By Dr Vijay Sakhuja*
The use of drones has proliferated into many facets of human activity. These range from delivering medical aid/medicines to inaccessible areas, search and rescue during disasters, firefighting, to even the fashion industry: they were recently used in a fashion show in Saudi Arabia to carry clothes on hangers and glide down the catwalk.
In terms of the negative impact of their use, three recent drone-led attacks against civilian and military targets by non-state actors are noteworthy. These put enormous pressure on security agencies and militaries to devise counter-strategies and systems to deter and thwart the use of drones. First, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela escaped an assassination attempt by unknown groups who used explosive laden drones that blew up; one within Maduro’s line of sight, and the second one or two blocks away, while he was delivering a speech at a military parade. More than a dozen suspects were arrested amid accusations that local opposition leaders might have been involved. The possible role of the Colombian and US governments has also not been ruled out, although this charge has been denied by both the countries.
The second instance involves drone attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria. Attacks on Russian military installations have continued unabated, and according to a senior Russian general, the military was successful in repelling as many as 45 attacks in July 2018. The northern province of Idlib, an anti-Syria rebel stronghold, is the base for drone attacks, and these platforms have a range of up to 100 km.
The third attack, though not corroborated, involves the Houthi rebels fighting against Saudi coalition forces in Yemen, who claimed via video that in July 2018, they successfully dropped bomblets on Saudi and Emirati troops in the field by using drones. A few weeks later, the group claimed – and were backed by Iranian television reportage – that they conducted a drone attack on Abu Dhabi airport, which was dismissed by UAE authorities. Whether these attacks on sensitive installations are true or not, the use of drones by non-state actors is a reality and has forced militaries to develop counter-drone hardware.
Interestingly, the counter-drone market has been on the rise and is expected to grow from US$ 342.6 million in 2016 to US$ 1,571.3 million by 2023, at a CAGR of 25.9 per cent between 2017 and 2023. The rise in demand for counter-drone hardware by states and militaries has been a consequence of successful security breach incidents by unidentified drones operated by non-state actors. A number of military hardware companies are developing counter-drone technologies that offer a variety of sensors (electronic warfare equipment, acoustic sensors, radar, etc) and jammers, which can potentially disrupt a drone’s navigation system.
National militaries, too, are strategising to respond to this new warfare. For instance, the Pentagon had sought a budget for as many as 3,447 new unmanned platforms and drones, totalling US$ 9.39 billion (US$ 2.6 billion for the air force, US$ 3.7 billion for the navy and marines, US$ 1.7 billion for the army, and almost US$ 1.3 billion across the rest of the Pentagon). The US’ 2019 National Defense Authorisation Act is indeed a windfall, and allocation for unmanned platforms and drones is pegged at nearly 1.4 per cent of the allocated defence budget which also includes a counter-drone share of about US$ 1.5 billion.
At the operational level, some militaries have begun training for counter-drone warfare. For instance, the Pentagon is using hypothetical scenarios to train national guardsmen deployed in Afghanistan to use anti-drone rifles against mock drone attacks. It was recently announced that the US Army is preparing to acquire “Raytheon’s Coyote drone by the end of the year to take down enemy drones encroaching on US or partner positions on the battlefield.” These will be strapped with “small-blast warhead and a radio frequency seeker at the nose to track and engage targets.” Similarly, the French anti-drone air defence force is equipped with “rifle-shaped antenna that can jam the remote control signals of a drone,” and the operator is “paired with other shotgun-armed squad members, whose shotguns fire specialised shells.”
While these may offer a good chance of success, the bigger worry is of swarm drones comprising of hundreds of smart and lightweight drones approaching in groups, formations, or in waves, which present a much more complex situation. Further, the increasing diversity in drone and counter-drone technologies including counter-measures has resulted in a flux, and present new threats for militaries. In fact major militaries and other defence and security agencies across the globe are seeing themselves enter a drone arms race which features progressive advancements in drone warfare involving both kinetic and smart technologies. It is quite likely that future national defence budgets will see more spending on counter-drone platforms and systems, and militaries will start devising operational counter-measures.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.