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No US soldier was directly killed by ISIS drones. How they did it is a lesson for India

Jammu drone attack exposes a lacuna last seen in the Galwan clash – the lack of a joint assessment team.

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The furore over the drone attack on the Jammu Air Force Station has yet to die down and justifiably so, since it is a leap frogging of ‘terrorist’ capabilities in this subcontinent. Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane called it a ‘clear, present threat’, which it is, in some ways. The trouble is that ‘terrorist’ in this specific part of the world are better described as ‘non-State actors’ with a very thin line between the two. Consider that the Taliban, an insurgent army waging a full-fledged war against US forces, never had drones, and you get the picture.

On our border, terrorism is a different type of war, with ever-changing tactics. And the core of the problem is that militaries anywhere don’t change that quickly. They’re learning though, and on a very steep curve.

The drone attack in perspective

First, don’t run with the idea that terrorists, in general, are master tacticians or Newtons in disguise. Under pressure, they certainly innovate faster, reworking existing weaponry to maximum effect. Algeria, for instance, had some 685 metric tonnes of landmines and what are called ‘Explosive Remnants of War’ (essentially, munitions left behind after years of conflict). Terrorists used that to learn to make IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to huge effect, accounting for 48.7 per cent of total global military deaths (2011- 2020).

From there to stuffing them in trucks and cars was a short but devastating step. Now the drone is the same IED being dropped from the air.

Lazy analysis and the race to raise the threat have led to a tendency to give the Islamic State, for instance, far more credit than it deserves in its drone war. In 2017, when it was at maximum strength, the group launched 60-100 drone attacks a month, injuring about 100 Iraqi soldiers. A single large IED explosion can do far more damage than that. In other words, ISIS’s capability to cause damage was limited.

Don’t confuse this with either the use of drones in the Azerbaijan-Armenia wars, or the hugely successful and equally often cited attack by the Houthis on Saudi oil facilities, which crippled production for months. The triumphant Azeris used, among others, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 primed with smart-guided munitions. In the latter case of the Houthis, success was ensured due to military drones supplied by a certain country. These are near-war conditions, not just terrorist strikes.

As far as the Jammu attack is concerned, the key in both cases was State assistance. That lies at the core of this particular type of terrorism as well. Drone users include Pakistan-based heroin smugglers who use short-range (about 2 km) drones, Pakistan sponsored-terrorists use it to ferry small weapon loads just across the border, and Pakistan uses longer-range drones for its ‘regular’ surveillance similar to the most recent on 2 July. The first requires better policing by a rather underfunded Narcotics Control Bureau. Try getting any data on this in Kashmir. It’s virtually impossible. The second is a tactical counter-terrorism effort, with a focus on intelligence. The third is an exclusive armed forces responsibility, but physically also involves the border forces. There are, therefore, three separate types, all dangerous, but with entirely different implications and agencies involved. That’s the first point.

Also read: India needs to shop for anti-drone systems. And we are already late

So, whats the big deal about drones

The key issue with drones is the unique advantage of ‘small, low and slow’. ‘Small’ in terms of cross-sections, so they can’t be detected by radar, ‘low’ has a similar problem; and its slow speeds means it can’t ever be shot down by a fighter aircraft flying at Mach2 and upwards. Armed Helicopters can, as the Israelis did, though against a much larger UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

The thing is whether one is prepared to expend missiles costing lakhs against the thing, and that too multiple times in a week. Any defence, therefore, has to be affordable against a target that may not always be a serious threat. That’s the second point.

Also read: Drones pose new challenge, more state and non-state actors will use them: Army chief Naravane

That psychological effect 

For terrorists and State actors, the prime advantage to drones is the psychological advantage. You erode the sovereignty of a State in terms of its air space, and that scares the armed forces badly. After all, they’re structured around protecting sovereignty. But it’s worth noting that terrorists are equally terrified of drones. Remember the consternation in Taliban ranks when Mullah Mansour was hit inside Pakistan by a US strike. Several terrorist leaders who were killing Pakistani soldiers – like Baitullah Mehsud – have also been killed using drones, with clear Pakistani complicity. So, it’s possible to flip the psychological advantage and turn it into a muscular offense. The question is what psychological effect you are looking for.

The Balakot airstrikes by the Indian Air Force sent one single message – that India was changing the rules of the game from ‘restraint’ to offense. On the lighter side, one could use a drone to take a picture of an army general playing golf and then release it. That’s also a message. It all depends on your objective, and that of the enemy. That’s the third point.

Also read: Drones are low-cost, high-dividend threats. But India is still shooting in the dark

Looking over the horizon 

Now consider this. Analysis indicates that not a single US soldier was hit by an Islamic State drone in the campaign till the end of 2020. Not just that, they also had a huge success in shooting down its drones, not due to luck, but the fact that an imaginative group commander tasked a team to ‘look over the next hilltop’ in asymmetric warfare in 2006, years before they had set foot in Iraq. By the time ISIL happened, the US group had already made great strides in drone behaviour, and not just sent out the data, but encouraged troops to familiarise themselves with it, allowing US forces to ‘out-innovate’ terrorists. The authors also make an important point.

Innovation is important but will be sped on winged feet by adaptation on the ground. That means sharing experiences on the ground and possible ‘successes’ with innovation teams. That’s easy in today’s real-time information sphere.

In the Indian case, where the threat arises from various State-sponsored actors, the need is for jointness in analysis and data, a point forgotten in the din of theaterisation. It’s important not just to share assets. It’s vital to share from the ground up too. In this case, drone wars require sharing between border security forces, the armed forces and intelligence agencies; It’s going to be truly a combined arms effort. It also exposes a lacuna that seemed to be seen in last year’s Galwan Valley clash, which was the lack of a joint assessment team. Extend that to include innovation and you’ve got yourself a deal.

Meanwhile, shout all you like about the ‘ever present’ threat, and its seriousness. But don’t forget to look over the hill as well. There are imaginative folks around.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and former director, National Security Council Secretariat. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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