Solving a Swarm of Challenges

Military, civilian and scientific partners collaborate across Indo-Pacific to counter rising drone threat


The bombs themselves had minimal impact — minor injuries to two Indian Air Force service members and light damage to an air base building in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. The mode of delivery, however, reverberated throughout the highest levels of India’s military and government and beyond: Small drones dropped the two improvised explosive devices in the late June 2021 attack on the base about 15 kilometers from the India-Pakistan border.

Tagged as the work of terrorists, it was the first attack using bomb-laden drones against an Indian military facility and, according to officials and experts, represented a watershed in asymmetric warfare. With commercial drones readily available and relatively inexpensive, they are a “huge and serious challenge,” retired Indian Army Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who led security efforts in the border region as head of India’s Northern Command from 2014-16, told The Associated Press the day of the attack. “Drones have a small visual signature and traditional radars hardly pick them up,” Hooda said. “It will require a whole range of new modifications for the military to intercept and defuse these kinds of attacks.”

It was a prescient warning. Within 24 hours, Indian Soldiers fired on two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hovering over military areas elsewhere in Jammu and Kashmir, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported. Indian authorities responded swiftly and decisively to the spate of incidents, with measures including heightened investment in counter-drone systems. The initiatives accelerated a whole-of-society approach that mirrors the collaborative efforts underway across the Indo-Pacific region to enlist military, civilian and scientific partners in countering the swarm of challenges posed by drones, whether in the hands of state or nonstate actors. “Drone warfare is one of the most important international security developments of the twenty-first century,” noted a November 2020 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Armed drones are proliferating rapidly, and drone warfare is thus likely to become even more prevalent in coming years.” 

In the global trade hub of Singapore, for example, malicious drone activity could devastate the “small, yet congested and complex” airspace, noted an article in Pointer: Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces. The island nation’s defense industry has invested in counter-drone technologies “both for commercial and military users seeking to defend their assets from drone threats,” Lt. Col. Ho Sen Kiat, Maj. Lee Mei Yi and Capt. Sim Bao Chen, of the Singapore Armed Forces, wrote in the mid-2018 issue. “This is still an exploratory domain, as many different solutions had been explored internationally, from firing nets from guns or other small drones, to using more advanced technologies like lasers and high-powered microwave.”

Republic of Korea Soldiers and firefighters inspect a drone during a June 2021 drill in Seoul to prepare for potential terror attacks involving unmanned aerial vehicles armed with explosives or chemical weapons. REUTERS

Harnessing New Technology

While the Indian military was sifting through the details of the drone attack, Republic of Korea (ROK) special forces were preparing for just such an eventuality in Seoul, South Korea, where the remote-controlled devices have become an increasingly common sight in the skies above the city of 10 million people. During drills at a sports complex in late June, special forces personnel used signal-jamming devices to disable a drone spraying chemicals in a simulated attack. “There are terror attacks using drones happening periodically [around the world] and we have seen appearances of unauthorized drones gradually increasing in Seoul,” Shin Dong-il, a Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency superintendent, told Reuters. “Therefore, we planned this drill as there are growing threats of a new type of terrorism against the city of Seoul, such as terrorism with explosives or chemicals using drones.”

A week earlier, the ROK military unveiled a pilot program for a detection-and-jamming system to stop drones approaching its facilities, reported Yonhap, South Korea’s government-affiliated news agency. Developed with indigenous technologies, the radar system can detect drones as small as a baseball up to 8 kilometers away and incapacitate unauthorized UAVs with signal jammers, according to the nation’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration. The announcement soon was followed by news that the ROK military was expediting its acquisition process to speed deployment of artificial intelligence (AI)-based systems and other evolving capabilities, including those related to drones. “As our neighboring countries are putting national efforts toward science and technology development to prepare for the future, our military should also swiftly adopt cutting-edge technologies, such as AI and unmanned systems, and focus on developing defense policies and strategies for the future,” South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said in late July 2021, according to Yonhap.

That same month, India’s Air Force solicited proposals for 10 anti-drone systems to be deployed at air bases, the Asian News International news agency reported. It called for a domestically developed system that uses a laser-based, directed-energy weapon and can be mounted on vehicles, buildings or open ground. Such weapons could blunt the “potentially transformative threat of drone swarms,” according to Jacob Parakilas, a foreign policy and international security analyst. The ability of lasers “to fire for an extended period without drawing down a limited stock of ammunition gives them singular potential against swarms of lightweight drones, which might confound traditional defensive measures,” Parakilas wrote in the online magazine The Diplomat in September 2021. “In that context, they might well provide a crucial part of a layered defensive system, with electronic defenses, decoys, missiles, and guns all providing countermeasures against different types of threats.”

