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Drone Incursions on Rise: New form of Cross-Border Terrorism
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Air Marshal Anil Chopra | Date:08 Dec , 2022 0 Comments
Air Marshal Anil Chopra
Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

As per the data released by the Government of India, 171 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones from Pakistan entered Punjab in the nine months from 1 January 2022 to 30 September 2022. Another 20 were seen in the Jammu sector, making the total 191. Seven were reportedly shot down by the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel in Punjab’s Amritsar, Ferozepur and Abohar regions.

The actual observations of drones have been much higher, as some never crossed over for some reasons. This has become a major internal and external security concern for India.

The drones were carrying arms, ammunition, explosives, and in a few cases drugs from Pakistan. The illegal activities are being orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the media brief said. Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a meeting at Srinagar, and was briefed in the presence of the top security and intelligence chiefs recently. Earlier in June 2021, two explosives-laden drones crashed into the Indian Air Force (IAF) Jammu airbase. The attack marked the first instance of drones being used to target military installations in India, allegedly by Pakistani non-state actors.

Found on the intercepted drones were various AK series assault rifles, pistols, MP4 carbines, carbine magazines, high explosive grenades as well as narcotics. The drones are also known to be used to drop packets of Afghan heroin for financing terror operations in the Kashmir Valley and Punjab.

The suspected operators are Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terror outfits backed by ISI. Often the incursions are not very deep into Indian Territory. Also the small drones cannot be seen always and by the time detected, it may be too late to intercept. Clearly, the interception rate needs to go up.

Difficulty in Detecting Drones

Drones are small and have low radar, infrared (IR), smoke and noise signature. Most conventional air defence radars cannot detect them. There are a few dedicated bird detection avian radars at airports that are used for monitoring bird activity within the airfield zone and near the approach and take-off path. Such radars will pick up drones, but it is not affordable to position such radars across the border.

To detect heat signature of drones, sensitive IR sensors are required in large numbers at huge cost. Small size and nearly no smoke signature means late visual detection. Even the drone sound can be heard very late.

Drone counters

Drones can be engaged through many drone counters. The large UAVs will be tackled by the air defence units of the armed forces using missiles and air defence guns. The larger drones can also be shot down by fighter aircraft or UAVs which have air-to-air ability.

Attack helicopters like the recently inducted Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) Prachand also have air combat missiles. The smaller drones can be shot by sniper rifles of BSF or other border guarding forces. There are special nets that can be fired from hand-held guns that will entangle the drone rotors and bring it down. The GPS signal of the drone can be jammed and send it off track or astray. Also drone communication links can be jammed.

There are special laser beaming firing guns that can burn the drone electronics or dazzle the drone optical systems. There are cyber means to take control of the drone and bring it down at a place of own choosing as was done by the Russians in Syria. Even if the drone is forced to drop its load through counter-drone action, it is a good achievement.

Considering that India’s border with Pakistan and China is large, we have to be selective in providing anti-drone means to the border guarding forces. Also human intelligence (HUMINT) and other means must support anti-drone actions. Indian Army and BSF are acquiring large numbers of drones, some of which could be used for surveillance of the order so as to timely identify incursions. It all requires inter-agency coordination in India.

Pakistani drone production ecosystem

For years, Pakistan had been pushing the US to allow it to acquire the MQ-1 Predator, the main UCAV system the US uses in the strikes, but such requests were denied amid fear of technology proliferation.

Pakistan’s National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jointly began developing its own Burraq Combat UAV (UCAV). The initial variants were for surveillance and intelligence gathering. In 2015 they had the first UCAV variant. It has borrowed ideas from the Chinese CASC Rainbow CH-3 A UCAV and may have received assistance too.

The Shahpar II is an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) built by Global Industrial Defence Solutions of Pakistan. It is currently in production following the completion of a test and qualification phase. It reportedly has the ability to fire missiles at both stationary and moving targets.

Pakistan is also trying to acquire the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones for Offensive and air defence use. They showcased these at a recent Pakistan Air Force (PAF) day event. Satellite images revealed the presence of one Bayraktar TB2 at PAF’s Murid Airbase.

Pakistan has thus raced ahead of India in indigenous MALE and UCAVs. Pakistan signed a contract with Turkey for the co-production of ANKA UCAV. Pakistan also acquired CH-4 and Wing Long UCAVs from China. The Pakistan Navy is already operating several UAVs such as Scan Eagle and Uqab for surveillance.

The SATUMA Jasoos II is another indigenous drone in the PAF inventory fulfilling dual purposes of ISR and training. The Pakistan military has claimed to have eliminated three high-profile Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists using its indigenous Burraq combat drone during an operation in North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley.

Pakistani smaller drones

Notwithstanding the sporadic successes of shooting down a few intruding Pakistani drones, it must be understood that the initiative of timing and place is with the aggressor. Pakistan is following an all-of-the-nation approach with many government agencies, the armed forces and ISI supporting the clandestine operations. Also the flying machines are getting more and more sophisticated. Most Pakistani drones are of Chinese origin.

Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), Shenzhen, China, is one of the major drone manufacturers. It is backed by several Chinese state-owned entities. DJI manufactures commercial drones for aerial photography and videography. DJI accounts for around 70% of the world’s consumer drone market as of March 2020. The company’s products have also been used by militaries and police forces, as well as terrorist groups.

