Although the June drone attack on an Indian air base was unprecedented in the history of the Kashmir conflict, the Indian army is well equipped to mitigate the threats posed by armed UAVs.
On June 27, an airbase in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir was rocked by twin Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts delivered by drones. The Indian government believes that these attacks were planned in Pakistan and carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terror group in the eyes of the US and India. Pakistan hotly contests India's claim that it was behind the attack. Ever since, the military has reported further sightings of drones along the India-Pakistan border.
These recent developments bring drones to the centre stage of the instability in Kashmir and raise the question – do drones boost the capabilities of militant groups and serve as a game-changer in a place like Kashmir?
Elsewhere in the world, drones have played a vital role in counterterrorism as a part of decapitation strategy, which relies on taking out the top leadership of terrorist groups and pulverizing the group’s operational capabilities by disrupting supply chains and adversely impacting attack frequency.
If drones have been key in taking out terrorist groups, then a role reversal where militants take up drones would surely be a turning point in Kashmir, right? A fair assumption, but not reflective of ground realities.
Although decapitation by drones has been integral to the war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the role of drones in counterterrorism itself has been overstated. This approach has provided a short-term solution and Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban have all managed to rebuild themselves.
The reasons are twofold. First, it ignores cellular resistance and decentralised power structures of terrorist groups that offer operational independence even when one sector is eliminated. Second, one needs consistent and prolonged drone strikes to permanently derail the functioning of these groups.
In counterinsurgencies where the focus is on the local population, the use of drones is further limited to surveillance and reconnaissance.
The impact on groups’ threat matrix
To measure the efficacy of drone warfare employed by militant groups operating in Kashmir against the Indian state, it's important to analyse the changing nature of militancy in the region.
Armed outfits are increasingly using technology for information warfare and other activities. The LeT introducing ‘Cyber Mujahids’ to fight a propaganda war against India, and Daesh announcing an Indian wilayat, which aims to increase its foothold in Kashmir, are part of the changing realities that pose new threats to India's security presence in the region.
Kashmir, a heavily militarised zone with approximately 350,000 armed personnel, can provide plenty of opportunities. Military outposts, defence bases, and critical installations are in abundance. Hitting sensitive targets can also boost psyops against the Indian state.
However, carrying out drone attacks comes with its fair share of hurdles.
Checkpoints, heavy policing, frequent lockdowns, robust intelligence gathering are all stumbling blocks for any operation against a state. Intermittent access to the Internet and mobile services means difficulty accessing GPS services to guide drones though autonomous drone navigations circumvent this issue. Now with the complete ban on drones in Srinagar, forces also have the freedom to shoot down any unidentified drone.
The Indian government is further upping its defences by installing drone detection and countermeasures, such as radars, RF sensors, GPS spoofing and D4 systems. The government recognises the impact of drones on its security and hence both the military and Directorate General of Civil Aviation are working towards more comprehensive drone and counter-drone policies.
Here, India requires scalable and cheaper solutions to increase its detection and counter-drone capabilities. As such, drone attacks up the costs imposed on the Indian state but are insufficient to force the Indian government to reconsider its presence in Kashmir. The fact that India is going ahead with its delimitation efforts after the abrogation of Article 370 despite protests from Kashmiri political brass points towards India’s undeterred plans for the state; this comes despite three decades of militancy in the Kashmir valley.
The third determinant – an adversary's capability – is still fluid. With time groups hone their skills in modifying drones to increase payload capacity, flight time and battery life. As of now, drone attacks are not a regular feature; the attack on the Indian airbase did not even claim any lives. While modified commercial drones are not uncommon, we are yet to see the use of military-grade drones.
There is another critical factor that determines the capability of militant groups to carry out attacks in Kashmir i.e., the threshold of attacks. In Syria, a Russian airbase saw attacks by swarms of drones, but this might not be possible in Kashmir. India’s ability to hit back at Pakistan, which New Delhi believes extends support to terrorist and insurgent groups, limits the threshold of the attacks carried by groups that operate from Pakistan.
These factors together suggest that drones do not give a substantial edge to militant groups and hence it is unfair to overstate the risk. The power-inequities in the Kashmir conflict are likely to persist even with drones becoming a part of militants’ toolkit as a force multiplier in an asymmetric conflict. The situation is similar to what India’s left-wing extremist groups or Naxals are facing – in 2019 they carried out the first drone attack against the state but are yet to coerce the Indian government to meet their demands. While drones in Kashmir do not tip the balance in favour of any secessionist or militant group, it is ill-advised to completely ignore the threat.
In due course, drones will become a constant irritant and a source of low-intensity attacks that India will have to face. Even when not used to carry out attacks, these have been and will continue to be used to drop off guns, drugs and money to extremist groups operating in Kashmir.
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