Why Are Senior Indian Military Personnel Only 'Discovering' Drones Now?

The awe conveyed by the likes of CDS General Rawat is as unsettling as their overall inability in detecting and countering such aerial assaults.

New Delhi: There has been wide-eyed amazement amongst Indian officialdom, especially senior military personnel and defence and security planners, over the recent mini-drone attack on Jammu airport, as if the strike, allegedly overseen by Pakistan, was something unique, exceptional and unexpected.

The bewilderment publicly expressed by senior servicemen, including Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, retired soldiers and analysts on television news channels and in newspapers over the June 27 drone attack, in which two Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel suffered minor injuries, is somewhat akin to an Alice in Wonderland response from apparent veterans.

For, after decades of dealing with asymmetric warfare being waged by Islamabad against New Delhi, first in Punjab through the 1980s and thereafter in Kashmir, the services collective astonishment, especially over the use of drones by the Pakistani security establishment to target Indian assets, is disquieting.

It is as unsettling as their overall inability in detecting and countering such aerial assaults.

“We have to start preparing for future generation warfare,” Gen. Rawat incredibly told CNN-News18 on Monday.

“Drones, swarms and other such elements will change the nature and character of warfare,” the four-star officer also added, as if delivering a revelation.

Also read: We Can Use Strike Drones in J&K If People Will Accept Collateral Damage: Army Chief

Alongside, hysterical television news channel anchors, backed by a phalanx of retired senior military officers, including those from the IAF, registered shock and wonder over the drone attack, while elaborating expansively over the rising number of similar hits in other parts of the world, either by terrorists or militaries or in some instances, both.

It’s almost as if these worthies together believed that India, hemmed in by restive neighbours Pakistan and China, with both of whom it had unresolved territorial disputes, was somehow immune from such strikes. This, of course, is despite nearly two generations of military personnel having unremittingly combated Pakistan-trained and armed terrorists with no holds-barred limitations, since the 1980’s.

“The surprised reaction of senior military and security officers to the Jammu drone attack is revealing and conveys a sense of operational naïveté and complacency on their part,” said defence analyst Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy group.

“Even Naxalites,” he pointedly declared, “were now employing drones in their armed conflict against the Indian security forces.” Brig. Bhonsle was referring to the ‘shoot-at-sight’ orders issued in late 2019 to the paramilitaries against the drones employed by Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s south Bastar region in their enduring armed struggle against the Indian state.

Infiltrating enemy drones and quadcopters are nothing new in India’s volatile security environment, especially in recent years in Punjab and Kashmir.

In September 2019, for instance, several heavy lift drones were employed by Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) to airdrop Kalashnikov Ak-47 assault rifles, counterfeit Indian currency and narcotics via at least eight sorties in and around Tarn Taran in Punjab, contiguous to the Wagah border.

Media reports, quoting senior Punjab police officials at the time, revealed that the sophisticated Chinese-origin drones had a payload of 10 kilograms each and the mission behind the drops was to arm Khalistani cadres in the state to further degrade India and to revive militancy in the border state.

Also read: Punjab CM Amarinder Singh Flagged Threat of Drone Attacks to Modi in November

Even former Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy said that some years ago India and Pakistan were warring intensely with each other with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but now it was the era of drones. UAVs, for the uninitiated, need to have autonomous flight capabilities, preferably with a controller, while drones do not. Hence, in classification all UAVs are drones, but not vice versa.

The two terms are often used interchangeably but, over years, drone seems to have prevailed due to its widespread use in news reports, television and the cinema.

Writing in the Indian Express on June 29 S. Krishnaswamy lamented that India was ‘certainly’ lagging behind in overall UAV and drone technology, despite claims by the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of having come up with new designs.

“They (the DRDO) need to work seriously in operationalising their range of UAVs and drones” the former air chief counselled, elaborating on the easy obtainability of the latter systems, even on mail order for everyday use, and presumably by terrorists.

This last instance is amply exhibited around the world.

According to Brig. Bhonsle’s Security Risks, the Taliban have been using freely available camera drones armed with explosives to attack Afghan forces across the country, much like the weaponised platforms that struck in Jammu. In November 2020, for instance, the Taliban used one such drone, fitted with explosives, to kill four bodyguards of Kunduz province governor Asadullah Omarkhel, while they played volleyball in their boss’s compound.

Also read: India Needs to Be Prepared to Be Able to Ward Off Chinese Drone, Cluster Munition Attacks

Other Middle Eastern terror groups like Hamas, for instance, too resorted to exploiting similar drones to attack Israeli targets in the Negev desert, in what was fast becoming a weapon of terrorist choice around the world, including Pakistan.

Drones were manoeuvrable, easy to launch, largely undetectable and were even recoverable, like the ones used in Jammu, to foreclose the possibility of tracing their origins. They also provided the attacker deniability through anonymity.

Consequently, if India, as Gen. Rawat told CNN-News18, is to now start preparing for ‘future generation’ warfare, that includes armed or kamikaze drones, it will have to fast track not only counter measures to detect the incoming aerial threat, but also to neutralise it kinetically within spilt seconds, preferably with laser beam weaponry.

This capacity, however, will need to be developed indigenously, as few overseas companies are willing to transfer know-how for such new and advanced technology.

But senior security sources told The Wire that developing such capability locally posed a “fundamental problem”. They said that India’s military, and the DRDO, were “obsessed” with designing and series producing large platforms like combat aircraft, helicopters, tanks and howitzers, amongst others, which though were undoubtedly needed, they were “totally inept” in dealing with threats like weaponised drones which were more than likely to materialise in the coming years.

Also read: India Is Still Throwing Good Money at Hopeless Military Programmes

Military analyst Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda (retired) and strategic affairs expert Happymon Jacob from Jawaharlal Nehru University had recently criticised the country’s military for focusing unduly on major platforms and not enough on future technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber and electronic warfare to counter 21st century threats. This, in turn, would entail India’s military, especially its army, abandoning World War II concepts of attrition and manoeuvre warfare, familiar to generations of commanders and ones they feel comfortable planning for and executing like in the 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars with Pakistan.

In the meantime, Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur of the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) states that even though the threat of drone attacks, analogous to Jammu’s, have been present for long, domestic research and development for anti-drone systems is at a ‘nascent stage’. He told the Times of India on June 29 that though the DRDO had developed anti-drone systems to guard VIPs during national day celebrations, it needed to take up the ‘Jammu challenge’ and fast-track research and development for systems that can be operationally deployed for wider use.

“This is a huge task for an organisation (DRDO) that has an elephantine pace,” the retired two-star officer declared in his clincher, whilst recommending greater involvement of private sector startups in designing and manufacturing systems to counter enemy drones.

Perhaps CDS Gen. Rawat is listening.