New challenges Along the Border

Offensive deployment needed to counter threat of drones, defeat Pakistan’s designs

R.C. SharmaR C Sharma

India’s frontiers have generally not received the attention in terms of modernisation, development and infrastructure needs. The border areas have remained neglected because of the distorted thinking of planners, preventing a holistic development of the borders. An underdeveloped frontier made border guarding taxing and difficult as it was a low priority for modernisation. As result, a conventional manpower-intensive approach to border management is still relevant, and will remain so, in the Indian context. The low priority to border management has exposed the local youth and population to exploitation by anti-national elements.

There has been a perceptible change in the thinking and mindset in the recent past. The infrastructure along the borders has improved and frontier guarding is getting more attention. Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai told the Lok Sabha recently that the Border Security Force had achieved success in curbing the smuggling of drugs following the extension of the BSF’s territorial jurisdiction along the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But a lot more needs to be done because even as the conventional methods of drugs and arms smuggling continues, our western neighbour has introduced an unconventional dimension in its attempt to revive terrorism, especially in Punjab, which has serious national security implications. The new unconventional dimension is the use of drones to push in drugs and arms and ammunition.


Drone Threat

In its 237th report, the parliamentary standing committee of the ministry of home affairs noted that ‘the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles by the terrorists has thrown up a new challenge before the security forces to deal with a paradigm shift in the nature of the threat and countermeasures. Rogue drones have become a critical threat to any country’s security, privacy and cyber-security. Drones are being used for surveillance of vital installations and for the delivery of drugs, arms and ammunitions and other terrorist activities, which is an alarming issue. There is also the threat of hacking of drones, drone data, mobiles and other devices connected with the drones. Therefore, building capabilities to deter, detect and neutralise such aerial threats with the help of anti-drone technology is an urgent requirement.’

The Punjab government told the parliamentary standing committee that in the recent past, the movement of drones from across the international border had increased significantly. Drones have been sighted more than 133 times near the international border in the last two years.

The first recorded delivery of arms and ammunition by a drone was in August 2019. Drones have been sighted in Jammu and Kashmir also. According to media reports, the BSF sighted several drones in 2021. Of these, 67 were in Punjab, 24 in Jammu, six in Rajasthan and one each in Gujarat and Kashmir. In most instances BSF personnel fired at the drones. There were 43 firings in Punjab, 17 in Jammu and two in Rajasthan. As per the BSF data, 80 per cent of drug seizure along the western border in 2021 was in Punjab.


Tackling Them

Both Punjab and Rajasthan have no apparatus to tackle the drone threat. The only action both the states take is a post-incident assessment and preventive measures. Punjab has not drafted or articulated a separate drone policy. Specific area-based detection and neutralisation of the threat of drones are being improved upon. But the long border remains a challenge. The police have stepped up physical patrolling and nakabandis backed by effective intelligence inputs.

In Rajasthan, regular instructions and advisories are issued to various departments of border areas to not share strategic information with anyone on the phone unless authenticated. Cases registered regarding VoIP calls are monitored at the senior level and are pursued in courts. Many vital installations, army and air force bases, oil refinery areas and other similar strategic places have been classified as a red zone, or no fly zones for drones. There is also a yellow zone, where drones can operate with permission, and a green zone, where permission is not required.


BSF’s Role

The BSF is prepared to tackle the drone threat and is already countering them in many ways. But to be more effective, it needs better means and equipment. There is a need for state-of-the-art anti-drone systems capable of detecting these unmanned aerial vehicles so that their direction and altitude can be quickly relayed from the command centre to the troops on the ground.

In response to a question on drones in the Lok Sabha, minister of state for home affairs Nisith Pramanik said: “Border guarding forces are well equipped to neutralise threats emanating from the misuse of drones by rogue elements, including terrorists. An incident of use of a drone to deliver ammunition was noticed and it was neutralised in Punjab along the Indo-Pakistan border in 2022. Anti-drone systems have been deployed along the border to tackle such situations. In addition, border guarding forces have taken preventive measures to counter drones, including framing of SOPs for countering drones, adequate deployment of troops and patrolling and deployment of preventing surveillance equipment.”

The most effective asset to counter drones from across the border is the man on the ground. Continuous observation and surveillance have to be maintained to spot and neutralise them. Currently, after a drone is detected, the hit probability is low because of various factors beyond the control of the border guards.

