Dr G Shreekumar Menon
India is witnessing an upsurge in drug seizures in recent years, and the use of drone technology is complicating the detection and seizure operations. There is a copious inflow of drugs from across the land borders and recently from the seas. The Border Security Force Chief, speaking at the “Rustamji Memorial Lecture” on Saturday 17 July 2021 disclosed that 61 drones and 633 kg of narcotics worth Rupees 2,786 crores were seized. On the same day, Assam Chief Minister revealed in the media that myriad militant groups are involved in the trafficking of drugs in the Northeast and are pushing boys into drug peddling. Diphu in Karbi Anglong district was specifically identified as the epicenter of drug trafficking in the Northeast. Massive drug seizures have also been reported by Customs, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Narcotics Control Bureau in different parts of the country.
The drug trade affects not only the general population but impacts governments, businesses and finance. The deadliest narcotics – Methamphetamine, Heroin, Cocaine, Hashish, all originate abroad. Narcotics trafficking has quietly and quickly emerged as the biggest threat facing the nation, today. Difficulties in interdicting capable and highly motivated and trained terrorists and drug traffickers, requires India to prioritize combating transnational drug smuggling. To physically block the influx of illegal drugs into the country, through land borders, maritime borders, through entry points like airports and seaports, using postal and courier services, is a formidable task. The recent trend of using drones to transport narcotics is giving sleepless nights to all enforcement agencies. The first seizure of a ‘narcodrone’ was in Calexico on California’s border with Mexico, in April 2015. The drone carried around 28 pounds of Heroin across the border in four trips. Because of the small quantity of drugs that a drone is capable of carrying, these are also known as ‘Flying Ants’. Small quantities are transported to identified locations until a huge stack of drugs is assembled.
Mexican drug cartels have developed drones capable of carrying over a hundred pounds of drugs in just one trip. It will not be out of place to mention the deployment of narco-submarines for smuggling Cocaine in South America. Midget-sized narco-submarines have also been detected and apprehended transporting drugs. The submarines are around 100 feet long, 10 feet across, and capable of carrying 6 to 8 tons of narcotics. This type of submarine does not fully submerge, instead drifts extremely low in the water, hence not easy to detect. Narco-subs that are used to go far into the Pacific Ocean are painted blue and those used for inshore route are painted sea-green, to blend with the environment. Standard narco-subs are typically small and designed to carry about 1.6 tons of Cocaine. Narco-submarines are quite common in the Caribbean smuggling routes. They are also designated as ‘Low-Profile Vessels’ as they are difficult to detect even on radar. They are also referred to as Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS). In Spain narco-submarines are called ‘Planeadora Fantasma’ meaning ‘Ghost Glider’.
The Mexican drug cartels utilise drones for smuggling drugs as also send bomb strapped drones to destroy enemies. Drones are loaded with shrapnel and C4 explosives to cause sufficient damage to property and people. Organized crime groups are known to use weaponised drones for controlling drug routes. Commercial drones and normal drones available in the market are adequate for transporting small quantities of narcotics and explosives.
The peculiar nature of drug trafficking and drug abuse, has meant that all aspects of this complex problem are shrouded in secrecy, not only by the traffickers who profit from this trade but also by the consumers. Information has to be gleaned from enforcement agencies, community contacts and informants, incarcerated drug traffickers, active street drug peddlers and drug addicts. Drug peddling is usually carefully planned with ingenious tactics and strategies to avoid law enforcement agencies. Between drug smugglers and end users, there are multiple and often overlapping layers of transportation and distribution networks, each comprising of a handful of operatives. Hence, successful interdiction involves appreciating the magnitude of the problem, the national and international implications of the problem, the limited capacities of various States to handle the problem, and the importance of a well-planned and coordinated, offensive by the Central government.
Different strategies and methodologies have been tried by different countries to contain the drug problem. As long back as June 17th 1971, in a press conference, President Richard Nixon of USA, declared drug abuse as ‘Public Enemy Number One’. On 28th January 1972, President Nixon signed the ‘War on Drugs’. Since then, successive American Presidents have upheld this policy and continued the relentless drive against narcotics. U.S. President Barack Obama mooted a policy known as Attorney General’s Smart on Crime Initiative. In 2018 President Donald Trump called for a global call to action at the United Nations General Assembly. However, the problem continues to be acute in America, and according to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the year ending May 2020, 81,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Newly elected President Joe Biden has unveiled a bold drug policy initiative that emphasizes on expanding treatment and harm reduction. This is a radical departure from the drug-war approach.
