The Drones of Nagorno-Karabakh....Where are we?
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

This article is a sequel to the author’s preceding work titled, “Why the drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan”1.

The previous work analysed the reasons as to why Armenia suffered such crippling losses attributed mainly to drone strikes in its recent conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed lands of Nagorno-Karabkh. While there were losses on both sides, the one’s on the Armenian side were far greater leading to their defeat.

This article transposes the above scenario on to the India-China-Pakistan matrix and attempts to analyse what capability our potential adversaries have got to launch drone strikes and what is required on our side to counter the assessed threat?

RE-visiting Nagorno-Karabakh

In order to make a correct assessment in our scenario, it is relevant to understand why the drones succeeded in causing disproportionate destruction in Armenia? Following points are madein this context:-

  1. Azerbaijan mainly had two types of drones, namely, the Turkish Bayractar TB2 and the Israeli Harop.
  2. Bayractar is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) class of drone having an altitude ceiling of 27000 ft and an endurance of 27 hrs. It has multiple means of surveillance and target acquisition which includes a state-of-the-art Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, besides Electro Optical (EO),Infra red (IR) and laser homing devices.
  3. The Harop is actually a loitering ammunition that can lay in wait over a battlefield and prey on the target of choice as and when it becomes available for strike. It has loiter time of 6 hrs, a speed of 417 km/h and a range of 1000 km.
  4. The most deadly thing about Harop is its very small radar cross-section or RCS (RCS is a measure of target’s detectability by radar. Higher the RCS, greater are the chances of its detection. Harop’s RCS is a mere 0.5 m2 which is considered to be very small and hence this type of drone cannot be easily detected by conventional air defence radars.
  5. On one side was the above arsenal while on the other was the inventory of Armenian GBADWS that was ill-equipped to deal with such a threat. Some relevant points in corroboration of the above assertion are stated.
    1. The Armenian inventory of ground based air defence weapon systems (in short referred to as GBADWS) consisted of old vintage (sixties and seventies) guns and surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems. The gun inventory included some towed and self-propelled 23mm guns (range 2.5 km) while the SAMs included Strela, OSA AK, SAM6, Buk2M, Pechora, SA4 (range coverage 5 km-55 km, altitude ceiling up to 80,400 ft). There were also a few fire units of S-300 ballistic missile defence system.
    2. The above inventory conspicuously lacked the type of arsenal that is required to address the threat posed by small RCS drones (explained later).
    3. Not only, the requisite arsenal to counter a typical drone threat was not there with the defenders, even the Air Defence Control and Reporting System(ADCRS) which binds all the GBADWS into one integrated system and enables execution of a seamless air defence battle was either not there or not seen to be operating as it should have.
  6. The result was that the undetected drones, operating in a nearly uncontested sky, took out tanks, artillery pieces and even the radars of the mighty S-300 system as sitting ducks. The sensors associated with the old vintage SAMs radiating high power RF energy were easy targets for the radiation homing drones like the Harop.
  7. Disproportionate losses on the Armenian side were also attributed to lack of training, tactics and unskilful use of ground (this is not discussed further)
Similarities in Our Scenario

There is a striking similarity between the unfolding of events in the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh and what may await us in our battlefields of tomorrow. Following points are stated in corroboration of this point:-

  1. Our potential adversaries have similar (in fact much greater) drone strike capability than as possessed by Azerbaijan (covered later).
  2. Our inventory of GBADWS is very much similar to what was held by Armenia.
  3. Our ADCRS? Is it in the same state of jeopardy and in-action as Armenia’s? (Covered later).

Each of the above point is further elaborated.

What Threat we Face from Drones?

India faces drone strike attack from both its potential adversaries. The combat muscle of each of these is enumerated.

China
  1. China is an established power in the field of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) of which drones are a subset.
  2. It has machines both for the conventional battle functions such as Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), as well as, strike role.
  3. Its drone strike capability spans the complete altitude bracket from low (say 30m) to medium (300m) to high (more than 300m) and endurance capabilities that go past 24-30 h2. Some specific examples:
    1. In the MALE category, there are UAS like BZK 005, GJ 1 and GJ 2 which have a service ceiling up to 9000 m and endurance up to 24 hrs.
    2. In the HALE (high altitude long endurance) category there are UAS like EA 03 and WZ 7 which have altitude ceiling in the range of 18000m and endurance up to 24 hrs3.
    3. At the cutting edge of this class, thereis a UAS called Wing Loong. This UAS is grouped in the same class as MQ-9 Predator UAS (which is a gold class in this category).
    4. Wing long can carry a payload of 480 kg. These could be air-to-surface weapons, precision guided munitions like guided bombs, air-to-surface missiles/guided rockets, anti-radiation missiles etc. (specific payload - bombs - FT 10 - 25 kg, FT 9 - 50 kg, or FT 7- 130 kg, guided rockets and ARMs -BRM 1, AKD 10, GB10- a flare seeker bomb).