The U.S. Army’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office conducted a weeklong demonstration of emerging counter-drone technology at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in April 2021. MARK SCHAUER/U.S. ARMY

China Driving Proliferation

Those threats are escalating. A decade ago, only Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States possessed armed drones, according to research by three U.S.-based academics. Since then, at least 18 countries have joined that group, and “non-democracies became significantly more likely to pursue and obtain armed drones from 2011-2019 due to China’s entrance into the drone export market,” Michael C. Horowitz and Joshua A. Schwartz of the University of Pennsylvania and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M University wrote in “Who’s Prone to Drone? A Global Time-Series Analysis of Armed Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Proliferation,” published in the journal Conflict Management and Peace Science in late 2020.

Unlike Indo-Pacific democracies such as Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the U.S., the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not among the 35 member nations of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal grouping dating to the late 1980s that seeks to limit the spread of missiles and missile technology by controlling exports of related equipment and systems, including drones. Indeed, 11 of the nations that acquired armed drones since 2011 did so from the PRC, according to the research paper, including authoritarian regimes “that violate human rights” and that may use drones to further monitor and repress their citizens. “The spread of drones –– and especially armed drones –– has significant consequences for international politics. … The proliferation of armed drones also has important implications for interstate coercion and escalation dynamics,” the researchers noted.

“For states that seek to break long-standing geopolitical deadlocks, the rise of relatively cheap, disposable, armed drones offers a tempting opportunity,” Jason Lyall, a military technology expert at Dartmouth College in the U.S., noted in the article “The future of drone warfare,” published in The Week magazine in June 2021. Even unarmed drones can threaten military and security operations when used for surveillance, as decoys or to jam air defense systems. “Armed with relatively inexpensive and unsophisticated equipment, a small drone could gather critical intelligence and provide targeting to other platforms and munitions that could cause much more damage than the drone could itself,” noted a July 2021 article in the online magazine
The War Zone.

In India’s case, at least for now, the looming drone threat comes less from enemy nations than from extremist groups and other nonstate combatants. Indian security forces in western regions bordering Pakistan reported about 250 drone sightings from 2019 to 2020, with the UAVs used to deliver weapons to terrorists, smuggle drugs and conduct surveillance, according to a June 2021 article in The Diplomat. The security environment is increasingly complicated because improved technology has made building drones something akin to a “DIY project that could be tackled at home,” said Indian Army chief Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane, according to the Hindustan Times.

India’s eastern neighbor is grappling with a similar dilemma. In late August 2021, Bangladeshi counterterrorism police announced the arrest of three militants suspected of planning a drone attack on government facilities, the first such threat in the nation of 165 million people, BenarNews reported. “The Islamic State militants in the Middle East used drones to carry out such drone attacks. But in Bangladesh, to date we have not seen any attempt by the militants to carry out attacks using drones,” Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, a security analyst and retired Bangladesh Air Force commodore, told the news organization. “I would say the militants’ attempt to carry out attacks with drones is a new dimension. Making or improvising drones has almost become a cottage industry. The students and even a low-level technician can make a drone or increase its weight-carrying capacity.”

Proving Their Worth

Those concerns are fueling the development of counter-drone technology regionwide, including in the U.S., where projects fusing civilian and military expertise are at the leading edge of progress in the fast-evolving field. In mid-2021, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy successfully tested counter-drone systems being developed by global defense firms. The U.S. Navy completed a six-week deployment of the DroneSentry-X system aboard its experimental testbed vessel, the M80 Stiletto. The AI-powered system can detect drones up to 2 kilometers away and disrupt them at ranges exceeding 300 meters, according to manufacturer DroneShield, which also is working with the national defense agencies of Australia and the U.K., among other clients. “The demonstration saw the M80 go up against ‘drone swarms’ and what has been described as ‘a wide range of unmanned robotic threats,’” noted a July 2021 article in The War Zone. “The combination of the Navy’s one-of-a-kind littoral vessel and an automated anti-drone system highlights the increasingly significant threat that lower-end unmanned systems pose to naval operations and may point to these systems becoming more common aboard surface ships.”

At its Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, meanwhile, the U.S. Army used the Coyote Block 3 system to defeat a swarm of 10 drones of differing size, range and capability, according to the defense news website Janes. Developed by Raytheon Missiles & Defense, the Coyote uses a nonkinetic warhead and “can be recovered, refurbished and reused without leaving the battlefield.” The U.K. Armed Forces also will test Raytheon-developed anti-UAV technology, the High-Energy Laser Weapon System, the company announced in September 2021. “Directed energy weapons are a key element of our future equipment programs and we intend to become a world-leader in the research, manufacture and implementation of this next-generation technology,” U.K. Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin said in a statement.

