The drone challenge

Hard questions need to be asked about how a terror outfit a few km across the border in Pakistan was able to drop, completely undetected, two 5-6 kg improvised explosive devices (IEDs) within yards of the air traffic control tower and a parked helicopter at Jammu airport. Although the damage was not severe and fortunately did not result in any deaths, the incident — like those multiple terrorist attacks on army bases in the region since 2015 — raises some doubts about the robustness of India’s intelligence and surveillance capabilities in this sensitive border region. Though it is admittedly near-impossible to detect drones of this size (known as quadcopters) and flying at relatively low altitudes (1.2 km in this case), the fact is that the security apparatus in the region has long been well aware that Pakistan-based terrorists use drones to deliver weaponry (principally AK47 rifles), IEDs, and drugs to colleagues across the border in Punjab and Jammu and have, in fact, been flying several such sorties in recent weeks.

This alone should have raised the red flag. Besides, the military apparatus appears to possess an anti-drone attack protocol, which was activated during the Aero India 2021 show in Bengaluru in January. This consisted of airborne combat patrols, a 100-km no-fly zone for the duration of the show, and trained sharpshooters among the civil police to shoot down drones. The elite National Security Guard (NSG), the counter-terrorism unit under the Ministry of Home Affairs, also deployed a special drone detector radar around the Yelahanka airbase, where the show was being held. Crucially, these elaborate arrangements were made on the basis of credible intelligence from the Indian Air Force’s southern command. It is unclear why this same degree of preparation has not become standard operating procedure in unstable J&K, where the drone threat has proven to be much more permanent. The Indian security forces have been testing anti-drone jammer technology along the border. But it now turns out that communications between domestic security agencies get jammed when this system is deployed.

It is critical that the government responds with circumspection. The question is whether the post-attack assessment produces a credible response in terms of technology upgrades, creating training personnel, and, most of all, massively improving intelligence networks. As importantly, the government needs to avoid the knee-jerk response of restricting drones in the domestic arena, most of which is involved in such critical civilian work as mapping land to establish ownership records, or weather drones that survey crop output, floods, and droughts. There have been multiple signs in the past five years alone that cheap off-the-shelf drones (mostly assembled in China) are becoming the delivery vehicle of choice in the asymmetric war that terrorists — such as ISIS and Hezbollah in West Asia, the Houthis in Yemen, and Ukrainian militants — wage across the world. Indeed, Sunday’s drone strike signals a major shift in the nature of cross-border terrorism along the Line of Control and the government urgently needs to ensure that it does not escalate into a bigger tragedy in this turbulent region.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel