by Gp. Cap. Anupam Banerjee (r.), Senior Consultant – SIDM
The early morning hours of 27th June 2021 can be marked as that single moment in time, when the concept of security and protection of our Vital Areas (VAs) and Vital Points (VPs) got poised to undergo a permanent change. The unprecedented attack on the Jammu Airbase definitely served as a means to draw attention to how commercial drones, which are easily accessible, can pose a very serious challenge to our VA/VP protection.
The threat posed by rogue drones to civil/military targets in the last few years has generated enormous interest globally. Latest technology and constant development in this field is making these systems more potent with each passing day.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as Drones, were used innovatively for the first time by Israel, during the Arab-Israeli War of 1982 – employing small UAVs for intelligence gathering. In 2001, the advent of Armed Drones ushered the second revolution in UAV technology. Advancement in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is pioneering the current revolution with regard to these systems.
The parallel progress in UAV and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology now allows the collaborative operation of multiple UAVs for offensive missions. This ability to operate multiple UAVs via a single operator, and to undertake diverse missions while simultaneously avoiding accidents caused by collisions in a dense airspace environment, is truly a game-changer.
Weapons that can possibly be delivered by these low cost drones include – explosives, chemical agents such as gases and aerosols, radioactive substances, and biological contaminants, among others.
As a precursor to the Tokyo subway gas attack of 1995; in the early 1990s, the Japanese doomsday cult – Aum Shinrikyo, or Aleph, made an unsuccessful attempt to release the nerve agent Sarin using remote-controlled helicopters equipped with aerial spray systems. Further, Narcotics and Arms can be ferried across the borders using drones. A few such incidents in our western borders, have already come to light in the recent past.
The list of events demonstrating the broad extent and scope of the threat posed by small and low flying UAVs in recent years is quite extensive. On 9th January 2018, 13 unmanned aircraft system (UAS) platforms attacked Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base and Tartus Naval Facility in Latakia Governorate. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, ten of the drones attacked the Khmeimim Air Base, while three attacked the Tartus Naval Facility. The drones used improvised air-dropped munitions during the attacks, with ten drones carrying ten munitions each.
Another drone attack caused chaos at a military ceremony in Venezuela on 4th August 2018, where President Nicolás Maduro was speaking. He had a very narrow escape. On 14th September 2019, Saudi Arabia suffered a deadly attack on its Aramco oil facilities when a small army of drones attacked two major oil plants, destroying nearly 50 per cent of the country’s storage of global supply of crude oil. The extensive use of drones during the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict of 2020, and the attack on International Airports in Saudi Arabia this year are also fresh in our memories. These attacks demonstrated the colossal disruptive potential possessed by Armed Drones.
These developments have accelerated the urgency to develop Anti-Drone systems around the world. The Anti-Drone system mechanism comprises mainly of five activities – Detection, Identification, Tracking, Neutralization, and Destruction; by either Kinetic or Non-Kinetic means.
Developments in the field of drone swarms have added to these technology needs manifold. The challenge for designers is to develop a system that could detect multiple rogue slow-moving Drones operating at very low levels, including between obstacles and buildings in urban areas; track their movements; and neutralise & destroy them with either the soft or the hard kill option.
Existing air defence systems like anti-aircraft artillery guns, anti-aircraft surface to air missile systems etc., were optimized for destroying fast and large hostile combat aircraft. However, they are not ideally suited for detecting and neutralising slow-moving, smaller Drones, in the most cost-effective manner.
Therefore, new systems with effective technology are being infused to neutralise or destroy these threats. Effective detection of such small aerial platforms needs specially designed programmable phased array radars, as owing to the nature of the threat, and a very similar signature to birds, conventional radars will not be effective, and the user will have to programme the parameters to get the most optimum result. Also – Radio Frequency (RF), Acoustic, Electro-Optical (EO) and Infra-Red (IR) sensors, are at various stages of development as effective options.
It needs to be understood that all these detection systems will have their own inherent limitations, and may not give optimal results in a stand-alone mode. They will have to be used in conjunction with each other for better results.
The neutralisation of these threats also have several hard and soft kill options, including – RF Spoofing of the command link between the Operator and the Drone, and denial of GPS signals in case the drone operates in an autonomous mode, factored into the options by developers. High powered microwave systems are also considered to damage the electrical circuits by some. Directed Energy Weapon systems like Laser Guns are the currently available hard kill options. Innovative solutions like Armed Drones that will explode in the vicinity of rogue drones, and Net Guns that will arrest these drones are also being explored by some developers.
Looking at the complexity involved in the detection, identification and neutralisation of these threats; coupled with the easy availability the concerns of the Indian security establishment are not misplaced. India is a known target of Global Militant Organisations, that are helped and funded by our hostile neighbours. Possession and Utilisation of Drones by these organisations after the recent attacks is now a confirmed scenario, and the situation demands immediate and serious attention.
The Indian Armed Forces indicated their intent to develop or acquire Anti-Drone capability in the Technology and Capability Perspective Roadmap-2018 (TPCR) issued by the Headquarters, Integrated Defence Staff. The TPCR seeks the development of anti-RPA defence systems (RF inhibition), consisting of – electronic scanning radar target detection, EO tracking/classification and directional RF inhibition. (https://www.mod.gov.in/sites/default/files/tpcr.pdf). The proposed Qualitative Requirements (QRs) for all the Counter Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) systems sought in the TPCR are ambitious, as none of the available global C-UAS systems meets all the QRs. Thus, this opens up a whole range of possibilities in terms of Joint Ventures with leading global companies, along with indigenous effort.
Recently, on 28th June 2021, the IAF issued RFI for 10 C-UAS systems, thus signalling the urgency of this matter from the perspective of the Armed Forces very clearly. The C-UAS systems being sought by the IAF need to provide a multi-sensor, multi-kill solution against unmanned rogue aircraft, while inflicting minimal collateral damage to the surrounding environment. The IAF also desires that the system generates a composite situational picture for the operator, and issues alerts based on user defined parameters. The IAF will prefer these systems in a mobile configuration, mounted on indigenous vehicles, with cross country capability, and powered by indigenous Electrical Power Supply (EPS) systems.
Looking at the current scenario, the increase in demand of these systems can be envisaged, and the cumulative total requirement will be gargantuan. Hence, there is an urgent need to find indigenous solutions. DRDO has already developed some capabilities, and some of the private industry players have also developed crucial capabilities, or are in the process of doing so – both independently, and in collaboration with foreign companies.
In the roadmap of development and deployment of C-UAS systems, the capabilities of all the stakeholders need to be synergised. It is important that the potential available in the country – including DRDO, Public Sector, and Private Industry, among others; is harnessed to develop the national capability in this fast emerging, and highly significant field. The aim being to quickly develop systems that can be deployed at the earliest. The scope of constant upgradation will also have to be integrated into the plan, catering for frequent technology upgrades.
In closing, no amount of technology infusion will be able to protect every inch of national airspace from these threats. Hence, there exists an urgent requirement for well-defined regulatory mechanisms, and the education of our population about these threats and the potential of the damage that can be inflicted by them. In all likelihood, the failed attack on the Jammu Airbase has done a world of good – serving as a wake-up call; and generating essential, highly overdue conversations and discourse around this crucial topic among the general population.
About the author: Group Captain Anupam Banerjee (r.), is a senior consultant – Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers and former spokesperson of Indian Air Force.