      This UAS is not only capable of defeating radiating targets like radars and surveillance devices it can very well take on the non-radiating ones like bunkers, fortifications and vehicles etc. It can also carry an anti-ship missile - YJ9E.4

      Wing Loong II is an improved version of Wing LoongI. It has a range of 4000 Km, an endurance of 20 hrs, a service ceiling of 5000 meters and a maximum speed of 370 km/h. It can take on its targets both during day as well as, under low-light/night conditions5.

      In an another variation of payload, Wing Loong can carry the BA-7 air-to-ground missiles, YZ212 laser-guided cluster bombs, YZ 102A cluster bombs and 50 kg LS-6 which are miniature guided bombs6.

    5. Besides the big birds as main killers, there is a whole range of technology-driven innovative UAS and drones held by China. Some of these include Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) machines, morphing UAS, rotary wing platforms, autonomous UAS free of Ground Control Station (GCS). Several current designs have strong stealth muscle as well.7
    6. Drone strike power gets multiplied when operating in concert with manned platforms in joint operations called Manned and Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). China has MUM-T capability. Some examples:-
      1. Wing Loog UAS is MUM-T enabled.
      2. Another drone called the Tianying/Skyhawk drone (speed 200 km/h, endurance6-12 h) also has MUM-T muscle.
      3. Gongji 11 (combat radius 1000 km) and WZ8 supersonic ISTAR platform are also MUM-T enabled.
  4. In the field swarm drones, fixed wing as well as the rotary wing machines swarms called helicopter swarms are reported as developed8.
Pakistan

Following points are stated:-

  1. Leaving aside the rudimentary first generation machines of the nineties (Ababeel, Bazz, Uquaab, Jasoos etc)9, Pakistan slowly moved to acquire some reasonable ISTAR platforms (Stingray - range 45 km endurance 1 h, Flemingo- range 200 km , endurance 6-8 hrs, etc.) 1011.
  2. Over the years that followed, it imported a variety of UAS from multiple countries. These include, China - ASN 105A and ASN 206 (105A- range 155 km endurance 2 hrs, 206-range 200 km endurance 6-8 hrs), Germany - Luna range 100 km endurance 5 hrs, UK- Snipe Mk II and Streak UAV-Snipe - range 8 km endurance 35 mins, Streak - range not known, endurance 20 mins, Italy- Falco UAV- range 200 Km endurance 8-12 hrs, South Africa - Seeker - range 200 Km, endurance 9 hrs).
  3. All the above were basic ISTAR platforms. In the field of combat UAS and drones, Pakistan initially tried for many years to get the US Predator drone on the pretext of keeping the 2500 km Durand Line under check, but these efforts did not bear fruit (technology proliferation blues?) 1213.
  4. Driven by the above fait-accompli it embarked on the indigenous combat UAS programme around 2009. What was realized after about seven years of development was the Burraq unmanned combat aerial platform (UCAV). Some points on the technical muscle of this platform:-
    1. Burraq’s development has been driven by the Predator UAS of General Atomics USA and CH3 - Rainbow, a Chinese front-ranking UCAV14.
    2. Burraq has a cruising speed of 215 Km, a range of 1000km, service ceiling of 7500m and an endurance of 12h ( in that, it pips the Rainbow UCAV at 960 km and equals its endurance of 12 h).

    3. `

    4. Burraq can carry guided bombs (YC 200) and air-to-surface missile AR-1. This is a Chinese supersonic anti-tank missile with a range of 10 kms and adapted for use by unmanned platforms1516.
    5. It can also carry two Barq air-to-surface laser-guided missiles17. This weapon is capable of taking on both the stationery, as well as, moving targets18.
  5. It was reported way back in 2018 that China is likely to sell its state-of-the-art Wing Loong II UCAVs to Pakistan19. While the cost of the deal was not revealed, it was more significant to note that the deal was not a buy-sell zero-sum deal; it involved co-production of Wing Loong in Pakistan, which means Transfer of Technology (ToT). 20 By implication, it means a perpetual capability enhancement for times to come. The capabilities of Wing Loong have been described earlier.
  6. While, the co-production can catch up over the years, there was a report in July 2020 about China supplying 4 Wing Loong II drones in fully- formed state to Pakistan ostensibly for the protection of the Gwadar Port and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)21. It can thus be said that Pakistan has the muscle of Wing Loong II, albeit in small numbers.
Inferences from the Capabilities of Potential Adversaries

