Unmanned threats from the sky: what Drone attacks mean for India

Sarosh Bana decodes the drone attacks since Sunday and what it means for national security, the future and for politics in the region. In an accompanying piece Shalini Sahay explains the role of LeT

Unmanned threats from the sky: what Drone attacks mean for India

Sarosh Bana

In the first-of-its-kind attack against a critical military facility in India, two drones dropped low-intensity improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over the Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Jammu early on Sunday. The first explosion, at 1.37 am, gashed the roof of a building, while the other occurred five minutes later in an open area, causing mild injuries to two IAF personnel.

While the perpetrators remain unknown and the drones vanished from sight, the incident has severeramifications for national security. Considering it was a target no less than an IAF station in one of the most sensitive locations – the International Border (IB) with Pakistan lies just 16 km to the west– questions will arise about any possible failure of military intelligence, before and even after the attack, and about the government’s capability to protect the nation and its citizens when even a crucial defence installation lies exposed. One would have expected heightened alert and intensified vigilance particularly in this border state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) that has been beset by relentless terrorism and has been the victim of numerous intrusions by enemy drones.

Just days before the drone attacks, Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had told news agency ANI that while the ceasefire was holding at the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, the internal peace process was being disrupted by “infiltration of weapons and drugs using drones”. He added, “It doesn’t augur well for peace as these drugs and weapons are meant to disrupt the internal peace process.”

India’s defences have been tested by China whose troops still occupy large tracts of Ladakh, and this drone attack may have been a reconnaissance/terror mission to ascertain the country’s responses and its ability to prevent or counter an assault on its military. After all, the drones were reckoned to have been light, shortrange, low-flying, simple in design and incapable of carrying heavy and sophisticated munitions. Incidentally, another major threat was averted when the army’s Quick Reaction Teams fired at two separate drones coursing over the RatnuchakKaluchak military area the very next night heading towardsthe Jammu IAF station. Again, both the drones flew away, defence spokesman Lt. Col. Devender Anand said in a statement.

The government has a constitutional responsibility to clarify issues that impinge on national security, because citizens need to know how secure they are as a nation. Compounding the issue is the government’s penchant for secrecy, thereby lending grist to speculation.

The tweets of IAF Master Control Centre (MCC) made no mention of the drones, stating: “Two low intensity explosions were reported early Sunday morning in the technical area of Jammu Air Force Station. One caused minor damage to the roof of a building while the other exploded in an open area.” In a second tweet, it noted: “There was no damage to any equipment. Investigation is in progress along with civil agencies.” There is still no clarity if one or two drones were used. Their origin is also not clear but sources said the drone or drones are likely to have been operated from within the Jammu region and close to the Air Force station.

While no fighter aircraft are based at the Jammu technical airport, the base has Mi17 helicopters and transport aircraft. The second explosion happened close to the helicopter hangar, but without causing damage to any equipment.

Following the attack, a National Security Guard (NSG) team joined a National Investigation Agency (NIA) squad in visiting the air base, accompanied by representatives of agencies such as the police, bomb disposal, and forensics. They will investigate whether a local launch pad or a long-distance one had been used to release the drones.

The Indian authorities have not blamed any country as yet for the attack, and have also not discounted the possibility of the drones having been controlled from within Indian territory. A few persons working at the base were questioned, but let off subsequently.

Talking to PTI, Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh said that Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was suspected to be behind the attack. The incident had taken place within hours of the arrest of an LeT operative by the J&K police in Jammu for carrying IED weighing nearly 5 kg. Pakistan’s ISI too is a suspect, since no terrorist organisation has hitherto claimed responsibility.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held discussions on Tuesday with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval on “futuristic challenges” in the defence sector. Also discussed was the procurement of modern military equipment, including anti-drone technology, for the armed forces.

One such counter-drone technology has been developed by the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), its chairman G. Satheesh Reddy reportedly claiming that the newly-developed system can present the armed forces both “soft kill” and “hard kill” options to tackle the emerging aerial threats. While soft kill refers to jamming the hostile drone, the second is a laser-firing system, both aiding in the swift detection, interception and destruction of small drones that pose a security threat.

Curiously, while this system was deployed for VVIP protection at the Red Fort for the Independence Day 2020 address by the Prime Minister as also for the visit of US President Donald Trump to Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium the same year, a DRDO official maintains that the system is yet in the prototype stage. One vehicle-based and one ground-based set-up have been prepared and evaluated by DRDO, which has transferred the technology for its production to Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and also expressed its readiness to transfer the technology to private companies.

It is not clear why the already-tested DRDO system is taking time to operationalise, for it would have been a credible achievement for the government’s self-reliance mission of Atmanirbhar Bharat. Instead, the Indian Navy last December opted for an undisclosed number of the anti-drone Smash 2000 Plus firecontrol and electro-optic sight systems produced by Israeli company Smart Shooter. Though the Israeli company will co-produce the system in India through technology transfer, it is in talks with the other two services on this and deliveries are not starting earlier than next year, it is not clarified what happens to the DRDO product.

The tide had turned in BJP’s favour in the 2019 general elections, as the party made ‘national security’ a priority issue in its campaign. The ruling party leveraged the IAF’s air strikes on Balakot across the LoC on February 26 as reprisals for the February 14 terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed over 20 of our Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans. With the narrative changing, the Prime Minister championed himself as the “chowkidar” (watchman) of the country and his party took up the refrain that if there was anyone who could protect India, it was Modi backed by the BJP.

As Chinese troops remain entrenched in eastern Ladakh, Pakistan brazenly violates the LoC, and as drones impudently infiltrate our borders, national security and terrorism once again promise to become electoral issues for the citizens.

Unmanned threats from the sky: what Drone attacks mean for India

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