Despite, more than four decades of a worldwide crusade against drugs in multifarious ways, the drug abuse and illicit trafficking is growing from strength to strength. The ravages of drug production, trafficking and addiction, is on a worldwide rampage. Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption, hasn’t yielded the desired results anywhere. The advent of synthetic drugs has compounded the egregious drug problem. Whether it is the developed or the developing world, drugs have become a scourge everywhere. The entry of drones in the narco-trade has given a new fillip to the industry.
Narco-drones would have inspired the fabrication of Weaponized drones. Militaries and terror organizations could spot a potential potent weapon, hard to detect, hard to intercept and difficult to destroy. Despite the limited ability of weaponized drones, it represents grave risk for airports, essential infrastructure, military bases, government and high-profile private establishments, and strategic facilities among others. It calls for unceasing vigil and diligence by intelligence agencies, border security agencies and law enforcement professionals.
The range and scope of drones is getting enhanced with each passing day, as it is an easy and inexpensive way to overcome barbed wire fencing and border control agencies like Army, BSF and Customs. In the Mexican drug-gang wars, drones were wired for remote detonation in Kamikaze attacks. The ISIS made use of bomber drones to drop modified 40mm grenades against Iraqi forces with deadly effect. The US military makes extensive use of Kamikaze drones, which are referred to as ‘loitering munitions. Particular mention needs to be made about ‘Switchblade’, which has night vision, ability to lock on to a target, an advanced precision warhead, and capable of silent attack mode. Militaries across the world are making rapid improvisations in drone capability to ensure more lethality and destructive ability.
Radioactive substances can also be transported by drones. In April 2015, a man flew a drone carrying minute quantities of radioactive Cesium, and managed to land it on top of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office. This opens up the possibility of miniscule nuclear attacks targeting a variety of institutions. The limited radioactive fallout makes this an attractive proposition, and this option is likely to be exercised in future wars.
The lethal combination of drug traffickers and terrorists, referred to as narco-terrorism, metastasizing dangerously on the Indo-Pak border, calls for immediate reforms in border controls, enforcement, and handling of such cases by the judiciary. Advent of Drones in the Indian skies has been a cause of concern for quite some time. On June 6th 2018, the Border Security Force detected Pakistani smugglers using drones to deliver drugs across the border. Heroin smugglers from Pakistan were using drones to drop contraband into Indian villages along the Punjab border. The success of the drone operations in delivering Heroin, made the terrorists to experiment using drones for ferrying arms and ammunition. Successful sorties were conducted in dropping AK-47 guns and ammunition, but were intercepted by security forces. However, it became proven that drones were an effective delivery mechanism to carry drugs and weapons, without the risk of human causalities, and detection by radars. An additional advantage is that, by proper GPS assistance, delivery can be ensured at the precise geographical location.
This emboldened the terrorist organizations, on June 28th 2021 to make an attempt to attack the Jammu Air Force station. The pre-dawn operation was foiled by the timely detection of the intruding aerial vehicles. Constant sighting of drones is being reported from Jammu air base. The use of drones is opening up a new dimension in the border conflicts, and there is lack of clarity on how to interdict them, trace the sender and recipient, and initiate legal proceedings on the identified offenders.
But what should be of global concern is the sudden and surprise withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan, which has been interpreted in many circles as an acknowledgement of defeat before narco-terrorists. There is a global alarm that the Taliban will seize power in Afghanistan shortly and the drug problem is going to escalate. According to UNODC’s World Drug Report 2021, Afghanistan continues its position as the world’s top producer of Opium, approximately at about 84 per cent of global production. Another grave report published by the European Union Drugs agency EMCDDA is that Afghanistan is emerging as a producer and supplier of Methamphetamine and Ephedrine. The report is the result of research conducted by the EU4 Monitoring Drugs (EU4MD) project, funded by the European Commission. They have identified 330 suspected ephedrine extraction sites. The ephedrine is sold to local methamphetamine production facilities, where ‘methamphetamine cooks’ take over. It is estimated that in the area known as Bakwa alone, the production capacity of ephedrine is about 98 tonnes per month, which could generate 65 tonnes of Crystal Methamphetamine in a month. About 500 methamphetamine laboratories would be needed to process this quantity of the drug. The worth of this industry based in Bakwa alone is estimated at EUR 203 million.
