Pakistan secretly developing drones: sources

Military is developing aircraft but has had little luck on tests, sources say - providing a window for China to sell it more advanced drones

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:27am

Pakistan is secretly racing to develop its own armed drones, having been frustrated with US refusals to provide the aircraft, but is struggling in its initial tests with a lack of precision munitions and advanced targeting technology.

One of Islamabad's closest allies and Washington's biggest rivals, China, has offered to help Pakistan by selling it Chinese-made armed drones. But industry experts say there is still uncertainty about the capabilities of the Chinese aircraft.

The development of unmanned combat aircraft is especially sensitive in Pakistan because of the widespread unpopularity of the hundreds of US drone strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the country's rugged tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government denounces the CIA strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty, though senior civilian and military leaders are known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past.

Pakistan has demanded that the United States provide it with armed drones, claiming it could more effectively carry out attacks against militants. Washington has refused because of the sensitive nature of the technology and doubts that Pakistan would reliably target US enemies.

Inaugurating a defence exhibition in the southern city of Karachi last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf indicated Islamabad would look for help from Beijing in response to US intransigence.

"Pakistan can also benefit from China in defence collaboration, offsetting the undeclared technological apartheid," said Ashraf.

Pakistan has also been working to develop armed drones on its own, according to Pakistani military officials and civilians involved in the drone industry.

Pakistan first began weapons tests seven or eight months ago with the Falco, an Italian drone used by the Pakistani air force for surveillance and which was modified to carry rockets, said a civilian with knowledge of the secret programme.

He said the military was also conducting similar tests with the country's newest drone, the Shahpur. An unarmed version of the Shahpur was unveiled for the first time at the Karachi event.

Pakistan lacks laser-guided missiles like the Hellfire used on America's Predator and Reaper drones and the advanced targeting system that goes with it, so the military has been using unguided, less accurate rockets.

While Hellfire missiles are said to have pinpoint accuracy, the rockets used by Pakistan have a margin of error of about 30 metres at best, and an unexpected gust of wind could take them 300 metres from their intended target, said the civilian.

The Chinese government has offered to sell Pakistan an armed drone it has produced, the CH-3, which can carry two laser-guided missiles or bombs, industry insiders say.

Also being offered to Pakistan is the more advanced CH-4, which closely resembles a Reaper and can carry four laser-guided missiles or bombs, according to Li Xiaoli, who represents Aerospace Long-March International Trade, the Chinese state-owned firm that produces both drones.

Pakistan has yet to purchase any armed Chinese drones because these aircraft's capabilities have yet to be proven, but is likely to do so in the future, said the civilian source.

Only a few countries, such as the US, Britain and Israel, are known to have used armed drones in military operations.

"China is a bit of a tough nut to crack as you'd expect," said Huw Williams, a drone expert at Jane's International Defence Review. "They frequently wheel out exciting-looking aircraft but are yet to really demonstrate anything earth-shattering."