Based on the capabilities described above, following inferences can be drawn:-

  1. China in a large measure and Pakistan to a comparatively lesser extent, have capabilities of drone power.
  2. It is significant to note the proxy capability enhancement of Pakistan by China (Wing Loong II).
  3. The above capability spans both the domains, namely ISTAR as well as, strike.
  4. The nature of armaments carried on board the strike drones are such that will make the following type of targets vulnerable to their strikes in any future war:-
    1. Personnel.
    2. Field fortifications like bunkers/concrete structures etc.
    3. Non-mechanised targets (vehicles, dumps etc.)
    4. Tanks, BMPs, support echelons.
    5. Radiating targets (radars - early warning, tactical control, fire control, missile guidance, battlefield surveillance etc.).
Assessment of Capability versus Threat

In order to access the adequacy or otherwise of the capability to address the drone threat it is imperative to first establish what specifically is required as anti-drone capability. This is enumerated:-

  1. The biggest strength of drones (especially the small killer-drones) is their capability to avoid detection by defender’s radars. This is due to the fact that drones usually have a very small RCS which translates as low-detectability, as stated earlier.
  2. The experience has it, that most of the erstwhile early warning, tactical control, fire control and missile guidance radars are unable to detect low/very low RCS drones. Only some current generation radars such as the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars operating in mid frequency bands(C, X, Ku, K- 6-15 GHZ where high resolution and precise detection is possible) show promise in the electronic detection of low/very low RCS drones.
  3. In fact, some other types of surveillance and detection devices that do not use radio frequency are found to be better indetection of small drones. One of these is the Electro-Optical (EO) devices based on day and night cameras, laser range finder and computer processing devices.
  4. These produce a 3D dynamic image of the drone in flight, which the user is able identify it as a flying object against the backgroundnoise/clutter. These devices could be based on forward looking infra-red (FLIR), laser etc. The other means that appears promising in drone detection is acoustic detection, simply relying on a definitive acoustic signature possessed by every drone big or small.

  5. Once detected, the next challenge is to kill the drone. For this task, it makes poor economic sense to kill a few hundred-dollar drone by a million-dollar missile. Drones are low-cost threat vehicles, these demand low-cost kill means. Going by this, these is no point launching a very short (MANPAD) or a short, medium or long range SAM to kill half a meter drone. Also, these will prove to be ineffective when faced with such threats as swarm drones since irrespective of the number of SAMs launched, a few of them will still land to cause destruction. In this context, it will be relevant to remember that on 05 Jan 2018,during the first ever recorded organised drone attack at the Russian Air Base in Western Syria, 7 out of 13 drones still landed at the air base in spite of Russians launching the BUK 2M state-of-the-art SAMs at them
  6. The best way to kill the drones lies along following different lines:-
    1. Machine guns/High firing small arms-
    2. There are EO sights which can be fitted on mainframe rifles and MMGs (AK 47, AK203 etc.). These help in tracing the drones, which are destroyed at short ranges by small arm fire. Navy has recently ordered 2000 such systems from Israel22.

    3. RF Drone Guns.
    4. These guns shaped in the form of small arms send RF jamming signals which aim to severe the link between the drone and its GCS. This either makes the drone rudderless or forces it to return to base on default command.23 One example of such a weapon is M2K RF Drone gun designed by M2K Technologies India.

    5. Electronic fencing.
    6. This counter envisages erecting an electromagnetic wall which can extend to a given area and may rise to a height of 500-700m. Any drones entering into this field are subjected to jamming attacks on their electronic and electromagnetic devices which either get crippled or initiate a default ‘return to base’ command. Such jamming attacks can also jam the RF seekers on board the warheads which may be carried by the drones.

    7. Spoofing attacks24
    8. This counter drone solution aims to defeat drone attacks by sending spoofing signals which misguide the drone and disorientate/corrupt the navigation signals. The device has two parts. One part tracks and acquires the nature of GPS signals used by the drone. The second part, based on a digitalsignal processor creates corresponding spoofing signals for attack. SKYctrl anti-drone system from SaudiArabia is an example of this weapon25.

    9. Hacking attacks
    10. Close on the heels of spoofing, the hackers can take control of the drone guidance and navigation system and can command drones to a safe place for destruction. The downing of US RQ 170 UAV by Iran on 05 Dec 2011 was a case of this form of attack26.