US government institutions have prohibited the internal use of DJI products. DJI drones have been extensively used in Ukraine. DJI drones could be of different sizes and have significant payload capacities. Some of those caught on the Indian border like the DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone can have a maximum take-off weight of 9 kg, fly at 80 kmph for nearly 30 minutes. It costs nearly Rs 15 lakh. The payload could be 2-3 kg. The payload drop could be controlled by the operator in Pakistan based on video feed from the drone.

Forensic analysis of downed Pakistani drones

Most Pakistani downed drones have given clues that can be used to expose and deter future incursions. Components of the drone give tell-tale signs. It is possible to know the flight path, the number of flights done in the recent past. Quality of on-board equipment and sensors and assess their vulnerabilities.

Also, it is possible to assess the communication equipment and frequencies and these could later be jammed. The security forces have seized various AK series assault rifles, pistols, MP4 carbines, carbine magazines, high explosive grenades, and drugs.

The police agencies must also use these events to burst the recipient terrorist networks and find terror-related hardware, arms and ammunition, narcotics and foreign currency. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been getting involved in some of the incidents.

Drone ecosystem in India

India’s armed forces are already flying Israeli Heron and Searcher UAVs and Harpy and Harop kamikaze drones. India is likely to procure 30 MQ-9 Reaper or Predator B UCAVs from General Atomics of USA. For long, DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was responsible for UAV development in India. Lakshya and Nishant had little success.

Indian DRDO’s Stealth UCAV Ghatak project has gained flagship status this year. The first flight of a scaled down test-bed flying-wing was carried out in July 2022. Tapas MALE is also progressing well.

DRDO must find private production partners for UAVs. The Adani Group is making the Israeli Hermes UAVs in India through a JV with Elbit at Hyderabad. Meanwhile the private sector has been rightly galvanised for mid-sized drones.

As per Drone Federation of India the manufacturing of drones and related systems is happening in India, but key components like battery, motor, sensors, semiconductor, GPS, and camera are still being outsourced. Select countries have developed mass production capabilities against aggregated demand of such components. India needs to get into such mass production.

Indigenous drone start-ups

The Indian government and IAF have been encouraging Indian drone start-ups. IAF’s Mehar Baba I competition helped identify drone swarm start-ups. The team of Delhi Technological University-Flair Unmanned Systems Pvt Ltd won the award for best communication architecture while Dhaksha Unmanned Systems Pvt Ltd from Anna University, Chennai bagged the prize for the best drone architecture.

Team Veda Defense Systems Pvt Ltd, a start-up based out of Noida, was given the award for best innovation in design. The winners were to get Rs 10 lakh in prize money and an opportunity to co-produce Rs 100 crore order for induction of the drones into IAF. Meanwhile Mehar Baba II competition for drones has already begun.

Meanwhile a number of start-ups have come-up. The 2013 formed, Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS) is a Bangalore based drone manufacturer. AUS is already big in commercial drones in India. AerialPhoto (Envent digital Technologies) offers an array of services like high resolution drone photography, aerial mapping, and live video streaming.

Detect Technologies offers intelligent automated drones. Its product Noctua can do a programmed flight indoors using its unique positioning system. The company is present in markets like US, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia and Middle East and services more than 25 large enterprise clients.

CRON Systems builds multi-sensor enabled intrusion detection systems. It also builds solutions to detect drones, and is working on automated patrol vehicles. India’s Border Security Force (BSF) installed several CRON laser walls along the border to keep a vigil on intrusion.

Kolkata-based Rchobbytech Solutions Private Limited offers a variety of drones for agricultural and surveillance solutions. DRDO and Indian Army are its clients. 1 Martian Way (1MW) is a Mumbai-based Artificial Intelligence Company that supports powering drones and robotic systems.

Chennai based Aero360 offers hybrid drones for high-resolution aerial images & videos, and data processing and analysis for deriving actionable intelligence. In drones Solutions has been developing technologies to implement solutions for various applications using UAS since 2013.

Developed by Bengaluru-based drone operator Adarsh N’s “Chakra” is a Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle attracted attention at the Aero India 2021.

The Indian armed forces have begun placing significant orders for drones and swarm drones. Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Tech is working with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to develop a futuristic air-launched swarm drone system as part of the Manned-Unmanned-Teaming project called the Combat Air Teaming System.

Way ahead

The Pakistan-Taliban-Turkey radical Islamic nexus supported by China enhances the terror threat pan-India that may witness the use of drones for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism.

The future is unmanned. On 8 August 2022, the Drone Federation of India (DFI), an industry body for the country’s UAVs, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian Army’s Design Bureau (ADB) for “accelerating drone technology development and indigenisation in the drone ecosystem”.

All the three armed forces and most government departments are acquiring drones. India must promote research and development of drones and unmanned systems to remain globally relevant. Nearly 1,000 drone swarms were flown during the Beating of Retreat in January 2022.

Sensors and weapons against drones will one day be integrated like the IAF’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS). With the proliferation of drones within the country, inter-ministerial coordination would be important. Local police and Intelligence Bureau (IB) will have to monitor drones more closely. The police and security personnel have to be educated and trained to respond to drone transgressions. An anti-drone force would be needed one day.

The national drone policy would need continuous evolution and development, using global interactions and inputs. To counter risk of embedded malware in drone electronic sensors, there is a need for greater indigenisation of both platforms and sensors. Drones are the future, and India must follow a facilitative proactive approach, yet be conscious of security implications.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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