Why the Jammu airbase attack is worrying

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The first weaponised drone attack on an Indian military installation unfolded at the Jammu air force station in the early hours of June 27. One or, perhaps, two drones, dropped improvised explosive devices in the technical area of the Jammu Air Force station (the military section of a civilian airfield).

The IAF’s official Twitter handle described the attack as ‘low intensity explosions’. It played down the damage by saying that one blast caused minor damage to the RCC slab roof of a building while the other bomb exploded in an open area. This is the second attack on a military airfield in recent years. On January 2, 2016, four Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists had attacked the Pathankot airbase, killing five security personnel.

An army demolitions expert who studied pictures of the damage at the Jammu airbase told INDIA TODAY that the hole in the RCC slab had most likely been caused by a ‘shaped charge’ of between 3 and 4 kgs with an RDX-type primary explosive. Shaped charges focus the blast effect into a particular area and are used for cutting through dense materials like armour and concrete. These characteristics point to considerable expertise in mounting a shaped charge on a drone but also steering it into an airbase. Security officials believe the drone and its payload were launched from near the airbase. In all likelihood, the drone was recovered by the perpetrators after the attack.

This is an ominous development. It now opens up the possibility of IED-dropping drones being used not just to attack military airbases and parked aircraft but also swarm attacks on military convoys and public gatherings.

The origin of the drone in the Jammu attack is not known but circumstantial evidence points to cross-border militant bases in Pakistan, which is just 14 km away. Indian security agencies say that since 2019, at least, Pakistan’s deep state and terrorist proxies have been using commercially purchased hexacopters to smuggle arms shipments across the international border. The shipments—arms, ammunition and explosives— were sent to equip terrorists in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Two such hexacopters, each measuring around one square metre each, have been recovered. The first crashed in Punjab in 2019 and the second was shot down by the BSF last June. Several more drone shipments have since slipped through. Specialised military radars that are tuned to detect fast-moving aircraft cannot detect drones because of their tiny radar cross-section and the fact that they have a top speed of just 60 kmph.

The Jammu airbase attack is another worrying chapter in the grey zone warfare currently under way on the subcontinent. It gives non-state actors and their handlers an option below a full-scale terrorist attack. A remotely piloted, commercially purchased drone dropping a bomb would have a lesser impact than, say, a fidayeen attack involving Pakistani nationals like in Pathankot, or the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack. Removing the human element from the equation also allows perpetrators a greater degree of deniability.

Non-state actors have in the recent past demonstrated their proficiency with weaponised drones. Terror group ISIS is believed to have carried out swarm attacks against Russian military facilities in Syria in 2018. Yemen’s Houthi militants launched drones in a sensational strike on the Saudi Aramco refinery on September 14, 2019. Over the past two years, the Indian armed forces and the defence ministry have commissioned studies and examined a range of offensive and defensive technologies to counter small drones. These have included perimeter protection devices using day/ night cameras to detect and track slow-moving drones and the rapid launch of smaller, high-speed drones to intercept them. None of these technologies have currently been deployed.

An attack of the kind seen in Jammu is fraught with serious consequences. If Pakistan’s deep state has ‘normalised’ weapons shipments since 2019, it is now testing the Indian state’s response to this new attack. Not reacting to it could possibly lead to further serious incursions.

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