The global drone market was valued at $5.93 billion in 2015, making for a 20.7 percent compound annual growth rate for the predicted $22.15 billion market value in 2022.Military market for drones is only a subcategory of the largely commercial drone market, but military usage of drones will likely grow much faster than expected.
Nations big and small continue to research, experiment and apply military uses of drones – from stealth fighters to the miniature spy drones. For military applications, drone technology can be used for border security, combat missions, intelligence gathering and surveillance.
Commercially drones are being used globally for cinematography, medical, agriculture, energy-sector inspection, infrastructure and construction, and emergency response. In terms of public safety uses that transcend both military and civil, drones can be used for law enforcement, firefighting, medical services, search and rescue operations, and emergency management.
There have been many instances of the Islamic State using commercial drones for ‘attacking’ regular forces in Iraq and Syria. But in January 2018, the Russia’s Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility in Syria came under coordinated attack by “swarms” of home-made drones carrying bomblets / improvised explosive devices (IEDs,) as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defence.
On night of January 5-6, Russian air defence forces detected 13 drones approaching Russian military bases – 10 approaching Khmeimim air base and three approaching the Tartus naval facility.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, six drones were intercepted by the electronic warfare units, with three forced to land outside the base and remaining three exploding on contact with ground. The balance seven drones were destroyed with Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles. Mounted on 8×8 vehicle, the Pantsir-S was designed to provide point air defence of military/industrial/administrative installations against aircraft, helicopters, precision munitions, cruise missiles and drones, and to provide additional protection to air defence units from enemy air attacks employing precision munitions especially at the low to extremely low ranges. There were no casualties or damage to the bases but it was the first time swarm attack by drones was launched at a range of more than 50 km using a modern GPS guidance system and coordinated air navigation system. Russia shared photographs of the captured winged drones and the bomblets / IEDs (see picture inset).
It was not known who launched the drone swarm attack because the launch base located in southwestern region of Idlib, though controlled by Turkish armed forces, as well as several rebel factions and insurgents. While none claimed the attack, Russia reported a US Poseidon intelligence aircraft patrolling over the base during the attack, calling it “strange coincidence”. Russia also says that such attacks need technology from “countries with high-technological capabilities” and the drones’ explosive devices had “foreign detonating fuses”.
The US has denied any involvement. Earlier, Russia had also reported two smaller drone attacks against military outposts in Homs and Latakia. But the fact is that these drones are commercially available, can be easily equipped with bomblets / IEDs and do not need much technical knowhow to rig up considering the manner in which the ISIS used them against US and Iraqi forces, particularly during the battle of Mosul.
The most significant conclusion by the Russian Ministry post technical examination of the captured drones is that these drones would have effective attacking range of about 100 kms. This ushers in a new dimension in drone warfare, making locations (hitherto considered adequately defended) vulnerable to swarm attack by drones. Locations without requisite electronic warfare and air defence systems would highly vulnerable to such attacks.
The above configuration of a 100 km strike range for drone swarms with bomblets / IEDs may suffice for terrorist organizations, but nations would be researching on how to extend the ranges and lethality of swarm attacks. Already, technologies are being talked about of hordes of miniature drones released aerially armed with facial recognition software and enough explosive to kill humans for individual targeting – slaughterbots so to say. In the past there has been talk about drone development that can carry thermobaric weapons.
More recently, there has been news of ultrasonic drones that cannot be detected.
A Leak from the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review confirmed in January 2018 that Russia possesses a drone submarine capable of carrying the world largest nuclear warheads. China’s drone industry is massive. Its Dà-Jiāng Innovations Science and Technology Co. Ltd or ‘DJI Technology’, headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong with manufacturing facilities throughout the region, by itself was valued at $10 billion in September 2017. According to media, none can compete with DJI Technologies in manufacturing drones.
US-based drone manufacturers are still attracting colossal venture capital but their business model is focused on software and services. China’s drone market is likely to grow annually by 40% with output value of 60 billion Yuan ($9.13 billion) by 2020.
In December 2017, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said it would encourage the military to perform more drone flight testing, ask colleges to set up drone-related majors as well as establish a national drone association.
In a statement issued on December 22 last year, MIIT while pledging support for the drone sector development, said the government hopes the industry will have an output value of Yuan 180 billion ($28.35 billion) by 2025, adding that these targets were part of ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign to upgrade the country’s domestic manufacturing base. China’s spending on research and development (R&D) accounted for 2.1% of GDP in 2016. The spending reached 1.54 trillion Yuan ($233 billion) that year, with over 78% coming from enterprises. Going by the Russian experience discussed above, there is no denying that the era of drone swarm attacks has arrived.
It is axiomatic that with the stated Chinese government support to the drone industry and encouragement to the military to perform more drone flight testing, China will optimize military applications of drones including swarm attacks to the fullest extent in the very near future. With its military strategy of ambiguity, deception and deceit, China can be expected to employ these tactics.
The military applications of swarm drones attacks fits beautifully in the Chinese concept of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ that propagates the dirtiest forms of warfare including terrorism. This form of non-contact warfare would also help China avoid adverse public opinion at home, saving on body bags of PLA soldiers, almost all of whom belong to one-child families. India needs to take due not of the swarm drone threat. Pakistan’s continued proxy war and Chinese backing to Pakistani terror groups and insurgents in India make the issue more serious. Swarm drone attacks by terrorists in public and religious gathering can create havoc.
China has been exporting drones past several years. China offered its CH-3 UCAV, which can carry two laser-guided missiles or bombs, to Pakistan in 2016.
During 2017, China’s CH-5 UCAV was photographed at an airbase in Pakistan. The CH-5 can carry 16 air-to-surface missiles. Capable of carrying 1,000 kg of equipment and weapons, it can carry airborne early warning system, as well as electronic warfare instruments. Whether the CH-5 has been gifted or sold to Pakistan is not known but China having subsumed Pakistan, deployment of PLA weaponry on Pakistan soli should only be expected.
Indian policy makers need to undertake holistic appreciation of the drone swarm threat through terrorists that are state-sponsored anyway, as well as conflict situations big and small, on borders, as also in hinterland, putting countermeasures in palace. Introspection is also required why China exports 1000 drones every day and India does not even produce 1000 annually, as pointed out by a news report last year. Needless to say, that a quid pro quo capability is need of the hour.