    11. High Energy weapons
    12. Other drone killers are high-energy laser beams that can simply fry-up the drone electronics or the high power microwave weapons that can create an electromagnetic pulse which can incapacitate the communication and electronics on board the drones making them toothless.

    13. Drone fishing!

Besides simple mechanical payloads that aim to kill the attackers through catastrophic collision, a new innovation involves throwing a net out in the air to catch the drones and dump the same where it matters a little. Some drone fishing this!

That much for the anti-drone arsenal

Some Reflections on where are we?

While, it is not desired to state in the open source where our gaps are (classified) in the anti-drone wherewithal, some reflections are made, based on known facts:-

  1. Our inventory of GBADWS is anchored on the twin pillars of guns and missile systems. The towed and self-propelled guns (and gun-missile) systems include the L-70, ZU-23, Schilka and Tunguska weapons, the SAMS are comprised of Igla, Strela10M, OSA-AK, Kvadrat SAM 6, and the Barak MRSAM in the near future.

  2. While the futility (and economic unviability) of taking out drones by SAM attacks has been brought out, high rate of fire guns like the ZU (1600-2000 rpm), Schilka (3400 rpm), Tunguska (4000-5000 rpm) could be effective drone-killers provided these can be detected and tracked.
  3. Talking of radar detection, the radars associated with old vintage SAMs as mentioned above are likely to fall short (RCS blues), suitable eyes and ears (AESA, EO, IIR ) will be required. (Current holdings-classified).
  4. In addition to guns, other drone kill arsenal is also a must. The good news is that most of the technologies are available in-house. Also, it is heartening to record that there is a lot of work going on in this field. In that, while the indigenous manufacturers are showing their prowess, the user is getting increasingly pro-active and aware in acquiring this arsenal (details classified).
  5. And finally, a word on the ADCRS. Proud to record that we do possess a national level ADCRS. That its handshake across service domains will be seamless when the time comes, is the hope of the author.

Back to the poser – where are we? The one-line answer is ‘WELL ON OUR WAY’; is all that can be told openly.

Endnotes
  1. “Why drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan? An analysis,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 03 Dec 20.
  2. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles- Chinese Intelligence Systems”, at www. globalsecurity.org. Accessed on 03 Dec 20.
  3. ibid. Accessed on 03 Dec 20.
  4. ibid. Accessed on 03 Dec 20.
  5. "Wing Loong II MALE..." at www.armyrecognition.com.Accessed 10 Dec 2020.
  6. "China's Wing LoongII aerial drone built to rival US MQ 9 Reaper," at www.chinatopix.com. Accessed 10 Dec 2020.
  7. 5 ibid. Accessed 10 Dec 2020.
  8. “China is making 1,000 UAV drone swarms now,” at www.popsci.com. Accessed on 10 Dec 2020.
  9. 5 ibid. Accessed 10 Dec 2020.
  10. "SATUMA Flamingo" at satuma.co..pk. accessed 16 Dec 2020.
  11. "Stingray", at www.ruvsa.com.Accessed 16 Dec 2020.
  12. 2 ibid. Accessed 16 Dec 2020.
  13. BokhariFarhan" Pakistan to deploy its own UAVs over FATA" Janes Defence Weekly 2014 .
  14. "CH-3 Rainbow" at www.militaryfactory.com. Accessed 16 Dec 2020.
  15. “AR 1,”at www.deagel.com. Accessed on 17 Dec 2020.
  16. "CH-3 Rainbow" at www.militaryfactory.com.Accessed on 17 Dec 2020.
  17. "NESCOM Burraq Unmanned Combat aerial Vehicle," at www.militaryfactory.com.Accessed 18 Dec 2020.
  18. "Pakistan to show missile muscle," at www.defwnce .pk. accessed 19 Dec 2020.
  19. "China to sell 48 high-end military drones to Pakistan," at www.economivtimes.indiatimes.com.accessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  20. "China, Pakistan to co-produce 48 strike capable Wing Loong II drones, " at www.thediplomat.com. Accessed 19 Dec 2020.
  21. “China to supply 4 attack drones to Pak..,” at www.hindustantimes.com. Accessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  22. “Navy orders Israeli SMASH 2000 plus systems to tackledrones,” at www.theprint.in. Accessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  23. “12 ways to defend a drone attack…,”at www.defence.capital/2020/12/01/12. Acccessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  24. Ibid. Accessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  25. SKYctrl anti-drone system, “atwww.guard.apssystems.tech/anti_dronee/system.Accessed on 19 Dec 2020.
  26. Iran-USRQ -170 incident,” at www.en.wikipedia.org.Accessed on 19 Dec 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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