Modern technology is a must to render enemy drones ineffective. The frequency of spotting of drones along the Punjab and Jammu border is quite high. The areas in which drones are spotted need to be identified and recorded. It will give an idea of their routes. Spottings over a period of time will establish a pattern, giving a fair idea of the most used routes. The key lies in identification of such areas. The next step is the deployment of radars to detect the drones and frequency jammers to render these machines incapable of flying.


Border Guarding

Guarding India’s borders is an arduous task because of the difficult terrain, hostile geographical conditions, a large area of responsibility and a hostile western neighbour. Currently, borders are guarded through a manpower-intensive methodology. But the introduction of modern technology for effective border guarding is the need of the hour. Pakistan aims to create instability at the borders and in the hinterland through a well thought-out strategy of pushing drugs and arms and ammunition.

Pakistan’s security, intelligence and civil establishment have adopted a strategy of technological dominance and compromised India’s border population to facilitate smuggling and carry out anti-national activities. It has succeeded in its design to spread the poison of drugs, especially in Punjab, and is targeting other areas aggressively.

There is an urgent need to change border-guarding strategy to stay ahead of our neighbour for effectiveness on ground. There is also a need to revisit the standard operating procedures to enable junior leaders and field commanders to take bold initiatives in order to counter the drones and overcome border management challenges. In addition, planning has to be practical and based on real-time intelligence.


Paradigm Shift

Border guards need to usher in a paradigm shift in strategy to make border management effective. There is a need to shift from a conventional deployment strategy to an unconventional one. An unconventional methodology will outwit and put anti-national elements on the defensive.

An unconventional deployment strategy would require a shift from defensive to offensive deployment. It needs to be offensive in design and conduct comprising two or three tiers. The deployment has to be along the fence, ahead of it and in-depth. For this to happen there is a need to increase the number of battalions. The deployment also has to be subject to frequent changes to maintain unpredictability. Such a forward deployment will wrest the initiative from the adversary and force its troops and its population to go on the defensive. There also is a need to reduce the area of responsibility of battalions and increase the boots on the ground backed by technology.

Along with an unconventional and dynamic deployment strategy, there is a need to procure state-of-the-art binoculars, night vision devices, elephant grass cutting machines, tractors, anti-tunnelling equipment and hand-held thermal imagers mounted on elevated platforms. A clear all-round observation of an area is necessary to check the movement of smugglers and anti-national elements. An equipment is rendered ineffective if observation is unclear. Manual grass clearance is an arduous task. It tires the troops, making them lethargic while on duty.

Forward deployment with more troops on the ground with better observation devices will also help in tracking drones. This methodology will help in countering the drone threat effectively and efficiently. This will help curb smuggling via the aerial route to a large extent. A multi-layered deployment will help enhance the surveillance grid in such a way that there will be no gaps for anti-national elements to exploit.


Duty and Training

Border guarding duties require men to put in long working hours. Long hours with an omnipresent threat and risks lead to fatigue and puts the men under a lot of pressure. Unbearable fatigue leads to stress, affecting physical and mental health. Coupled with this a higher age of executive staff inhibits physical movement. It becomes difficult for them to maintain the desired level of alertness.

For real effectiveness on the ground and enhanced operational capabilities and performance, the government needs to bring down the retirement age of the executive and medical staff and also needs induct more boots on the ground to reduce the duty hours. The introduction of positive HR policies with improved promotion avenues for men will help achieve qualitative changes on the ground and reduce stress levels, bringing down incidents of suicides and fratricide among the men.

Training is another aspect that needs a relook as it is an important executive function. Lack of individual and collective training affects professionalism. It also affects an individual physically and mentally, making him emotionally weak and incapable of withstanding hardship and stress. All levels of the hierarchy need to ensure that every border guard goes through intensive training.

There is a saying that the more you sweat during peace, the less you bleed in war. But, unfortunately in border guarding forces, because of enhanced commitments, training is diluted. The troops are unavailable to sharpen and update their skills as they are always deployed. The absence or inadequate training affects morale, motivation and discipline, resulting in job inefficiency, making it imperative to ensure availability of troops for training. There is an urgent need to strengthen the training regime for optimum maintenance of core competencies to make our borders impregnable.


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