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In future wars, drones and counter-drones would be key

BSF shoots down Pakistan drone bring arms and drugs (IANS)

Pakistan’s use of drones for air-dropping arms and ammunitions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and smuggling narcotics into Punjab is turning out to be a major challenge for Indian defence and security forces.

Speaking at a seminar at the Aero India 2021, the Border Security Force (BSF) chief revealed that in 2019 there were as many as 167 Pakistani drone intrusions into the Indian airspace, and 77 drone incursions were detected across the Line of Control (LoC) last year. These drones are controlled from forward border observation posts by the Pakistani rangers; many of these are shot down by Indian security forces but a few do manage to get away. Although the number of drones in Pakistan Army’s inventory is not known, in December 2020 China announced sale of 50 Wing Loong II armed drones.

Drones are fast emerging as the platform of choice for the militaries across the globe. These sub-conventional aerial platforms possess significant operational and stealth attributes and can carry a variety of payloads such as explosives, high-definition cameras and electronic sensors. They can be launched and recovered in different terrains which adds to operational flexibility and can fly low at good speed thereby offering stealth and surprise.

Perhaps the most stellar use of drones in recent times was during the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The conflict showcased that legacy air strike and missile launches may soon be giving way to low-cost substitutes such as drones particularly for smaller countries that cannot afford a classic air force. It was also the clearest evidence that airspace over battlefields could be deluged with small aerial platforms and adversely impact military strategy and degrade tactical advantage.

Read more: Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict highlights Pakistan drone threat to India

Earlier in 2019, over two dozen drones in multiple waves from multiple directions had attacked Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia completely defeating the powerful Saudi air defences including the potent Patriot and Crotale surface to air missiles.

Drones are also popular among non-state actors who see these as a low-cost solution for sabotage and interference. In 2018, drones strapped with small rockets attempted to attack the Hmeimim air base, Latakia and Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. The Russian air defences successfully shot down many of these and a few were successfully crash landed by using electronic warfare and jamming systems.

The lethality of drones increases by multiple times when these are operated in swarms. The concept of ‘swarm drones’ is inspired by bees or locusts which fly long distances in indefinite groups, unlimited in size and number, and apparently without colliding. ‘Swarm drones’ are programmed to follow very simple commands that do not require advanced computers and sensors, and therefore their collective numbers could be of the order of hundreds and potentially thousands, which can conjure a lethal force on the battlefield.

The possibility of drones themselves serving as weapons in the form of anti-drone platforms is not beyond imagination. This could be done by hijacking and taking control of unidentified drones and marshalling them to collide with other drones or even crashing them by using non-kinetic ways.

China is a leader of the commercial drone industry and has also showcased its prowess in swarm drone technologies by launching hundreds of drones in the air and ‘making them dance’ to a mesmerized audience. Likewise, a Chinese company has demonstrated swarm operations involving 56 small unmanned boats. These are good examples which illustrate Chinese capability, and it is not beyond imagination that these anodyne displays of AI enabled platforms can be quickly armed with ammunitions/explosives and serve as a deterrent against a force with unequal combat advantage.

Counter-drone technologies are gaining importance among militaries due to increased 'security breach incidences' and the fear of small and weaponised drone swarms emerging as tools of warfare. Militaries see these systems as part of their tactical warfare tool kit. Significantly, the demand for counter-drone technologies is growing rapidly.

While the military drone market is set to grow in value from US$ 7.93 billion to US$ 21.76 billion between 2018 and 2026 at a CAGR of 12.4%, the anti-drone market is  expected to grow from US$ 342.6 million in 2016 to US$ 1,571.3 million by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.9 per cent.

The Indian Drone & Counter-Drone cumulative market potential up to 2030 is estimated at US$ 40 billion or INR 300,000 crore. Apparently, Bharat Electronics is developing an anti-drone radar-based system which is undergoing trials. Meanwhile, at the Start-up Manthan on the sidelines of Aero India 2021, the Indian Ministry of Defence announced the selection of several defence related projects, including smart loitering munitions and underwater swarm drones among others, for development by startups as part of Atma Nirbhar programme to promote indigenous military technologies.

(Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.)