The Houthi drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Abaqiq and Khurais oil facilities on September 14 have once again brought forth the deadly dimension of this type of disruptive threat. Not that this was the first instance of swarm drone attack. It was covered in these columns earlier that in 2018, there were periodic explosives-laden swarm drone attacks on Russia’s military base in Syria. Swarm drones should be of special concern to India given the Chinese capacity, which is being enhanced as it races for global supremacy.
Swarm drones should be of special concern to India given the Chinese capacity, which is being enhanced as it races for global supremacy.
On July 15, 2018, Intel broke the Guinness World Record for simultaneously flying the most drones; 2,018 drones were flown in Folsom, California to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary. The previous record was set by China in April 2018, flying 1,374 drones by China’s Xi’an City Wall with drones made by EHang. China has also successfully tested launching drones using electromagnetic pulse (EMP), reaching 100 km/hr within moments of launch and autonomously adjusting the trajectory and altitude while streaming towards the target.
Drones used in demonstrations as above being small with limited carrying capacity and limited range should not fool us. In fact, these should be treated as technology demonstrators. China believes in the ‘swarm drones’ concept and produces 1000 drones on daily basis.
During Chinese drone swarm demonstrations, programmed units have also proven their capacity for independent thought; drones falling out of sync with the group or failing to achieve their intended objectives, execute their own landing. China’s mini smart drones are also reported to have self-repair capabilities. China, who always believed in ‘mass employment’, has merged this strategy with the value of high-tech and artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize the concept of swarming.
Swarm drones launched from ground or from air can be used as part of air defense in the event of enemy attack. America’s Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology (LOCUST) comprises a system rapidly discharging drones from a single tube, like an anti-aircraft gun spewing hundreds of rounds in seconds. Swarm drones can also be fired by fighter aircraft and released in mid-air. For own offensive, swarm drones can drastically undermine and neutralize enemy defence systems to allow easy movement of own forces.
Swarm drones can also be fired by fighter aircraft and released in mid-air.
Significantly, an article titled ‘North Korea Drones On’ dated July 1, 2014, in ’38 North’ by Joseph S Bermudez Jr, stated that DPRK’s drone force though relatively unsophisticated could present a security challenge for ROK and US forces. His assessment was based on DPRK already flying drones past two decades. We need to compare this with our indigenous capability.
How drones swarms can be used for overwhelming and confusing military or security defense systems was apparent from the Houthi drone attack on Saudi oil facilities on September 14, despite these facilities guarded by armed guards, six Patriot defence systems and Oerlikon GDF 35mm cannons equipped with Skyguard radar and SAMs. Houthis reportedly attacked with some 18-19 small drones and seven Scud-type missiles. The asymmetric drone threat to India in conflict should be clear from all this.
For that matter, China in 2017 successfully tested its spy drones in near space (20 km above sea level) for intelligence gathering, terrain mapping and battlefield transparency. The advantages of such alternative, deployed individually or in swarms, compared to more expensive satellites are obvious. Drones in these 2017 tests were launched by means of EMP pulse, which streamed toward their targets without human guidance reaching speeds of 100 km/hr within the span of a meter, adjusting their trajectory and altitudes along the way.
The US is equipping its soldiers with pocket-sized FLIR Black Hornet personnel reconnaissance drones that are game-changers in battlefield. The Black Hornet can fly out to roughly 2.8 km, allowing soldiers to assess the situation beyond them without leaving cover and exposing themselves. South Korean Army recently conducted successful tests of drone-bombers, which are armed with 60mm mines, at in the Army Intelligence School located at Inchon. A swarm of such drones-bombers can create a serious problem for any army.
Now drone terror has come knocking across the international border in India, with Pakistan’s ISI using Chinese drones to support terror organizations in India.
Drones can also be used as communications relay, jamming and for cyber attacks. We may see further refinement with drone technologies developing rapidly: upgraded motors; better power systems and batteries; better navigation technology, less sound; miniaturization coupled with heavy duty on-board computers, and invisible paint? Modern quad-copters are able to fly through heavy rain and through blistering heat, lifting solid charges.