India being in close proximity to Afghanistan, and with an impending take-over of that country by the Taliban, drug trafficking across land borders in Western India and terror attacks in Kashmir are bound to escalate. The spate of drones invading India’s air space carrying guns, explosives and heroin is raising the spectre of large-scale transportation of drugs and guns across our borders. The use of drones for ferrying drug and explosives is a great game changer for terror groups functioning from across the border. Many smugglers on either side of the border were relying on land smuggling, but the emergence of drone technology is proving to be a safe, reliable and alternative method to transcend border controls. Smuggling pathways are changing tracks. Relatively small quantities of synthetic drugs can lead to large scale fatalities. Medical assistance and treatment will become a big challenge. Swarmed drone deliveries en masse can be catastrophic. Drone based threats are happening faster than anticipated. Narco-drones were first used in Mexico by drug smugglers and is now used extensively in Central and South America. The Mexican made drones are capable of carrying anywhere from 60 to 100 kilograms of drugs in a single trip. These drones operate at night, drop the cargo in United States territory and return back, without landing there. Indian agencies need to probe the country of manufacture of the drones being used on the Indo-Pak and Kashmir borders. Another advantage of drones is that they can also be utilised for surveillance, intelligence gathering, and for carrying cash. Because of the shared geography by India and Pakistan, the entire border terrain has become a hot spot for drugs, weapons and movement of terror activists.
A typical narco-drone is small and inexpensive, hence their affordability for terror groups. Mini drones have now started appearing in the market, which makes drug smuggling and explosives smuggling more simple and cheap. Today, the market is bustling with a wide array of drones comprising of single-rotor drones, multi-rotor drones, fixed-wing drones, fixed-wing hybrid drones, small drones, micro drones, tactical drones and reconnaisance drones. The border security forces will have a tough time spotting the wide variety of drones and using the right kind of technology to disable them or destroy them.
Use of drones by terror organizations is also becoming common. In 2018 drones were used by Syrian rebels to target Russian military bases in Syria. Houthi rebels regularly use weaponized drones to target Saudi oil installations. The great advantage of using drones by terror groups is that it vastly reduces risk of identification. In fact many terror organizations will prune their cadres, expand drone capability and inflict more damage and fear on border forces and assets. as with just a miniscule number of terror operatives, damage can be inflicted on government forces. Non-state actors will soon start using drones extensively on the Indo-Pak border which will be a big challenge for the BSF, CRPF, and Army. Indian security forces are not fully geared to neutralise drone terror attacks. The present surveillance technology available with our forces is designed for tracking big objects, helicopters, aircrafts and missiles. Low flying small drones are extremely difficult to detect and intercept with the existing technology. Hence the urgent need to invest in anti-drone technology and training border personnel in anti-drone warfare.
India has to accept the reality of weaponized drones being made use of by terror organizations both external and internal, to target commercial and strategic assets. Armed, fully autonomous drone swarms are going to be the futuristic weapons. Already over 100 militaries across the world have achieved some level of proficiency in handling armed and unarmed drones. The market for military drones is expanding as more and more nations are investing in drones, especially in medium and large uncrewed aerial machines. However, what is worrisome is that terrorists are exploring utilizing drone technology for striking at sensitive targets. The advantage for terrorists is that for their activities a small commercial drone will suffice. These kinds of drones are easily available everywhere and can be used as potent weapons for assassinations, disruptions and limited destruction. This is also a low-cost option, enabling terrorists to indulge in protracted and repetitive strikes on targets, with least casualities on their side.
Counter-terror playbook is in need of a complete revision. Government needs to immediately notify all international borders as a ‘drone no-fly zone’. Meanwhile steps can be taken to put in place a drone radio frequency identification system. Countering unmanned aviation systems (CUAS) is a highly complex legal and operational subject. Intercepting, jamming, or interfering with drone control electronic signals are fraught with legal issues. Operationally drones are difficult to detect, difficult to interdict, and with new generation drones having increasing operational ranges, including programmable GPS based flight paths, enforcement agencies and defence forces are likely to face a torrid time.
Narcodrones and explosive drones are new on the Indian firmament, but the U.S.-Mexico border is active and nobody has any idea how many drones cross the border each day and nobody knows how to prevent them from coming. But the U.S. is training all its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and the Department of Homeland Security agents in drone detection and counter-drone technologies.
