Confronting Pakistan’s drone challenge

The need to invest in improving anti-drone technologies 

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

ISPR’s press release on Monday featured a few photographs of Indian border posts, reportedly taken from the drone shot down by Pakistani troops on July 15th 2015. After this release, the Pakistani Urdu media quickly followed suit. The daily Nawa-i-waqt even carried a news item alleging that the Northern Command chief Lt. Gen. DS Hooda had admitted that it was an Indian drone.

Nothing of this orchestrated reaction from Pakistan is surprising. Expect a few more claims and counterclaims from both sides over the next few days. More importantly, this incident gives a glimpse of the role of drones in the India—Pakistan conflict in the years to come.

Drones are not new to Pakistan. The US has been conducting drone strikes since 2004. This continues till date, albeit with one massive difference: the change of narrative regarding drones in Pakistan.

Before 16th December 2014, usage of drones was castigated in Pakistani popular opinion. There was a huge build-up of public resentment against the ‘flying robots’ who killed terrorists and innocents alike. However, this perception started changing post the gruesome attack on the Army school in Peshawar. That incident softened the public opinion against drones — giving legitimacy to all actions that could be used against the enemies of the Pakistani state. In fact, just three days after the attack, the Pakistani army spoke about employing drones to kill TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah.

With this change in narrative, Pakistan has found it easier to talk about drones. With the US drones operating in the country for over a decade, the Pakistan army has had a sufficient exposure to this technology. And with Chinese help forthcoming in ways more than one, Pakistan tested its laser-guided missile mounted drone Burraq in March 2015.

It is possible that the Pakistani drone technology (indigenous or otherwise, surveillance or armed) is ahead of that of India’s. This means that the Indian defences will have to quickly ramp their efforts in anti-drone capabilities. While India has focused on procuring drones, there is little work done on fighting drones coming from the adversary.

Traditional techniques like using Surface to Air missiles might prove to be monetarily costly against drones. As a result, in the US, anti-drone technologies took off with communication and radar jamming techniques that decapitate the control mechanism of drones. Other technologies like using drones against other drones are still in the works. Given the nascent nature of this technology, India would do well to acquire anti-drone defence expertise from its partners like Israel or US in the short term.

The role of drones in the future of conflict will be significant, particularly in the India—Pakistan simmering conflict because drones are perceived low on the belligerence scale and have the added benefit of an increasing plausible deniability if things go wrong. Keeping this in mind, India needs to up its anti-drone game.

 Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas