Sunday, June 23, 2024

Counter UAV Systems For India

By Lieutenant Colonel Akshat Upadhyay

The balance between man and machine in warfare has shifted towards the latter. And the relationship between them is based, if not on trust, then dependence. Trench warfare and daylight charges were replaced with mechanised warfare during World War II, and now, non-contact warfare involving cyber-attacks, unmanned systems, and cruise missiles are the staple fare of contemporary conflicts. 

In this move towards greater autonomy for weapon systems, the so-called ‘man-on-the-loop’ where the operator is present is only a fail-safe in case of major deviance of the system from the end goals, and unmanned systems play a huge part. They have become so ubiquitous that some analysts believe an ‘unmanned revolution in military affairs’ is in the offing. 

The history of unmanned aerial vehicles is well documented, and seen as radically changing the face of warfare in the 21st century. As a result, a hide-and-seek or as some security studies scholars have designated it, a hider-finder competition has ensued where counter-UAV (C-UAV) systems have also been developed in order to prevent UAVs from gaining an asymmetric advantage on the battlefield.

Current State Of C-UAV 

C-UAV systems work on the principle of detection–identification–engagement or neutralisation. In military parlance, this is also known as the DIE concept. Of these three, the first ie Detection forms the most critical part. Detection involves using one of the techniques of radar frequency (RF), electro-optical (EO), infrared (IR), acoustic, or combined sensors detection. Identification requires creating, maintaining, and frequently updating a library of communication signatures, flying patterns, and shapes to correctly identify the drone. Neutralisation involves several technologies, divided into hard-kill and soft-kill options. 

RF jamming, satellite link jamming, ‘spoofing’ (allowing one to take control of or misdirect the drone by feeding it a spurious communications link), and ‘blinding’ by using a high-intensity light beam may be counted as soft-kill options; high-powered microwave (HPM), laser-based directed energy weapons (DEW), nets, projectiles, and collision drones are termed as hard-kill options. An integrated system combining more than two such systems in tandem or as part of an integrated whole can also be considered. 

In India, a C-UAV doctrine within the Indian military, either in the conventional or counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism (CI/CT) domain is yet to evolve. However, there is an acute recognition of the challenges posed by UAVs especially post the Azerbaijan-Armenian and Russia-Ukraine conflict. C-UAV measures can be viewed in two formats in their current avatar. In the CI/CT domain, especially in Kashmir, C-UAV measures have been treated as part of the CI/CT grid and hence visual acquisition and identification of drones is followed by the use of small arms (such as small arms) to counter them. 

UAVs are treated as an extension of the ‘bad actors’, that is, terrorists, over-ground workers (OGWs), financiers and propagandists, since a majority of the incidents have involved the dropping of counterfeit currency, AK-47s, and drugs across the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB).

In the conventional domain, certain voids have been attempted to be fixed through indigenous radars, such as Bharani Low-Level Light Weight Radar (LLLR), low flying detection radar Indra II, 3D low-level lightweight radar Ashlesha, 3D tactical control radar (TCR), and the Rajendra 3D Phased Array radar. These radars and ground-based air defence (AD) systems have been placed in fixed assets, such as airbases and other vital installations.

The Indian Armed Forces have signed almost Rs 300 crores contracts for procuring C-UAV systems. While the Indian Air Force (IAF) has concluded a Rs 155 crore contract with Hyderabad-based Zen Technologies for anti-drone platforms, the Indian Navy has also inked a contract with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for an indigenous Naval Anti Drone System (NADS). This is to protect their onshore installations since UAVs flying in the vicinity of ships are countered by ship-based anti-aircraft systems, centered around service protocols.

Additionally, the Navy has procured ‘unknown quantities’ of the Israeli SMASH 2000 Plus system, which can be fixed onto assault rifles, and by using a ‘new-age fire-control system’, turn them into smart weapons. The Israeli firm Smart Shooter may set up a manufacturing plant in India. The IAF has also expressed interest for 10 C-UAV systems, which need to be a multi-sensor, multi-kill solution capable of generating a ‘composite air situational picture’, consolidating ‘inputs from different sensors’ on a ‘single screen.’

The Indian Army’s efforts for C-UAV seem to be progressing on two parallel tracks. The Army Air Defence College at Gopalpur, Odisha, has integrated vintage 40mm Bofors L 70 and 23mm Russian Zu-23 guns with a counter-drone technology designed by Hyderabad-based Zen Technologies—which is also supplying the same to IAF. This has led to the development of an integrated soft-hard kill system which may prove effective against drone swarms. This is due to the comparatively high rate of fire of these guns, and the use of proximity-fuse ammunition, which detonates in the space surrounding the air threat, exploding in more than 1,000 pieces of tungsten shards and thereby hitting more than one target in a swarm. 

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has handed over a fixed quantity of D-4 (Drone Detect, Deter and Destroy) systems to the Army. The same was first deployed during the 2021 Republic Day parade. The system, which uses a combination of hard-and soft-kill options, can detect micro drones and uses a laser-based kill mechanism to terminate targets. It also employs RF/Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) to detect the communication frequency used by the drone controller, which is then jammed.

The ‘Counter’ Challenge 

Most ‘counter’ systems or solutions devised for conventional weapons platforms are against specific platforms, in conformation with the idea that most ‘big-ticket’ systems have retained their basic shape, functionality, and utility over the ages. For instance, an Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) is designed only for tanks since tanks have retained their functions, characteristics, and broad shape contours since they were first introduced during World War I. Similarly, since their inception, artillery guns and aeroplanes have retained their basic designs, features, and functions. As a result, their counters have been comparatively easier to design, field, and deploy. In the case of UAVs, the challenge is of a different magnitude. Theoretically, even air force planes can neutralise UAVs in a counter-air operations (CAO) mode. In fact, the latest indigenous light combat helicopter (LCH) has been touted as a drone killer. Similarly, surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) can counter drone threats in battlefield conditions.  