The U.S. has wide experience in interdicting drones. When the Cocaine Cowboys were a problem back in the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force established a string of look-down radars and hung them in the sky from tethered balloons along the border. Known today as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), the balloon-based radars stretch from the Florida Keys to the Texas coast and into California.
TARS has proved very effective at detecting low fliers that it helped cut the number of illegal piloted aircraft flights from a high of 8,500 per year to fewer than 50, according to a CBP publication. But even TARS is challenged by low-flying drones. However, new radars specially designed for small drones are becoming available.
But technology keeps updating constantly enabling Narcodrone smugglers in getting very sophisticated on the U.S.-Mexico border. They have started using fixed-wing Narcodrones which can move faster than their rotary-wing counterparts. Another danger is the use of decoy drones on the U.S.-Mexico borders, to confuse and divert the attention of Border Agents. This is due to happen shortly on India’s borders also. Even as the Army, BSF, and other law enforcement agencies come to grips with the existence of narcodrones and explosive laden drones, terrorists will become more cunning. They will soon start using decoy drones that act as a diversion, drawing our forces to a fake drop-site, while another narcodrone safely makes the actual drop elsewhere, or sets off an explosion on a sensitive target.
What the Government needs to do on top priority basis is to give intensive training to all border agencies, notably Army, BSF, Customs, ITBP, SSB, Assam Rifles, Coast Guard in drone detection and interdiction technology. It would also be a good idea to train the Police, NCC, Civil Defence organizations in drone warfare. There is sufficient anti-drone technology available in the world market to repulse drones emanating from across the borders carrying drugs, weapons and bombs. But India needs to become self-reliant in this field.
The most popular drone interception method is drone jamming which works by disrupting the radio frequency link between the drone and its operator. The U.S. Defense journal ‘Defense One’ has reported that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has put up an invisible bubble along the southern border to stop drug-smuggling drones mid-flight. The agency set up a $1.2 million detection system to counter unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. The CBP fixed six Titan Counter Drone defense systems, comprising a signal box that deploys a 3-km “bubble” around a protected area and a monitor to identify and alert the user to any drones entering that airspace. Any drones entering the bubble are commandeered by the system and set safely on the ground. The signals-intelligence and targeted-jamming tool can be deployed within three minutes. A lot of manufacturers across the world have introduced anti-drone systems for detection, verification and neutralization of unauthorised drones. However, drone technology is continuing to evolve, and there are pre-programmed drones and swarm drones which pose a grave threat. The timely detection of drones near the Jammu air-base in June 2021 averted a major catastrophe for our flying assets. More terror attacks using different types of drones can be expected in the near future. Drone attacks can be expected not only on our military assets spread across the country but also on industrial and commercial assets, railway network and airports, places of worship, as also offices of political parties. In France, even nuclear power plants, became targets of drones. The threat faced by our nuclear establishments should also weigh on the minds of defence planners. Providing comprehensive anti-drone protection for all these establishments is going to be time-consuming as also expensive. Imported technology is available but we need to be self-reliant.
The Government should tap the IIT’s and other top-of-the- line engineering colleges to join efforts in developing critical anti-drone technology. The proliferation of drone technology on a global scale will ensure that more lethal variants keep making their debut from time to time. To operate these drones or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), technology savvy personnel would be needed, both, for militaries and terrorists. This partly explains why highly educated youth from Kerala are being recruited by terror organizations in Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones. As terror organizations become technology oriented, the need for technical manpower will grow. Engineering graduates will be in great demand in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones to design autonomous aerial systems that can operate in diverse environments. Many students from these countries are also getting enrolled in Engineering colleges in India, as education is affordable and excellent. The Intelligence Bureau needs to monitor who is joining in which college, for what course and keep a close watch on their local associates. The U.S. and many Western countries have such a system in place as a matter of precaution. The U.S. had a bad experience when many flying clubs enrolled Arab students, and ultimately nineteen of them took part in the 9/11 attack.
Drones have already demonstrated that they are a dangerous and destabilizing delivery system. The capability is here to stay and futuristic improvisations is only going to enhance their lethality and make it into a powerful and highly disruptive technology.
The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is
- Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
- Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
- Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA
- Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
- AOTS Scholar, Japan
Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org