A soldier or a commander felt very safe operating from a trench, bunker, ditch cum bund, weapon emplacement, tank, combat vehicle, an Artillery gun position, Air Defence gun platform, radar, communication post, command and control dug out among others. But not anymore with the arrival of attack drones as weapon platform. Azerbaijan attack drone (Turkey Origin) strikes witnessed on electronic media world over, targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery guns and air defense systems reinforced this view. The gruesome visuals first showed soldiers below in trenches, then came blasts and smoke, then nothing. The tactical employment of armed drones provided a huge advantage to Azerbaijan, forcing Armenia to capitulate in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet, of how, battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the world including in China and Pakistan. Turkey, being on the same page with Pakistan on Kashmir, will supply state of the art and assured supply of attack drones to Pakistan for use against India.
Are we seeing the emergence of low cost weapon system like state sponsored terrorism? Affordable to poor countries capable of unleashing incalculable damage in physical, psychological, economical, prestige terms and creating panic in public and outcry against well established superior powerful states. The damage, destruction and catastrophe unleashed on an adversary will depend upon clever, creative and imaginative ways that this unassuming weapon system is put to use. Is it David and Goliath redoux? To ignore this reality or being dismissive of attack drones by any nation would put them in the shoes of Goliath with pre determined outcome.
Having said that, let us see how tactical attack drones operate. The system has basically three components, firstly Flight Controller, secondly Ground Control Station (GCS) that can be a static structure on the ground or road mobile and Data Link, a wireless link for control and flow of information between Drone and GCS. Range of operation varies from 150 to 400 kilometres. Operational ceiling is between 18000 to 30000 feet. Can carry one to four mix of munitions capable of destroying tanks, gun emplacements, troops in trenches/fortifications, radars, multi barrel rocket launchers, command control communication centres among others. Take off, landing and weapon firing is autonomous and pilot controlled i.e. human on the loop or human out of the loop. It is controlled by radio waves in visual line of sight and by satellite based communication system beyond visual range, by a single pilot from a static or mobile GCS. Loitering attack drones are like seek and destroy or fire and forget type. Endurance is 24 hours to 28 days. Transmits real time video imagery of the battlefield and targets to multiple users in networked mode on mobile handsets. Negligible radar signature and some with anti radiation shield virtually gives attack drones free play over the battle air space. It therefore offers huge tactical advantage to field commanders at various levels for selection, engagement and destruction of targets in detail, isolation of battle space and neutralization of follow on forces.
Since attack drones provide overwhelming battle winning edge to field forces, how come it was not used in battlefields earlier? Even though drones had been in existence for decades and had been used only for assassination/killing of terrorist leaders in isolation. Was its cost effectiveness derived from cost benefit analysis? A big NO, considering approx cost of one Rafale Fighter aircraft is $155 Million (without including the cost of the trained pilot and ground staff and infrastructure to keep the fighter in the air) and one attack drone is $1.5 to 5 Million i.e. 1/30th cost ratio, which can kill upto four tanks, each tank costing upto $4-5 Million. On top of it attack drone is reusable multiple times till it is put out of action.
The answer lies in the attack drone factories of Turkey and its use in warfare testing laboratories of Syria, Lebanon and Iran/Iraq Kurd borders. Soon thereafter graduating to real Azerbaijan-Armenia 44-day war resulting in capitulation of Armenia at the hands of Attack Drones (Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Kamikaze drones) skilfully employed by Azerbaijan in disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. This provides the clearest evidence how battlefields are transformed by attack drones to Battle Winning Zones. Such massed employment of drones parallels in military history only to successful massed deployment of tanks by Soviets against Germany and massed employment of gliders during Operation Market Garden by allied forces in World War II. Can anything like this, a low cost option, be seen or forecast, being adopted in disputed territories closer home in near or approaching future? An upgrade from “danda” to drone in the offing?! Or attack drones piggybacking on the strategy of “death by thousand cuts” and “salami slicing”?
Now the cost benefit analysis is actually in favour of attack drones.
Military planners all over the world have taken a serious note of cost effective tactical advantage of attack drones. The vast and varied basket of relatively low-cost attack drones offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The outcome in Nagorno-Karabakh has unequivocally proved that how drones can dramatically change the equation on ground of a long-standing border dispute and leave the defender dazed and attacker with complete supremacy over disputed territory.