However, there are two issues with this mode of thinking. First, the cost–benefit analysis does not play out. Using expensive airplanes and missiles to counter do-it-yourself (DIY) airframes with rudimentary explosives or other payloads is futile in the long term, both in terms of finances and ammunition stockpiles. Second, all the conventional counter-drone systems are designed for battlefields, while the threat of drones is always ‘in being’; that is, commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) drones can be procured by almost anyone and fitted to undertake missions even in peacetime. 

Deploying round-the-clock conventional AD systems at all places is neither plausible nor feasible. UAVs can be used for a range of tasks: from destroying tanks on the battlefield, cyber warfare, logistics, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and other functions. The same airframe can be used for tactical, operational, and strategic effects in the same geographic environment or battlefield.

C-UAV Solution For India 

There can be no ideal or permanent solutions in a race between offence and defence, especially regarding technologies or their novel uses in warfare. Similarly, with the specifics handled by respective agencies, one can only sketch the broad contours of a C-UAV solution for India. Considering the various threats faced by India, the introduction of liberalised Drone Rules, and the impetus to the indigenous defence industry, an ideal C-UAV system should have the following parts.

(a) The interactive Drone Airspace Maps, which depict the red, yellow, and green zones for drone operation and flying, need to be supplemented with C-UAV systems. These can be further subdivided into a combined hard kill–soft kill option for border states, with only soft-kill options for the rest of India. Since the finer details are updated every five minutes, a combination of fixed and roving C-UAV systems can be deployed. 

While flying in the green zone requires no permission, the yellow zone is the airspace above 400 ft in a green zone; above 200 ft in an area located between 8 and12 km from the perimeter of an airport; and above ground in areas located between 5 and 8 km from the perimeter of an operational airport. Flying here requires clearance from the concerned air traffic control authority, including the IAF, Navy, Airports Authority of India (AAI), etc. The weight category cleared for flying is up to 500 kg. Red Zone is no-go zones for drones. Flying in these areas requires permission from the Central government.

(b) Even in the designated yellow zones, especially airports and vital political, administrative, or commercial installations, indigenous fixed C-UAV systems may be installed. 

(c) There are many ministries and agencies, viz., the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), and the Bureau of Police Research and Design (BPRD), AAI, etc. which are dealing with drones and C-UAV systems. Many indigenous vendors have already been approached for agency-specific requirements. 

This system should work if two conditions are met. First, an overarching command and control authority is designated to coordinate the C-UAV grid for the entire country. Since the IAF is currently responsible for the country’s air defence (AD) and has an extraordinarily well-positioned and enmeshed network of long and medium-range radars, it is best placed to be designated the national agency for C-UAV systems. 

One of its primary roles will be to ensure deconfliction in airspace management, frequency range, and types of flying objects. The second will be to pass on a composite air picture to compatible devices, which can be used by various lower-level agencies to deploy their own C-UAV systems. The second requirement is layering. 

Since the IAF possesses mostly long and medium-range radars, it is important to ensure a plug-and-play grid based on an open systems architecture which will ensure that inputs from specialised radars and other drone-detecting mechanisms are compiled and converted to a single graphic user interface (GUI) based application, accessible to all major players. This can also be used for standardising detection and identification protocols which, after approval, can be used as terms of reference (TOR) for industry players applying to create future C-UAV systems. This system will be applicable in both peacetimes as well as in conventional war scenarios. 

(d) Local agencies such as the State Disaster Relief Forces (SDRF) and the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Home Guard, and Police need to be involved in educating ordinary citizens on the dangers posed by drones, and the various passive measures that need to be undertaken to mitigate the threat. 

(e) It is likely that air approaches along the IB and the LoC can be appreciated, and any radar gap may be plugged using tactical and low-level radars. In the CI/CT scenario, the IAF grid can be extended down to the battalion level using wearable wrist devices, and, using the inputs of low-level radars and other counter-drone sensory inputs, operations can be undertaken. 

(f) The defence industry must be encouraged to develop innovative hard-and soft-kill mobile solutions rather than static ones since the focus is to detect, identify, and neutralise mini, micro, and nano drones. Bigger drones can be identified and neutralised using the conventional AD grid. 

(g) Challenges of collateral damage may need to be examined. Using Laser and HPM may lead to the fratricide of our drones, which might distort or destroy relevant ISR capabilities or assets in the air. 

Conclusion 

Drones and C-UAV systems in India are in a nascent stage. Due to limited combat exposure of the Indian Armed Forces with these technologies, attempts at devising C-UAV systems have been ad-hoc and devoid of an overarching philosophy of employment or procurement. 

Since drones always present a threat in being, both in peace and wartime, an integrated C-UAV philosophy must be enunciated, and relevant portions be opened for academia, industry, and the general public. In keeping with the ubiquitous nature of the threat, it is equally essential to designate a central agency to facilitate operations. 

The impetus given to the indigenous defence industry by ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is an excellent opportunity to harness the creative potential of the industry by combining it with the professional acumen and experience of the Indian Armed Forces to come up with ingenious indigenous solutions against this formidable threat.  

Lt Col. Akshat Upadhyay is a serving Indian Army officer, currently posted in MP-IDSA as Research Fellow-Strategic Technologies. The officer has authored ‘Coercive Diplomacy Against Pakistan’ and ‘Fighting Future Wars, Issue Brief’


Most Popular