Drone Downing Birds

Raptors are used these days to take down hostile drones. India is using a dog-bird combination as well for this purpose. But overhyping this capability needs to be restrained. Our industry must focus more on innovative drone and counter-drone technologies

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Opinion

Falconry or hawking is a hunting sport using trained hawks, falcons or eagles to hunt prey and return to its master. There are several styles of hunting that vary between the different types of raptors. Falcons typically hunt other birds in flight and tend to travel long distances. The Gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world having a variety of plumage colours that range from a dappled white to almost pure black. Falconry has been associated with Bedouins in the UAE for ages that used falcons as an indispensable and effective hunting tool. It is considered a symbol of this region’s civilization more than any other region in the world; 50 per cent of the world’s falconers exist in the Middle East, which includes the Arab region.

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India’s Desert National Park near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan is home to some 22 species of raptors and the critically endangered great Indian bustard, among the over 100 species of birds in this park.

Training of birds is not restricted to hunting or small pet birds either (https://www.thesprucepets.com/top-trainable-bird-species-390320). For example, in Japan, one can witness groups of flamingos dancing to the beat of music for entertaining tourists, or peacocks flying into designated areas and dancing in groups to the sound of music. Cadets of the US Air Force Academy, Colorado, have shown and flown falcons before thousands of cheering crowds since 1956. Falcon is the flying mascot of the US Air Force Academy and their entertaining acrobatics has dispelled the belief that trained falcons would panic and flee before huge crowds of spectators (https://www.usafa.edu/cadet-life/clubs/falconry/#:~:text=Cadet%20falconers%20currently%20use%20Gyr,keep%20them%20in%20top%20condition). The birds are flown throughout the year, weather permitting, to keep them in top condition.

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Spying during Cold War

The CIA trained ravens, pigeons and even cats to spy on adversaries during the Cold War (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-cias-most-highly-trained-spies-werent-even-human-20149/). This practice may not have ceased after the Cold War. Additionally, the US is using trained hawks to protect the runway from the menace of birds at the Tampa Bay International Airport for the safety of planes landing and taking off (https://www.tampabay.com/life-culture/entertainment/travel/2022/02/01/meet-the-hawk-protecting-your-flight-at-tampa-international-airport/). Overall, there are about 4000 licensed falconers in the US.

An interesting facet of the Indo-US joint exercise held in Uttarakhand in November was the Indian Army demonstrating its falconry skills as part of the overall exercise involving various exchanges and practices

The US has been working on a global-level bio-weapons plan, as part of which multiple Pentagon-funded bio-labs were established in Ukraine to research, develop and store pathogens under a bilateral agreement signed in 2005. After launching special operations in Ukraine, Russia claimed it has captured digitized migratory birds in Ukraine that are meant for carrying pathogens in a flock of birds and the digitized bird is killed on reaching the target area to release the germs (https://raksha-anirveda.com/birds-of-mass-destruction/). Details later emerged that in addition to Ukraine, the US has established Pentagon-funded bio-labs in another 24 countries. Whether the US is behind the Covid resurgence in China is not known.

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In 2016, reports emerged that the Dutch police had partnered with a bird training company ‘Guard From Above’ for teaching raptors to take down hostile drones. The Dutch police released a video showing the first results of the training; showing a trained hawk snatching the drone with its talons and carrying it away (https://www.rt.com/news/330931-hawks-eagles-intercept-drones/).

The 18th edition of the Indo-US joint bilateral exercise, held in Uttarakhand for two weeks commencing November 19, gave the usual stomachache to China complaining; as if its sanctity was being trampled upon. India responded by telling Beijing to behave and mind its own business. But an interesting facet of this exercise was the Indian Army demonstrating its falconry skills as part of the overall exercise involving exchanges and practices on combat skills, including combat engineering and counter-drone techniques.

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Squadron of Kites

In the instant case, the Army used a combination of a trained dog and a trained black kite named ‘Arjun’ to prey on a drone. The dog gave the signal on sensing a drone and Arjun was launched by its handler to fly off and down the drone using its talons. Army’s Remount Veterinary Corps (RVC) has been training a squadron of Kites or Raptors since 2020. These birds can also be used for surveillance and recording videos; relaying images while flying –  with tiny, ultra-light Chinese cameras strapped to their heads, in addition to a GPS tracker tied to their bodies.

Raptors would be most effective against hostile drones flying singly or at best in pairs but would find it difficult to cope with swarm drones

The above innovation by the Army in using a dog-bird combination to tackle hostile drones is perhaps the first because elsewhere it is the raptor used alone. This is perhaps because the RVC has already been training dogs over the past several years. These kites or raptors would be useful against the increasing menace of Pakistan’s ISI/terrorist organisations’/gangsters using Chinese drones to smuggle weapons, ammunition and narcotics into India, as well as preventing drones armed with explosives/IEDs for sabotage, as was attempted at Jammu Air Force Station on June 26-27, 2021.

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At the same time, overhyping this capability in the media portraying it as the ultimate in counter-drone operations that would scare our adversaries needs to be restrained, even though it is more to influence the unaware. The following needs to be understood in this context:

  • With training, raptors establish their own area of influence in the sky, which gets widened gradually. This needs to be viewed in the context of the lengths of our international border (IB) and Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China; implying an assessment of suitable places where they should be positioned on the ground is required.
  • The above should make it clear that this technique is not exclusive but to augment multiple other anti-drone measures.
  • The talk of these being the ‘cheapest’ anti-drone measure does not take into account the handler required with every raptor and also the dog’s handler in case of a dog-raptor combination.
  • Raptors would be most effective against hostile drones flying singly or at best in pairs but would find it difficult to cope with swarm drones.
Iran seized the US RQ-170 UAV, forcing it to land electronically, then reverse-engineered the RQ-170 and developed ‘Shahed 171 Simorgh’ UAV. We need to focus on such electronic warfare capabilities

In the above background, this technique should definitely be used by ‘security forces’ to augment their capabilities, particularly along our Western borders. At the same time, our industry, startups included, must focus more on innovative drone and counter-drone technologies.

China has been using drones that look like and fly like ‘doves’ flapping their wings for surveillance for the last five years (https://www.spslandforces.com/experts-speak/?id=405&h=New-Chinese-drones-formidable-challenge). Would our trained kite go for a dove-drone that is not flying singly? In 2013, the US Army procured more than 30 drones that looked like birds of prey, but their wings did not move. More research on such robots is ongoing. India should take serious note of such developments.

In 2011, Iran captured the then-latest US RQ-170 UAV, forcing it to land electronically – as claimed by Iran. Iran then reverse-engineered the RQ-170 and developed its own ‘Shahed 171 Simorgh’ UAV. We need to focus on such electronic warfare capabilities.

-The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.