After Jammu attack, IAF kicks off anti-drone acquisition. Last day today for vendors to submit responses - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 2 August 2021

After Jammu attack, IAF kicks off anti-drone acquisition. Last day today for vendors to submit responses

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 3rd Aug 21


In the first-ever acquisition of indigenous weapon systems that can detect and shoot down enemy drones, Indian companies will submit proposals on Tuesday for supplying 10 sophisticated “counter unmanned aerial systems” (C-UAS) in response to an Indian Air Force (IAF) request for information (RFI).


“Formal procurement procedure in accordance with the Defence Acquisition Procedure of 2020 (DAP-2020) is likely to commence in the third quarter of year 2021,” states the RFI.


In the wake of the drone attack on Jammu Air Base on June 27, multiple agencies – including the military and the Border Security Force (BSF) – have done a preliminary evaluation of at least six-to-seven indigenous C-UAS solutions.


These include solutions offered by Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), which is obtaining technology from the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). The Adani Group is in the fray, reportedly with an Israeli partner, Elbit Systems. There are medium-sized Indian companies such as Zen Technologies, which has newly acquired an electronic warfare company. And there are at least three Indian start-ups: Big Bang Boom Solutions (BBBS), Gurutvaa Systems and iSenses.


“We are at an advanced level of technological readiness and are the only start-up that has successfully conducted trials with the armed forces,” says R Shivaraman, who co-heads BBBS. “In recent trials at Babina, we have detected drones up to 12.5 km away, and jammed them at ranges of 17.5 kms. That is much better performance than what we were asked to provide.”


Increasingly, C-UAS systems are intended to counter the growing threat from technologically simple, inexpensive, commercially available drones that can inflict disproportionate damage on Indian targets. The drones can fly over a border to deliver contraband loads, such as weapons and ammunition; or be rigged as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that can destroy or damage high-value targets, such as aircraft or command centres. They could even operate in large numbers as expendable drone swarms that crash into and destroy aircraft, helicopters or VIP convoys.


Typically, these drones are obtainable off-the-shelf, or as “do-it-yourself” (DIY) kits that cost as little as Rs 50,000. 


To counter this growing “asymmetric threat”, the ministry of defence (MoD) has invited Indian start-ups to develop C-UAS systems through its “Innovations for Defence Excellence” (iDEX) programme. 


Under the iDEX programme, the MoD raises a “problem statement”, which describes an operational challenge the military is facing. Defence firms, especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), then develop and offer solutions to overcome that operational challenge. That solution is then put through trials to ascertain whether it meets the military’s needs.


Northern Command has chosen the emergency procurement route to buy two C-UAS systems for Ladakh.


In its RFI for a C-UAS system issued in May, the IAF has demanded sophisticated specifications, including high-end sensors, phased array radar, radio frequency (RF) sensors and electro-optical and infra-red (EO/IR) sensors and a “hard kill” option. That guarantees that the system will be extremely expensive – in the range of $2-3 million, according to industry experts. 


Solutions have separately been offered by wealthy foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who have adopted a “multi-sensor approach” for integrated solutions. This involves detecting hostile drones with a combination of technologies. These employ a variety of sensors, each exploiting a different set of frequencies on the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.


In these integrated solutions, radio frequency sensors typically work alongside optical sensors that exploit the visual band of the EM spectrum. These could be combined with the effects of specialized radars that detect low radar cross-section (RCS) drones.


Drones that are detected can be nullified using a combination of soft or hard kill options. In the soft kill options, jammers are used to black out GPS frequencies, disrupting the drones’ navigation. Simultaneously, communications could be blocked in select radio frequencies. 


In addition, “spoofing” is carried out by feeding false data to the drone. The confused drone is hacked, taken control of and redirected to a location of choice. Short range electromagnetic pulses could be used to disable the drones’ electronics. 


Separately, there is a range of “hard kill options”. Laser based weaponry can disable the drone; or automatic weapons (machine guns) integrated with a “fire control system” (FCS) can be used to physically shoot it down. Hard kill and radar-based systems are essential only if the enemy has deployed autonomous drones – which is a rare and expensive (for the terrorist). 


At a meeting in the PMO on June 29, the IAF was given overall charge of anti-drone strategy, including qualifying and preparing the ground for anti-drone systems all across the country. 


The IAF has some 70 air bases around the country, all of which need to be protected against drone swarms. In addition, there is a need to cover most of the China and Pakistan borders.

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