Of course it is not so simplistic, varied factors such as air defence, surface to air missile defences among others come into play, these require a separate analysis. Of immediate vital concern is how much importance military leadership in India is according to this emerged threat given that not only does China have a sophisticated range of attack drones, it has also invested heavily in anti-drone technology. China is one of the biggest makers and exporters of UAVs. Its GJ-2 model reportedly has a payload of 480kg and the ability to carry up to a dozen missiles or bombs. It has also tested the CH-4 drone in the Tibetan plateau and the BZK-005C, which is tailor-made for high altitudes. It goes without saying that attack drones and related technology is available to Pakistan from China for use against India. Pakistan has also emerged on the manufacturing map of attack drones presumably with abundant assistance for China and friendly cooperation from Turkey which is on the same page with Pakistan on Kashmir. India on the other hand is struggling with new import contracts of drones from USA and upgrading existing Herons.
India’s track record of defence production is dismal and pathetic. It is unlikely to improve despite herculean push personally being given by the Prime Minister, till embedded vested interests and lobbies are willing to get off the gravy train of defence arms procurement. So where does that leave Indian Defence Forces? In No man’s Land or middle of nowhere? Merely relying on enormous physical strength of the Indian gritty soldier and world class junior leadership will win India skirmishes at great cost in terms of casualties but winning conflicts, battles and wars takes much more than winning tactical battles. In particular true generalship and impeccably transparent top military leadership showing honest intent of modernising the defence forces and visibly working for it to convert the same on ground, in view of the clear and present danger.
Coming back to attack drones, assuming that India has procured or produced in sufficient numbers based on national war and defence of India strategy, their employment can be analysed. In defensive mode, one of the ways of defeating attack drone is by killing by detection, identification and engagement through Air Defence Artillery resources or Air Space Missile Defence. Both these methods have proven to be ineffective against attack drones and have limited value against traditional air attacks as well, due to vital gaps and flawed Control and Reporting architecture. Thereby it can be argued that when cost intensive Air Defence Artillery system are pitted against cost effective attack drones, the latter comes out as unquestioned winner as demonstrated in Azerbaijan-Armenia 44-day war as a clear evidence. Buying billions of dollars of expensive Air Defence Artillery equipment that is ineffective and can also be easily destroyed by a wave of enemy drones is not a brilliant military strategy or investment or fiscal prudence. So there is a need to seriously consider reorganising/collapsing/amalgamating/merging/fusing Air Defence Artillery by shedding all prejudices and accepting evolving technologies and emerging battlefield realities.
Another way of defeating/killing/hijacking/hacking attack drones which is totally dependent on electromagnetic (EM) waves for operation, is by electronic and cyber warfare. Attack drones transmit and receive EM waves for command and control and transmit live video data stream hence is totally vulnerable to interception, interruption, jamming, manipulation, misdirection, hacking, hijacking and ultimately killing/neutralizing or making it ineffective. It is worthwhile to build up and invest to upgrade in this cost effective technologies, some already existing in Electronic Warfare (EW) Units of Signals Arm. Furthermore existing Cyber Warfare elements would also need to be fused into EW Units. Thus Reorganised EW (REW) Units would need to be grouped with Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) to a fight coordinated battle.
Tank is not the best defence against tank and is rarely deployed to kill tanks for obvious reasons besides not being cost effective. Therefore cost effective attack drones are best suited to not only kill tanks but myriad of other targets like gun in emplacements, radars, missile launchers, command communication centres, vital bridges, follow on assault echelons, ammunition dumps and assassination of key military leaders in the battle zone. Only imagination limits attack drones target list and employment is bounded by intellect and creativity.
It goes without saying that drones are now an integral part of modern combined arms warfare operational art. Therefore optimum employment of attack drones is by grouping them with IBG to boost their operational tempo and combat effectiveness alongwith REW fused with road mobile Drone GCS.
It would obviously be foolhardy to depend solely on attack drones to win battles, territorial disputes, conflicts or wars. Intra-war deterrence would be triggered by the side being on the receiving end of attack drones to control the escalation patterns within an ongoing conflict by attacking say population centres with long range weapon systems. Briefly put, it incorporates tacit or explicit bargaining with respect to thresholds and limits of an ongoing conflict. Therefore all other aspects of modern day warfare would continue to be applicable albeit attack drones providing the winning edge in tactical battlefield.
Low cost state sponsored terrorism that Pakistan is continuing to wage against India and now attack drones have been added to its terrorism arsenal. India should therefore not get surprised in near or future date of Pakistan unleashing diabolical attack drone terrorist strike of the scale of Parliament, 26/11 or Pulwama attack. It is being assumed that military leaders must be planning defence against attack drones on war footing so also must be evolving offensive options to “Reinforced Surgical Strikes” against terrorist camps by attack drones across the borders.