Prepare for drone terrorism

New Asymmetric Threat

Military drone

Modern warfare or conflict is increasingly asymmetric, in order to compensate for inherent inequality in conventional weaponry, manpower or operational wherewithal. Relative weaknesses, as opposed to strengths, amongst the two belligerent forces involved become the predominant factors. Varying shades of asymmetric sophistication depends on vested state-supports, evolution and landscape of the insurgencies, terrorist activities and guerrilla warfare that define most modern combat engagements. From battlefields in the restive Af-Pak region, the Middle Eastern theatre to even counter-insurgency operations in places like Kashmir, the deployment of asymmetric tactics is increasingly visible.

Asymmetric necessities were inherent in former Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq’s infamous doctrine of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’. The manifestation of these ‘cuts’ are the low-intensity warfare, infiltration, militancy, mob-sourcing, sabotage, espionage, suicide attacks, etc. The operative environment of such asymmetric challenges goes beyond the conventional realm of international borders and involves civilian, residential, commercial and all aspects of socio-economic hinterland.

Keeping one step ahead of the opponent’s preparedness is key to the element of surprise in asymmetric warfare. Beyond expanding warfare to virgin territories and under-protected assets, technology is a key component of inflicting the maximum damage. The drone attack on the Shaybah oil fields of Saudi Aramco in the Saudi Arabian deserts typifies the efficacy, dangers and metamorphoses of asymmetric warfare. The area hosting the world’s largest crude-processing facility had been described by Aramco as ‘the most remote treasure on earth.’ The drone attack shocked counter-insurgency experts for its audacity, reach and consequential impact. This singular attack cut Saudi Arabia’s crude output by half, sent the global oil prices spiralling up for a short while and has redefined the operative impact and dimensions of asymmetric threats.

For India, beyond the disruption in supplies, a hypothetical increase in crude prices by $10 per barrel shoots up the annual oil import bill by $15 billion. Crucially, this asymmetric attack is believed to have been conducted by the relatively ragtag Houthi militia of Yemen who are up against the combined, professional and relentless might of the local Yemeni opposition, Saudis, Emiratis, US forces and even local Al Qaeda & IS affiliates (who oppose the Shia-Houthis). With ostensible support from Iran and other Shia forces, these Houthi rebels have routinely cocked-a-snook at the supposedly impregnable borders of Saudi Arabia that are protected by the world’s third highest national annual defence budget -- $68 billion!

The nearest point of the Yemeni border from which these drones may have taken off is 500 km away and the drones could have cost as little as $15,000 a piece -- as is the cost of civilian drones (UAV-X) that can be converted to carry an explosive warhead. This attack has woefully exposed the US-made missile defence systems (Saudi Arabia had procured 600 Lockheed Martin-made Patriot missiles for nearly $5.5 billion in 2015-16) against such drone intrusions. These ‘loitering munitions’ for Kamikaze-like attacks can be pieced together with readily available materials, enough to carry 18 kg of explosives and travel up to 1,500 km at 250 kmph. The un-detectability of these 10 drone contraptions that hit the target has implications for insurgencies across the world. However, it is fair to assume that a certain back-end support and infrastructure to assemble, mount and deploy such drones in conflict zones was available – such infrastructure and support in this specific attack is attributed to Iran.

The conflict in Kashmir is certainly not undertaken by a monolithic organisation like in the case of the Yemeni Houthi rebels, but it certainly does have a similar sponsor, patronage and sovereign-sanctified infrastructure support system in Pakistan. This murky and continuing interlinkage of terrorism with the official Pakistani establishment is what has led Pakistan to the brink of black-listing by the global agency fighting terrorist financing, the FATF (Financial Action Task Force).
While Pakistan has been credibly documented in the past for training, arming and hosting terror camps that were either India-facing or Afghanistan-facing, the more recent accusations are in the realm of knowingly ‘tolerating’ such nurseries. Neither on the Durand line (Af-Pak) or on the Line of Control (Indo-Pak) has the menace of drone usage by terrorists occurred (shooting down of official Pakistani military drones is commonplace) as yet. But the fact that Pakistan has been in the domain of drone manufacturing and technology for the last 10 years at least makes it a real concern. The recent reports of eight such Pakistani drones intruding into Punjab has sent shockwaves amongst the military brass and policy mandarins in Delhi, confirming the worst fears.

Pakistan itself has had a bitter-sweet experience with US-fired Predator drones that were used against terrorist hideouts, targets which were either unreachable physically or unwillingly, by the complicit Pakistani military. Pakistan is believed to have developed and deployed ‘indigenously’ (with Chinese support) Uqaab, Baaz, Burraq and Huma variants and also the Italian-made Falco drone. Given Pakistan’s dubious track record with nuclear technology proliferation at the highest levels, the drone attack in Saudi Arabia has given India cause for concern pertaining to drone misuse, with the low radar signatures which accompany its usage.

The potential ‘dirty use’ of this technology cannot be ruled out. As a counter-measure, India needs to enforce strict application and approval procedures pertaining to drone usage, investing in drone-detection radars and ‘take-out’ capability (Israel has supplied Harpy and Heron TP-armed drones to India, and are also pioneers in drone interception technology), but above all, keep the finger unequivocally pointed at the Pakistani establishment to pre-empt any overt or covert transfer of drone capability to terror organisations. Pressure on Islamabad to continuously plug potential leaks in technology transfer is imperative, as it is possible to assemble drones with civilian technology, albeit with Pakistani State sponsorship 

(The writer is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

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