The September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco facilities allegedly by Houthi rebels using explosive-laden drones has worked up security establishments globally. Several countries were taken aback by the outrageous display of audacity with which the world’s largest oil processing facility was crippled, possibly with support from Iran.
That morning, 18 drones—flying very low, fitted with deadly explosives and seven cruise missiles—hit the Abqaiq and Khurais processing facilities. The Saudi air defence systems failed to track or neutralise them while the drones ripped the facilities apart, sending shock waves across the world. About five million barrels, roughly half their daily output, was destroyed, sending crude prices soaring.
This attack has served as a timely reminder for security analysts to re-draw protocols and protect their economic assets from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones. These cost-effective vehicles have also become a threat on the borders of several countries. Apart from the increasing vulnerability of high-value economic assets globally, several armed groups seem to be relying heavily on drones to undertake attacks on their rivals with precision. If one were to go by Penn Political Review, a dozen armed groups may possess drones for attacks like the one in Saudi Arabia.
What could keep security personnel up all night is the ever-expanding drone market that’s valued at a whopping $22 billion and is expected to cross over $100 billion. Over 90% of purchases were either for military purposes or procured by non-state actors to carry out low-cost attacks. Recreational applications notwithstanding, drones have turned into a menace that may have to be factored in all future conflicts, big and small.
Even military strategists may have to consider drones in their warfare techniques. Reports suggested that during President Barack Obama’s tenure alone, over 563 drone attacks were carried out on Pakistan. Drones were also put to use in Somalia and Yemen by US forces, highlighting Washington’s dependence on UAVs that commenced with the Vietnam war.
In the entire rigmarole, India’s stakes on this politico-economic matrix are huge given her varied offensive and defensive interests. Last week, Indian security establishments saw red when Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asked Home Minister Amit Shah to resolve the drone issue. Singh referred to five AK-47 rifles, four Chinese-made pistols, hand grenades and 80 kilos of explosives delivered using drones from across the borders to the Khalistan Zindabad Force, a subversive outfit hosted by Pakistan. The armaments were sent to the district of Tarn Taran and later confiscated in police raids.
This is not an isolated incident. There was a case of two US citizens arrest right at the heart of New Delhi after they were found taking videos of Rashtrapati Bhavan apart from other sensitive offices in the capital’s central boulevard. Till date, instances of over 50,000 drone operations in the country have been recorded.
A directive by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 2018 to ban the movement of remotely piloted aircraft systems seems to have had little to no impact. Otherwise, how does one explain the reported drone operations on the west coast by foreign powers? On paper, drone operations are completely banned in areas around airports, military establishments, coast lines, Vijay Chowk in Delhi, international borders—including the Line of Control (LoC), the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL)—and state secretariats, among others. Implementing this order diligently takes a lot of hard work on the ground.
What perhaps needs to be assessed afresh is the vulnerability of our own economic installations like oil refineries that could become targets for terrorist groups operating from across western borders. It becomes a bigger priority with the emergence of India as a petroleum refining hub, producing about 230 million metric tonnes per annum as against the 62 million metric tonnes in 1998. For instance, how safe is the Reliance-run Jamnagar refinery in Gujarat from a drone attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba with its den just 400 kilometres away in Pakistani territory? Russian company Rosneft-operated Nayara Energy that hitherto belonged to Essar Energy in Gujarat was the tenth installation to get CISF security cover last week. But what cover it has to ward off air attacks from low-flying drones carrying explosives is the key question.
Technology-driven drones may have played a significant role in the spread of e-commerce and digital economies around the world. But, they have turned out to be the newest threat on the block for security of economic asset and there is a pressing need to develop cheap but effective countermeasures. US-developed missiles worth $1 million each may not be the answer. These threats seem to have propelled Indian security forces to procure 54 killer drones from Israel that are a relatively modest and effective counter to threats from UAVs. These procurements may not be enough. More needs to be done now.
K A Badarinath
Senior journalist and economic analyst based in New Delhi