Spurred by the air base attack, the Indian Armed Forces also is exploring the promise of next-gen technology to defeat emerging threats. India’s then top general said in late June 2021 that the nation’s three military branches and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are collaborating with academics and other stakeholders to quicken development of counter-drone technology, the Hindustan Times reported. That includes systems with both signal-jamming, or “soft kill,” and laser-based, or “hard kill,” options, according to DRDO Chairman G Satheesh Reddy. By September, the Indian Navy had signed a contract for just such a system, with the Air Force and Army expected to quickly follow suit. The indigenous system, manufactured by Bharat Electronics Ltd., “can instantly detect and jam micro drones and use a laser-based kill mechanism to terminate targets,” according to a joint statement. “It will be an effective, all-encompassing counter to the increased drone threat to strategic naval installations.”

Force for Good, Ill

In many ways, India’s experiences in mid-2021 encapsulate the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of drones — their capacity to contribute to the common good and their potential, in the wrong hands, to wreak havoc. Barely two months after the Jammu and Kashmir attack, the Indian government unveiled streamlined certification requirements and special travel corridors to boost drone use for such activities as agriculture, emergency response, geospatial mapping, infrastructure, law enforcement, surveillance and transportation. “India has the potential to be a global drone hub by 2030 as drones offer tremendous benefits to all sectors of the economy and can be significant creators of employment and economic growth due to their reach, versatility, and ease of use,” India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation said in an August 2021 statement.

Evidence of such benefits can already be seen. In Telangana, India, the government is working with a local startup on a drone-based project to plant 5 million trees across 12,000 hectares of the state. In another public-private collaboration, Telangana is pioneering the use of drones to deliver vaccines, blood and other medical supplies to rural residents through its Medicine from the Sky program, The Hindu newspaper reported in September 2021. Similar projects are gathering pace across the region, including in Indonesia, where amateur drone operators spearheaded an innovative program to provide contactless medicine and food delivery to self-isolating COVID-19 patients on remote islands.

The same consumer gadgetry that allows drone hobbyists to save lives also enables extremists to take lives, however. Solving that conundrum is a pressing priority for Indo-Pacific allies and partners. “Technology trends are dramatically transforming legitimate applications of sUAS [small unmanned aircraft systems] while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors, and criminals,” the U.S. Department of Defense noted in its Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy, published in January 2021.

A year earlier, the U.S. Army established its Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO) to lead development of the training, materiel and doctrine required to counter small drones, which “represent a rapidly proliferating, low cost, high-reward and potentially lethal and damaging capability against U.S. personnel, critical assets and interests.” The JCO’s tasks include establishing testing protocols and standards, creating training modules and hosting demonstrations of emerging counter-drone technologies at the Yuma Proving Ground. Some of the tested systems fire a net or rope from an onboard air pistol to entangle an enemy drone’s rotors, while others shoot down drones or ram them midair, according to a U.S. Army news release. “I don’t think there is any question that there is value — we need to have a place for industry to come in and show their technology to counter the threats to our warfighters,” said Stanley Darbro, deputy director of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.

As militaries ready for the challenges presented by drones, they must also ensure that their own use of such technology is guided by transparent policies and rules that are subject to continuous review and revision in a swiftly changing environment. “Weapon systems with autonomous functionalities have been used safely and reliably in combat for eight decades. They will continue to be used in the future,” Robert O. Work, a former U.S. deputy defense secretary and retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, wrote in his report titled “Principles for the Combat Employment of Weapon Systems with Autonomous Functionalities,” published in April 2021 by the Center for a New American Security. “Indeed, the addition of AI-enabled applications into these weapon systems is expected to make them even more discriminate in the application of force and lead to a reduction in unintended engagements — an aim entirely consistent with international humanitarian law.”

Nevertheless, unmanned weapon systems are not immune from human fallibility and error, and lessons must be gleaned from mistakes. For example, after a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in August 2021 killed 10 civilians, military leaders ordered an investigation of the tragic accident. The review by the U.S. Air Force inspector general found that the UAV operators believed they were targeting terrorists who planned to attack the Kabul airport, where a suicide bomber had killed scores of civilians and 13 U.S. service members days earlier.

Although the investigation found no violation of law, including the law of war, it concluded that “there were execution errors, combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns,” according to the U.S. Defense Department. Among other measures, the inspector general recommended implementing procedures to mitigate risks of confirmation bias, enhancing the sharing of mission situational awareness and reviewing prestrike procedures used to assess the presence of civilians.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. military continues to hone its counter-drone capabilities in conjunction with public and private collaborators, the demonstrations at the Yuma Proving Ground are expected to continue for several years. “Finally, we will work with our allies and partners to develop a shared understanding of threats, vulnerabilities, and interoperability needs,” noted the U.S. Defense Department’s Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy. “Through this holistic approach, the Department will ensure the Joint Force is both ready to meet today’s challenges and prepared for the future.”  

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