them for surveillance in Afghanistan.
  • Hezbollah and Houthi rebels too have used them for attacks.
  • In January 2018, a swarm of 13 drones attacked two Russian military bases in Syria.
  • In August 2018, an assassination attempt was made on the President of Venezuela, Nicolãs Maduro, using two IED-carrying GPS-guided drones that exploded during a military ceremony the President was attending.
  • According to AUSA, between 1994 and 2018, more than 14 planned or attempted terrorist attacks took place using drones.
  • These have only increased in the last couple of years.

What’s the Indian experience?

  • In the last few years, India and its enemies have frequently used drone surveillance against each other. The last three years have also seen drones dropping weapons, ammunition and drugs. On May 14, the BSF detected weapons dropped by a suspected Pakistan drone in Jammu. One AK-47 assault rifle, one pistol, one magazine, and 15 rounds for a 9 mm weapon were recovered 250 m inside Indian territory.
  • On June 20 last year, the BSF shot down a drone in Hiranagar, Jammu. The hexacopter’s payload included a US-made M4 semi-automatic carbine, two magazines, 60 rounds and seven Chinese grenades.
  • In recent years there have been an estimated 100-150 sightings of suspected drones near India’s western border annually. Most of these are suspected to be surveillance drones.

How to tackle Drone Attacks?

  • The entire world is struggling with the problem of drone attacks. Conventional radar systems are not meant for detecting small flying objects, and, even if they are calibrated that way, they might confuse a bird for a drone and the system may get overwhelmed.
  • Currently, border forces in India largely use eyesight to spot drones and then shoot them down. It is easier said than done as most rogue drones are very small and operate at heights difficult to target.
  • India has been exploring technologies to detect and disable drones using electromagnetic charges or shoot them down using laser guns.
  • Technology to disable their navigation, interfere with their radio frequency, or just fry their circuits using high energy beams have also been tested. None of these has, however, proven foolproof.
  • One would ideally like to have a tech wall that can disable drones coming from across the border. But drone attacks can be launched from within as well. Then there is the problem of swarm drones, where scores of drones overwhelm and confuse detection systems, resulting in some of the drones sneaking through.

What are the other challenges in tackling small drones?

  • The use of small drones to attack is a “totally different spectrum”. Drones have control and delivery mechanisms, and to counter them, we can counter the control mechanism by jamming or can control the delivery mechanism.
  • It depends on what kind of radar is being used, which is critical for the size of the UAV that needs to be detected.
  • When we have to look at any kind of counter-strategy, it should give us enough warning to positively identify if it is not a bird, to fire. If we are firing, we don’t know what it is carrying.
  • It raises multiple questions, like who (the armed forces or the civilian forces) would be responsible for such mechanisms. It is a sub-tactical threat but requires a strategic response. Entire threat perception has to be relooked.

Does India have anti-drone technology?

  • The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a detect-and-destroy technology for drones, but it is not yet into mass production.
  • The DRDO’s counter-drone System was deployed for VVIP protection at the Republic Day parades in 2020 and 2021, the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech last year, and former US President Donald Trump’s visit to Motera Stadium, Ahmedabad last year.
  • The DRDO system, developed in 2019, has capabilities for hardkill (destroying a drone with lasers) and softkill (jamming a drone’s signals). It has a 360° radar that can detect micro drones up to 4 km, and other sensors to do so within 2 km. Its softkill range is 3 km and its hardkill range is between 150 m and 1 km.
  • It has been demonstrated to various security agencies including at the Hindon Air Force station in January 2020 and National Security Guard Manesar in August 2020 and again in January 2021.

What are India’s plans to use drones in warfare?

  • The armed forces have been slowly inducting capacity. Last year the, Navy got two unarmed Sea Guardian Predator drones on lease from the US. The three forces want 30 of these UAVs between them.
  • The military has been working towards using small drones for offensive capabilities as well.
  • On January 15, during the Army Day parade, the Army showcased its swarm technology, with 75 drones swarming together to destroy simulated targets.
  • Recently on Republic Day eve the sky over Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi lit up with vibrant drone formations.

Way Forward

  • Several private defence contractors, over the years, have begun to offer off-the-shelf anti-drone tech to counter hostile Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones.
  • Companies, predominantly based out of Israel, the US, and even China, have developed anti-drone systems using existing technologies such as radars, frequency jammers, optic and thermal sensors etc.
  • The display of pre-programmed drones destroying a variety of simulated targets is reflective of our seriousness and focus on this emerging technology.
  • The development and advancement of drones technology have provided an alternate method for terrorists and presented them with a near-perfect solution to carry out their malicious intent. The growing sophistication of technology has enabled drones to operate autonomously and carry out an entire spectrum of tasks without human intervention.
  • Modern drones, in the hands of terrorists, could cause considerable panic and damage if not countered adequately. As technology advances, security architects and countries have taken cognizance of this fact and are working on the technological as well as policy fronts to counter it.
  • Given the easy availability of advanced technology to the common man at a reduced cost and the proliferation of
    information via the Internet, this threat will invariably grow. It is essential to ensure that the security measures are set up in time so as to avoid any untoward occurrence or a major catastrophe.

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