By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In the first ever successful offensive use of drones in India, in the night of June 26-27, 2021, two explosive payloads were dropped, within a span of six minutes, on the Indian Air Force (IAF) station in Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), by drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Two Security Forces (SF) personnel were injured and a building was damaged in the explosion.
Again, in the night of June 27-28, two drones were found hovering over Ratnuchak and Kaluchak military stations in Jammu. Defence spokesperson Lt. Col. Devender Anand disclosed that “two separate drone activities were spotted over Ratnuchak-Kaluchak military areas” and “a major threat was thwarted by the alertness and proactive approach of troops” who “engaged them [drones] with firing”.
On July 2, 2021, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi in a media briefing, was asked whether India would “raise the suspected drone attack at Jammu with Pakistan considering that security agencies suspect the hand of Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT]?” And further, “What is India’s answer when Pakistan has completely rejected that the drone attack in Jammu was from across the border?” Bacgchi simply responded that “the investigation is in progress.” Responding to another question “was there a drone spotted twice inside Indian High Commission in Islamabad in June 26 night?” he confirmed that “a drone was spotted over the premises of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad on 26th of June this year” and “this issue has been taken up officially with the Government of Pakistan.” Though the incident of the drone sighting over the Indian High Commission complex in Islamabad occurred on June 26, 2021, it came to light only during the media briefing.
J&K Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh, however, was forthright, stating that Lashkar e Taiba [ LeT] was suspected to be responsible for the attack and, ”in all likelihood, the unmanned aerial vehicles have flown in from across the border and returned after the operation.”
Reports indicate that a few Pakistani drones had ventured as deep as 12 kilometers inside Indian territory and dropped ‘composite consignments’ [weapons/drugs/Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN)] over the last two years. The IAF Station in Jammu is approximately 14 kilometers from the International Border (IB).
Indeed, data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), indicates that at least 35 incidents of Pakistan using drones to send ‘composite consignments’ were reported from along the India-Pakistan border in J&K and Punjab since August 2019 (data till July 4, 2021). While J&K has recorded 11 such incidents, 24 incidents have been reported from Punjab. These numbers are gross underestimates, in the context of the October 17, 2020, statement of J&K DGP Dilbagh Singh, who disclosed that, for every seized consignment, there would be others that got through undetected.
Some of the prominent incidents include:
May 14, 2021: A cache of arms and ammunition dropped by a Pakistani drone were recovered along the IB in Samba District, J&K. The recoveries included one AK-47 assault rifle, one pistol, one magazine, and 15 rounds of a 9mm weapon.
April 24, 2021: Two UAVs were spotted over Vikram and Jabowal border outposts in the Arnia Sector of Jammu District on the Indian side of the border. The UAVs, laden with weapons, however, retreated to the Pakistani side without dropping their payload, on being fired upon by the SFs.
January 17, 2021: Police arrested two persons from Vijaypur, Samba District, while they were picking up a consignment of 16 grenades, two AK-74 rifles, nine AK magazines, a pistol, and ammunition, which had been smuggled in via drones.
December 20, 2020: 11 hand grenades, reportedly dropped by a drone from Pakistan, were recovered by Border Security Force (BSF) troopers from a sugarcane field near the IB at Silach village in the Gurdaspur District of Punjab.
June 20, 2020: SFs shot down a Pakistani drone strapped with arms along the IB at Rathua village in the Hiranagar sector of Kathua District in J&K. A US-made M4 semi-automatic rifle, two magazines with 60 rounds and seven M67 Chinese grenades were found mounted on the drone
June 3-4, 2020: A consignment of weapons was dropped through three drone sorties outside Dharamkot Randhawa in Gurdaspur District, Punjab. The consignment included two guns, six pistols and INR 400,000 in FICN.
Significantly, the use of drones by Pakistan to drop ‘composite consignments’ came to the fore when SFs arrested four persons along with a consignment of arms, ammunition, explosives and FICNs on the outskirts of Chohla Sahib town, Tarn Taran District, Punjab, on September 22, 2019. It was later confirmed that the consignment had been dropped by a UAV originating from Pakistan. The National Investigation, which took over the case on October 1, 2019, in a chargesheet filed on March 18, 2020, noted,
…the consignments were sent through a total of 8 sorties of drones on 5 days in the month of August and September 2019. The consignments were received by accused Akashdeep Singh, Subhdeep Singh, Sajanpreet Singh and Romandeep Singh.
Meanwhile, media reports citing government data claimed that over 300 ‘definite drone sightings’ had been made by the BSF and other police units since August 5, 2019. These included 167 sightings along the western front (largely Jammu and Punjab) in 2019, 77 in 2020 and about 60 in 2021 (till June 27). Though it is not known how many of these were aimed at dropping composite consignments, given the fact that there has been a significant decline in terrorist operations in Kashmir due to a reported shortage of weaponry and logistical supplies, it is likely that most of these ‘sorties’ were intended to drop arms and ammunition, among other materials.
The use of a third option – after Indian SFs strengthened the anti-infiltration grid (on land and water) further during last couple of years – to send weapons into India by Pakistan, to escalate violence in J&K appears to have definite Chinese support. According to reports, China has sent “explicit instructions” to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to flood J&K with weapons of all kinds.
On October 5, 2020, J&K DGP Dilbagh Singh stated that China-made drones were being used to drop weapons in Kashmir. He disclosed that some Type 97 NSR rifles, manufactured by the Chinese state-owned Norinco, were also recovered in the Valley. This weapon is predominantly used by Chinese soldiers and is also found in Pakistan.
Reports, meanwhile, indicate that arms dropped into Punjab, using drones, were smuggled into J&K using land routes.
With a measure of tranquility established along the Line of Control (LoC) and IB in the aftermath of the Director Generals of Military Operations-level discussions held on February 25, 2021, between India and Pakistan, and the resultant ‘zero infiltration’ through the land and water route, the increasing use of drones by ISI, to smuggle in weapons into J&K and Punjab is in evidence.
Moreover, lessons learned from each and every successful ‘weapons drop operation’ may be used by ISI proxies to carry out offensive weaponized drone operations against select targets in India. These ‘attack drones’ may or may not take-off from Pakistani soil, as Islamabad is under increased pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which, on June 25, 2021, again decided to keep Pakistan on its ‘grey list’. However, the rising incidence of drone operations definitely have the Pakistan Military Establishment’s complicity. Under pressure from the FATF, Islamabad is in search of new tools of terror, which may help it continue its cross-border terrorist activities through proxies, without leaving any trace of its complicity. The drones seem to be one such tool.
It is pertinent to recall here that terrorist outfits have been using weaponized drones for successful terrorist attacks for some time now. The Islamic State is said to be the first to have used this ‘weapon’ way back in 2016 in Iraq, and subsequently in Syria. The Afghan Taliban has reportedly been using weaponized drones since 2019. It is, consequently, imperative for the security establishment in India to swiftly evolve measures to deal with this rapidly growing security threat. Regrettably, however, people at the helm have been reactive rather than proactive in their approach to this challenge.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management