The first ever drone attack on an Indian Air Force station in Jammu after midnight on Sunday — two drones dropped two 2 kg IEDs with TNT and RDX, six minutes apart — marked a significant escalation of the terror challenge from Pakistan. The bombs were professionally made, no amateur exercise this.
As of Tuesday, there have been more drone sightings in the Jammu region. Drones are not easily detectable by radar, so it’s difficult to tell where they came from, and, anyway, they surprised Indian security systems yet again. But preliminary investigations point to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, along with Jaish-e-Mohammed are regularly used by the Pakistani establishment for terror acts in India.
The drone threat has been around and talked about for the past few years. Pakistan based and sponsored terror groups have been dropping weapons etc across the LOC/IB in Punjab and J&K for some time now. But this took things up several notches.
The scale of the challenge was not unanticipated by the Indian system. But as with most other things, India is still playing catch-up.
Responding to media questions, Gen Bipin Rawat said India was trying to buy drone technology from the world market, “but at the same time, I think our drone technology is also evolving. … It is not an easy technology because we lack the technology to build the engine of our aircraft, but I think we are moving in the right direction.”
For the time being, the Pakistan drone threat and its “surprise” element will keep Indians very busy. Acquisition of anti-drone technology and equipment is still a while away. Until then, Indian security forces will have to keep scanning the skies physically. As Rawat said, “physical destruction of drones which is not an easy solution since they are small and not easily detected by radars. So we need to have physical surveillance of the entire space, particularly in vulnerable spaces.”
Pakistan-sponsored terror has been a step ahead — IC-814 hijack was regarded as a learning module for 9/11; 26/11 attack was the next level of terror, and was replicated. Pathankot attack moved to the next level, replicated in one form or another in Uri, Nagrota and Pulwama. The Jammu attack moves things to yet another level — one we have seen playing out in the killing fields of Iraq, particularly by the ISIS, and in the spectacular attack on the Aramco refinery in Abqaiq by the Houthis.
The Jammu attack is a deliberate move by Pakistan. It comes at a time when India and Pakistan remain politically very far apart despite a ceasefire on the LOC.
Last week’s meeting between the Centre and J&K political leaders’, first since August 5, 2019 abrogation of Article 370, did not go down well inside Pakistan at all. Pakistan foreign minister, the smooth-talking Shah Mehmood Qureshi dismissed the meeting as a PR exercise, because Modi did not meet Hurriyat leaders. But diplomatic sources say Pakistani diplomats faced a pushback from world capitals, most of whom have seen that meeting in a positive light. In fact, with local elections, internet restoration, no political detentions and high level of vaccinations, Pakistan’s J&K narrative is facing opposition from ground reality.
Third, there have been rumblings within Pakistan’s political and security establishment about differences on how to approach India. Some of that may have played out. Thanks to the ceasefire, terrorists’ infiltration is somewhat impacted, which makes it necessary for acts like this to keep morale up. The past few weeks have seen an uptick in militant activity in the valley too, just as J&K is emerging from Covid lockdowns.
Fourth, the FATF plenary did not end well for Pakistan, which remains on the grey list, and significant international pressure to roll up the terror funding and money laundering gaps in its system. It constrains not only Pakistan’s ability to borrow in the international market, it has, for several years now, clogged up the funding spigots for the alphabet soup of its terror groups.
Many would see the Jammu attack as retaliation for the bomb attack in Lahore at the gate of LeT supremo, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s house, where the terror master has been living under police protection in a sort of house arrest arrangement. The Pak government has blamed a “hostile intelligence agency” of an enemy power. In fact, Qureshi called upon international anti-terror agencies like FATF to probe the funding of “terror” attacks against Saeed!
The timing of the attack is no coincidence, say security agencies. On the northern front, over 200000 Indian security forces are arrayed out against Chinese misadventures in eastern Ladakh, particularly during the centenary celebrations of the Communist Party. Despite a small disengagement at Pangong Tso, there has been no movement between Indian and Chinese troops. Last week, news reports said India had moved an additional 50000 troops to the China borders. None of the military commanders’ meetings or the civilian officials’s talks have yielded anything beyond, “we will talk again.”
Was Pakistan trying to test Indian preparations for a two-front conflict with the attack? In this backdrop, the Jammu attack was the most serious attempt to breach the ceasefire.
Since February 25, when the ceasefire was restored, Pakistan has been quite busy on the border, according to security sources here. They have used these past months to black-top border roads, beef up terrorist launch pads, bring in more equipment and bolster defences on the LOC.
India has enjoyed a military edge here, but Pakistan has been working to reduce that edge. Again, this has been anticipated by Indian military planners, but still remains a matter of concern.
Going forward, we can expect the next step to be actualised by Pakistan — which could be series of small scale attacks that stay below the ceasefire threshold. Or, drone swarms to target Indian military installations. China is the world leader in drone technology, while in the non-state world, ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Iranian-supported Houthis, Hamas etc are au fait with drone technology and equipment. All the above would be happy to share the goodies with Pakistan.
How should India respond? Some years ago, India “tweaked” its nuclear strike policy to say that Indian retaliation would be disproportionate and massive whether the first strike came from a tactical nuclear weapon or a strategic bomber. It’s probably time to take that response to drone attacks — that they would be treated as ceasefire violations like artillery fire and would attract a force response from India.
Last Saturday, Iranian-supported Iraqi militia groups dropped drone bombs in Erbil, Iraq. On Monday, the US carried out punitive airstrikes in the area. The White House spokesperson said, “The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
Soon, India might have to go down this path.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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