Drones have also empowered terrorists to considerable extent. The ISIS used drones extensively in Iraq-Syria for reconnaissance, surveillance, dropping explosives and mines, inflicting casualties and caution on attacking forces, which has been described in these columns earlier. Now drone terror has come knocking across the international border in India, with Pakistan’s ISI using Chinese drones to support terror organizations in India.
At least eight drone sorties, carrying a total of 80 kg of weapons (arms, ammunition and communication devices) were sent across the border into Punjab by Pakistan-based Khalistani terror groups between September 9 and 16; violating India airspace and delivering the load to a terror module of the revived Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF) at Rajoke village near Khalra in Punjab’s Taran Taran District. According to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s office, KZF was conspiring to unleash a series of terrorist strikes in Punjab and adjoining states.
These drone operations only came to light because the drone conducting the ast last sortie on September 16 crashed at Rajoke village near. On August 13, a crashed drone was recovered from Mahoawa village in Amritsar post an anonymous call to the police. This was a U10 KV100-U Chinese Hexacopter weighing 20-25 kgs, with four brick-sized batteries (model Tattu – made in China) and TAROT 680 PRO antenna. This type of Hexacopter (6 electric motors) can carry a payload of 21 kgs and can be assembled from parts made commercially.
Pakistani drone operations have supports own side, and Indian collaborators can provide real-time information about movement of patrols and even help disable surveillance systems temporarily.
On February 26, 2019, the IAF had shot down a Pakistani drone in Gujarat and another one in Bikaner on March 4. But to say that the total drone threat can be taken care by the Army and IAF, as being claimed, is naïve. None of the abovementioned drone coming into Punjab on August 13 and between September 9 to September 16 were detected and shot down.
Houthis are producing their own armed drones using Iranian designs. These are of two types; ‘Qasef-1’ with a range of 145 km and ‘UAV-X’ with a range of 1,450 km. This indicates to the world enormity of the threat, both from adversarial militaries and non-state/state-sponsored terrorist organizations. A terrorist organization could use drone (s) by night to deliver chemical or radioactive payloads. The problem therefore is highly complex and has been staring us in the face.
Pakistani drone operations have supports own side, and Indian collaborators can provide real-time information about movement of patrols and even help disable surveillance systems temporarily. As per media reports of May 2015, India was the world’s top drone importer after UK and France; 22.5% world’s UAVs were imported by India from 1985 to 2014.
Drones are being used in the country for shooting concerts and movies, filming private parties, by police organizations for surveillance and monitoring traffic, and for surveillance and intelligence gathering by armed forces. The NDRF used drones during the earthquake relief in Nepal. The NSG too is presently experimenting with drones. The DGCA announced in October 2014 that till proper rules and regulations are formulated, use of drones in the country is “illegal”. But terrorists are not bothered about legality of using drones – same as using arms.
Media reports of September 29, 2019 have now revealed that India has an estimated over 6,00,000 rogue or unregulated drones of various sizes and capacities and anyone of these can be used for launching a terror act. Agencies are presently looking at specific anti-drone techniques like ‘sky fence and ‘Skywall 100’ to intercept and immobilize suspicious and lethal drones. A report titled ‘Drones: A new frontier for Police’, published in the Indian Police Journal mentions these new techniques.
According to an official, two separate BPRD (Bureau of Police Research and Development) and Ministry of Civil Aviation-(MCA) appointed task forces are now mulling on “priority areas that need to be armed with counter-drone weapons.” But considering the complexity and enormity of the threat, it would be prudent to develop a holistic response involving MoD, MHA and the industry in conjunction the NSA and overseen by the PMO, rather than leaving it to Police and DGCA. Such an approach will need periodic reviews since drone and counter drone technologies will keep evolving, and so will tactics of their employment by militaries and terrorists.
As drones become smaller and faster, new solutions will be required to disable them.
It may be recalled that in July 14, 2018, quantity ten high-end Chinese DJI Phantom-4 PRO drones were seized from a passenger at Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru. Capable of flying at 6,000 metres with half-kg payload and equipped with intelligent batteries and advanced satellite navigation system, these drones can autonomously overcome obstacles and have a ‘Tap-by-Use’ feature allowing users to tap on an individual in a crowd on his screen and allowing the drone to lock and track the person.
