Pakistan looks to China to arm its military drones

Pakistan's home-grown drone program demonstrates the changing nature of its relationship with the US, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider

Pakistan's home-grown drone program demonstrates the changing nature of its relationship with the US. AFP Photo
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Gone are the days when Pakistan used to ask the United States for a transfer of technology so it could manufacture Predator-like drones with weapons systems. Now, made-in-Pakistan drones are in action against Islamic militants in the country’s restive tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.

Last month, for the first time, Pakistan made use of its indigenously developed drones in its war against extremists in the northern tribal regions. The drone attack killed three high-profile militants in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan.

The strike proves that the country is now armed with the precision weapons and advanced targeting technology that it long demanded from the US as a frontline ally in the war on terror. The US, however, has not only refused to transfer the technology to its ally, it has continued its own much-criticised drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Officially, the US is concerned about the potential of its sensitive military data getting in the hands of militants.

In 2010, the US offered to sell Pakistan the Shadow-200 unmanned surveillance aircraft, which is not equipped with weapons. It fell short of requirements because Pakistan already had the technology to develop unarmed drones. What Islamabad wanted was a drone that was capable of attacking the militants.

The decade-long US-Pakistan alliance in the war on terror was the result of a doctrine of necessity. It’s a novel arrangement and the allies have not always been on the same page. The agreement has been smudged by a trust deficit, scepticism and blame-game between the allies.

In response to the US intransigence, Pakistan ultimately turned to China for help in strengthening its defences. It was during an international defence exhibition held in Karachi in 2012 that former prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf indicated that Islamabad would seek help from Beijing. He reportedly said: “Pakistan can benefit from China in defence collaboration, offsetting the undeclared technological apartheid.”

Pakistan's entry into the elite group of countries that can manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles capable of killing as well as spying is a phenomenal development. It has become the second nation in the world after the US to deploy and operate the unmanned aircraft. The armed drones it is using against militants in the restive Afghanistan and Pakistan border regions have substantially enhanced the country’s target-acquisition capabilities in real time.

But it has not done this on its own – it has had the help of China, which is now Pakistan's main supplier of military equipment.

Chengdu Aircraft Industry Company (CAIC), based in Sichuan province, is China's second-largest fighter aircraft production base. CAIC co-operated with Pakistan’s Aviation Integrated Company in the development of the FC-1 fighter jet, whose first flight was planned for 1997 with delivery made to the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) in 1999.

The PAF has a fleet of Chinese aircraft, including F-7PGs and A-5s, but also US-built F-16s and French Mirage jets. The Chinese have also offered to sell Pakistan CH-3 and CH-4 armed drones. The first is capable of carrying two laser-guided missiles or bombs, while the CH-4 can carry four laser-guided missiles or bombs and resembles a US Reaper drone.

Pakistani drones have much more limited payload capacity and range than the US drones. With a wingspan of about seven metres, the Shahpar is the country’s largest drone. It is capable of carrying a 50-kilogram payload and has a maximum range of 250 kilometres. The US Reaper drone is three times bigger and has a range of 1,850km.

But Pakistan is testing new indigenous drones, including the Burraq, which has been under development for five years and is equipped with laser-guided missiles.

The use of armed drones has enhanced Pakistan’s combat capability against militants with hideouts in geographically difficult terrain in the north-west.

Moreover, its drone campaign has been widely welcomed – because it is seen as an offensive against terrorists by a sovereign nation to establish its writ on its own territory. The first attack by a Pakistani drone earned great applause and appreciation across the country. On the other hand, the US drone war in the country’s tribal areas has been bitterly criticised and condemned within and outside the country on the grounds that it violated the nation’s sovereignty and caused civilian casualties.

Pakistan, which has long had nuclear weapons, is clearly determined to take charge of its own security.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst and writer in Pakistan