View: The Jammu attack’s lesson is that in the era of hybrid war, civilian systems can be adapted for military use

Last month, as reports of clandestine meetings between Indian and Pakistani officials leaked out to the media, along with GoI’s initiative to put the Kashmir genie back into the bottle, it became almost certain that a third party in the equation would like to put in a word. These are the assorted jihadi groups working at the behest of Pakistan’s ‘deep state’. They did soon enough. In the early hours of June 27, they launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone) attack on the Indian Air Force compound in the highly protected Jammu Airport.

The two bombs that hit were not particularly destructive. Reportedly, two more drones, possibly headed to the airport, were detected and driven away. In the medium was also the message: in the offence-defence war between the good guys and the bad, the latter still have some aces up their sleeves. Fortunately, instead of hitting back at the presumed culprit, Pakistan, GoI has chosen to play it cool. For the present, at least, the ‘deep state’ provocation has not worked. But often it is a matter of chance.

Had the bombs done more damage, the story may have been different. Drones are not new to this part of the border. Khalistani extremists have used them in several sorties to drop explosives, weapons and drugs in Punjab and J&K since 2019. Most UAVs were launched close to the border and returned. But several have crashed, or were shot down. On May 21, the Border Security Force (BSF) found an AK-47, a pistol and some ammunition half a kilometre on the Indian side of the border in Samba area near Jammu.

In June, a drone carrying arms and ammunition was shot down in the adjacent Kathua area leaving behind debris, including GPS (global positioning system) devices, which indicated that it came from Pakistan. The Jammu airport drones were most likely Chinese-made DJI Matrice 600 Pro Hexacopters, of the type used in Punjab earlier. They weigh about 10 kg with batteries, are 1.5 m or so at its broadest, and capable of taking a 5 kg payload. They are guided by electrical signals by an operator on ground who must be able to see the UAV all the time.

This would put the useful range of the devices at about 5 km. So, we can assume that they were controlled by an operator near the airport, may be the terrace of a house nearby, since the Pakistan border is too far from there for Pakistan to have been the origin of the strike. Another interesting detail is that the two bombs used were not crude devices, but a shaped charge that was able to tear through a concrete slab on the roof of an IAF building.

This, in turn, means that those who were involved were more knowledgeable about the use of explosives than the average militant operating in Kashmir. In terms of capacity and capabilities, these improvised machines of war are different from the Predators and other military drones that can carry several missiles and are directed by operators sitting continents away. Already, AI-enabled autonomous aerial and undersea drones, used individually or in swarms, are being factored into the war plans of many countries. The Jammu attack’s lesson is that in the era of hybrid war, civilian systems can be adapted for military use.

Perhaps the most sensational strike by such UAVs was the one in which Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck Saudi Arabia’s oil storage facilities in September 2019, forcing the refinery and its associated facilities to shut down. Similar drones, often used in swarms, have targeted Russian military facilities in Syria. Protecting against drone attacks is a well-developed field. Many companies have devised countermeasures, some are already deployed for

protection. The problem is that they cost much more money than the drone itself, and can protect a limited area. But protecting convoys or far-flung military facilities or, for that matter, civilian spaces like markets and stadia is an expensive proposition.

After this incident, there will be a temptation to ban drones or severely restrict their usage. This would be a mistake. Civilian drone technology is still in its infancy. But it has a vast potential for good — photography, surveys, monitoring pipelines and traffic, crop dusting, even delivering online shopping and food. Technology should not be the issue. Smartphones have revolutionised our lives. But just because terrorists also use them, restricting or banning them is to cut your own nose to spite the face. The challenge is to turn it to your advantage where you can.


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