Coming — Drone swarm attacks

March 15, 2018 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


There have been many instances of the Islamic State or ISIS using commercial drones for ‘attacking’ regular forces in Iraq and Syria. But in January 2018, the Russia’s Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility in Syria came under coordinated attack by “swarms” of home-made drones carrying bomblets / improvised explosive devices (IEDs,) as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defence. On night of January 5-6, Russian air defence forces detected 13 drones approaching Russian military bases - 10 approaching Khmeimim air base and three approaching the Tartus naval facility. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, six drones were intercepted by the electronic warfare units, with three forced to land outside the base and remaining three exploding on contact with ground. The balance seven drones were destroyed with Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles. There were no casualties or damage to the bases but it was the first time swarm attack by drones was launched at a range of more than 50 km using a modern GPS guidance system and coordinated air navigation system.

Russia shared photographs of the captured winged drones and the bomblets / IEDs (see picture inset). It was not known who launched the drone swarm attack because the launch base located in southwestern region of Idlib, though controlled by Turkish armed forces, as well as several rebel factions and insurgents. While none claimed the attack, Earlier, Russia had also reported two smaller drone attacks against military outposts in Homs and Latakia. But the fact is that these drones are commercially available, can be easily equipped with bomblets / IEDs and do not need much technical knowhow to rig up considering the manner in which the ISIS used them against US and Iraqi forces, particularly during the battle of Mosul. Most significantly the Russian Ministry post technical examination of the captured drones concluded these drones would have effective attacking range of about 100 kms. This ushers in a new dimension in drone warfare, making locations (hitherto considered adequately defended) vulnerable to swarm attack by drones. Locations without requisite electronic warfare and air defence systems would highly vulnerable to such attacks.

Already, futuristic technologies are being talked about of hordes of miniature drones released aerially armed with facial recognition software and enough explosive to kill humans for individual targeting. More recently, there has been news of ultrasonic drones that cannot be detected. Leak from the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review confirmed in January 2018 that Russia possesses a drone submarine capable of carrying the world largest nuclear warheads. China’s drone industry is massive. Its DJI Technologies by itself was valued at $10 billion in September 2017. China’s drone market is likely to grow annually by 40 per cent with output value of 60 billion Yuan ($9.13 billion) by 2020. In December 2017, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said it would encourage the military to perform more drone flight testing, ask colleges to set up drone-related majors as well as establish a national drone association. MIIT while pledging support for the drone sector, said government hopes the industry will have an output value of Yuan 180 billion ($28.35 billion) by 2025 as part of the ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign. It is axiomatic that with the stated Chinese government support to drone industry and encouragement to the military to perform more drone flight testing, China will optimize military applications of drones including swarm attacks in the very near future. With its military strategy of ambiguity, deception and deceit, China can be expected to employ these tactics.

The military applications of swarm drones attacks fits beautifully in the Chinese concept of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ that propagates the dirtiest forms of warfare including terrorism. India needs to take due not of the swarm drone threat. Pakistan’s continued proxy war and Chinese backing to Pakistani terror groups and insurgents in India make the issue more serious. Swarm drone attacks by terrorists in public and religious gathering can create havoc. China offered its CH-3 UCAV, which can carry two laser-guided missiles or bombs, to Pakistan in 2016. During 2017, China’s CH-5 UCAV was photographed at an airbase in Pakistan. Whether the CH-5 has been gifted or sold to Pakistan is not known but China having subsumed Pakistan, deployment of PLA weaponry on Pakistan soli should not be any surprise. We need to undertake holistic appreciation of the drone swarm threat through terrorists, as well as conflict situations big and small, on borders, as also in hinterland, putting countermeasures in place. Introspection is also required why China exports 1000 drones every day and India does not even produce 1000 annually, as pointed out by a news report last year.