As drones become smaller and faster, new solutions will be required to disable them. It is important for anti-drone technology to be relatively future-proof, as future drones will maintain higher altitudes, be equipped with advanced cameras with improved zooming systems, and they will be far smaller. A variety of anti-drone weapons and technologies have been developed globally, some fielded, and more are developing.
Israeli firm ‘Smart Shooter’ has developed two counter-drone systems; SMASH 2000 and SMASH 2000 Plus, both using look and track and target detection technology, to substantially increase precision aiming and reduce time-to-hit. SMASH 2000 Plus variant has a “drone mode” that allows the operator to target a drone in flight both during day and night. The SMASH fire control system has built-in targeting algorithms that can track and hit even very small drones skimming along at high speed, at ranges of up to 120 meters, with the first shot. California-based ‘IXI EW’, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned firm has developed the DroneKiller, which is a stand-alone hand-held system employing software-defined radio (SDR) technology to disable drones; a rifle and a system that can be attached to a rifle. It has a range of up to 1,000 meters, operates on seven frequency bands and can be in an active mode for up to two hours, with eight hours in standby. Japan has reportedly bought over 100 x DroneKiller systems for deployment during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
…the fastest and decisive capability to counter drones is by using directed energy weapons (DEWS) – namely lasers and microwave weapons. Some laser weapons are already deployed in the US Navy.
British Firm ‘OpenWorks Engineering’ has developed the ‘SkyWall100’, which is a man-portable compressed air launcher that fires a 22-pound net to physically capture the drone. These are for close security of critical infrastructure The advanced version is ‘SkyWall300’ with greater range. American firm ‘Advance Ballistic Concepts’ has also used same technology to fire 12 gauge and 40mm shells to deploy nets. French firm ‘Department 13’ has developed the ‘MESMER’, which uses sophisticated detection and mitigation to automatically identify, stop, redirect, land, or take total control of a target drone or other radio-controlled device. It hijacks signals exploiting weaknesses in digital radio protocols recognizing unique radio signal features and other communication meta-data to select and apply strategies that curtail drone threats.
Low power use is an advantage because it only affects targeted radio controlled devices, not non-targeted communication signals in the vicinity. Similarly, Chinese firm ‘Hikvision’ has developed the ‘UAV-D04JAI’ and ‘UAV-D04JHI’ jammers can also disable and take over remote control signals, including GPS and GLONASS positioning. These have been tested and given to some police units.
Multi-tiered higher grade counter-drone systems for military use too are being marketed. Radar-based, these are capable of long-range engagement when GPS-spoofing alone is not enough. The British Anti-UAB Defence System (AUDS) can detect, track and disrupt a drone eight km away combining electronic-scanning radar target detection, electro-optical (EO) tracking and directional RF inhibition capability. Finally, the fastest and decisive capability to counter drones is by using directed energy weapons (DEWS) – namely lasers and microwave weapons. Some laser weapons are already deployed in the US Navy.
Pentagon recently notified Congress purchase of a prototype microwave weapon system ‘PHASER’ by the USAF costing $16.28 million, which is designed to take out groups of enemy drones using pulses energy. Field testing of the prototype is to be completed by December 2020.
We need an integrated national-level approach against the looming threat…
The USAF is reportedly purchasing a variety of directed energy weapon systems slated to be used in areas where enemy drones are becoming a threat. According to a USAF official, it was the recent swarm attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities that has brought the risk to limelight, but added, “This is not the reaction of just a few events but the realization of a growing need over the past few years.”
India clearly has a lot of catching up to do with drone and counter-drone technology continuing to evolve simultaneously. Smaller, lighter and more complex drones with multi-tasking ability are coming.
As mentioned above, we need an integrated national-level approach against the looming threat; a holistic response involving MoD, MHA and the industry in conjunction the NSA and overseen by the PMO. The Security Sector including the Armed Forces and the police forces will need to work in tandem on a war footing.