The Increasing Significance of Anti-drone Technology for Pakistan

MQ-9 Guardian
MQ-9 Guardian Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Wikimedia Commons

On June 5, the Pakistan Army shot down an Indian spy drone that violated Pakistan’s airspace by intruding 500 meters inside Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control (LoC). This is the 8th Indian spy drone the Pakistani forces have intercepted and shot down in 2020. In the wake of recent Indian provocations leading to exchanges of fire between Pakistan and India, these airspace violations through ‘spy drones’ are exacerbating tensions between the two countries and raising fears of  further escalation. While such advances from India are an open violation of established norms and existing air agreements between the two countries, they are also indicative of the increasing significance of enhanced anti-drone technology as a part of the air defence system. The anti-drone technology is being used to detect, track, and destroy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as technological developments make drones more sophisticated and their usage increases over time. 

There is an enormous variety of drones in the air, making efficient detection systems an indispensable tool to alleviate potential risks related to drone usage. An increasing number of security breaches by unidentified drones as well as the practice of border espionage has therefore led to a rapid expansion in the anti-drone market. While the global anti-drone market size is expected to reach around $ 4.43 billion by 2026, the military and defence segment will continue to dominate the drone market.

India recently announced arming the Border Security Force (BSF) with anti-drone systems near the LoC that it claims are capable of detecting lone flying objects or a group of UAVs from a distance and can target them within 10 seconds. Reports also indicate that India is working on enhancing its capability, so that it can track and neutralise flying objects by jamming their radio and GPS. Moreover, India’s state-funded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Elbit System to jointly develop rotary military drones. Though Pakistan has shot rogue UAVs that have invaded Pakistani borders in the past. With drones becoming increasingly sophisticated, Pakistan would also have to enhance its methods for detecting, intercepting and targeting them. By and large, using traditional anti-aircraft weapons against drones is not feasible since using traditional anti-aircraft weapons can cost thousands of dollars per unit when used against shooting down unmanned aircraft. Moreover, the air defence systems that have traditionally been used to protect a country’s airspace from manned aircraft are mostly ineffective against drones, since military anti-aircraft radars are typically designed to detect large, fast-moving objects, as a result of which they cannot always detect small, slow, and low-flying drones.

While Counter-drone technology has already seen widespread use in certain applications, on the battlefield, counter unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) have so far most commonly been used for base protection and surveillance platforms. However, in light of the recent advancements and other developments in this domain, the application of anti-drone technology is now expanding to include airspace defence around sensitive facilities, port security, and maritime security.

Different C-UAS systems rely on a variety of techniques for detecting hostile UAS. While many C-UAS depend on electro-optical, infrared, or acoustic sensors to detect a target by its visual, heat, or sound signatures, some also rely on the use of radar systems. These methods, however, are not always capable of detecting small UAS due to their limited signatures and size. Another method used by C-UAS identifies the wireless signals used to control the UAS, commonly using Radio Frequency (RF) sensors. RF jamming systems disrupt the radio frequency link between the drone and its operator by generating large volumes of RF output. While RF jamming systems work by disrupting the drone’s communications link with the operator, many drones can be programmed to operate autonomously without an active RF link.

These methods and techniques, if used individually, have their own shortfalls; however, they can be combined to provide a more effective and layered detection capability. Once detected, the UAS may be engaged or disabled. Using Electronic warfare (EW), the defender can “spoof” the drone’s navigation system, jam its communications, defeat fuzes and weapons’ triggers, and even take control of the UAS. However, unmanned aircraft that have been built with protected communication links could be resistant to spoofing attacks.

With advancements in the Anti-drone technology, detection and interdiction systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and efficient. While the detection range of most drone detection systems is equal to the maximum distance between the operator and the drone, some new drone detection systems within today’s ever-growing anti-drone market guarantee a 50 km or further detection range. Furthermore, many drone detection systems are now equipped with an early-warning capability which allows them to detect the drone even before it takes off. Innovation and technological advancement has led to drones being further weaponised with autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) as defence firms conduct trials of anti-drone systems that make use of artificial intelligence to detect the identity of drones and neutralise them without any human intervention. The fastest-growing anti-drone technologies, however, are those based on laser systems since these technologies offer speed, flexibility, high precision, and low cost per shot. Currently, many companies including, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Rheinmetall Defense Electronics GmbH, and Raytheon are working on such technology for military purposes.

As the unmanned aircraft systems’ market expands, counter-drone systems will need to be flexible and efficient enough to detect and neutralise a growing variety of targets, ranging from large unmanned aircraft to low-flying surveillance drones. Undeniably, the proliferation of C-UAS technology will accelerate the development of technologies that will render C-UAS systems ineffective. As drones become smaller and faster, new solutions will be required to incapacitate them. It is important for anti-drone technology to be future-proof, as drones will now be far smaller, maintain higher altitudes, and be equipped with wide-field cameras, advanced tactical sensors, and facial recognition features. Predictably, drone and anti-drone technology will continue to evolve simultaneously.

While counter-drone systems have multiple challenges at the level of performance, practicality, and policy, one thing that holds true is that its significance is increasing and will continue to increase in the near future with the emergence of new technologies within the military domain. 

Amid the recent India-China standoff, India is likely to keep engaging with Pakistan on the LoC through its drones violating Pakistan’s airspace in an attempt to divert attention from its losses in Ladakh. Moreover, the BJP-led Hindu nationalist government’s policy in Kashmir and Modi’s warmongering will only exacerbate the situation, leading to the relations between the two countries to further deteriorate. In light India’s growing brinkmanship and amid the possibility of false flag operations against Pakistan, the incidents of Indian drones invading Pakistan’s airspace around the LoC will only increase. Under such circumstances, where situational readiness and preparedness are the key, there is a dire need for Pakistan to assess and strengthen its capabilities in the detection and deterrence of drones to prevent border espionage along the LoC.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.