Pakistan Wants Drones, and It Doesn’t Need America’s Permission to Get Them

The nation already has remote-piloted surveillance aircraft, some of which look a lot like China’s.

The "Yi Long" drone by China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) is displayed during the 9th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai on November 13, 2012. China's air show comes as the Communist Party holds a meeting to select the country's new leaders -- including the party's Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces.  
AFP/Getty Images
Sara Sorcher
May 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

IS­LAMABAD — From one breath to the next, Pakistani of­fi­cials make the case for and against drone strikes. Ah­san Iqbal, Pakistan’s min­is­ter of plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment, for in­stance, calls Amer­ic­an drone op­er­a­tions “very coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.” He says, “If they hit one tar­get, they also bring col­lat­er­al dam­age…. The whole tribe stands up, we get in­to more prob­lems, and the U.S. gets bad pub­li­city.”

But, Iqbal of­fers, Pakistan “should have the tech­no­logy to do it.”

Ac­cord­ing to Is­lamabad’s line of reas­on­ing, if the Pakistani mil­it­ary or in­tel­li­gence ser­vices were to carry out sur­gic­al strikes against ex­trem­ists, the drones would be­come simply an­oth­er tool for use in the coun­try’s own coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. That, Pakistani of­fi­cials as­sert, would be more pal­at­able to their people than a su­per­power con­tinu­ing to kill their neigh­bors and fam­ily mem­bers from afar.

Un­for­tu­nately for Pakistan, the idea of giv­ing top-notch armed drones to Is­lamabad has been a non­starter among U.S. of­fi­cials for years.

Un­for­tu­nately for the U.S., Is­lamabad doesn’t need Amer­ica’s per­mis­sion to get them.

Already, Pakistan has re­mote-pi­loted air­craft. Is­lamabad uses sur­veil­lance drones to provide the mil­it­ary with a real-time pic­ture of its rest­ive bor­der areas or coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. Pakistan un­veiled two new drones in Novem­ber: Bur­raq, named after the winged horse from the heav­ens that trans­por­ted Is­lam­ic proph­ets, and Shah­par. They were de­veloped by Pakistan’s de­fense in­dustry, the gov­ern­ment said, and would not be armed.

But sev­er­al ana­lysts note that the drones look con­spicu­ously like China’s Rain­bow CH-3, which has been tested to carry and fire weapons. The re­semb­lance (and ap­par­ently, a mini­ature mod­el of the Bur­raq armed with mis­siles) has sparked spec­u­la­tion in de­fense circles that there may have been closer co­oper­a­tion between Pakistan and China on the tech­no­logy — and more po­ten­tial for deadly use — than the Pakistani gov­ern­ment ad­mits.

Still, the ex­tent of Pakistan’s drones’ cap­ab­il­it­ies is un­known, es­pe­cially without pic­tures or video of the Bur­raq car­ry­ing a real weapon, says Douglas Bar­rie, a de­fense aerospace spe­cial­ist at the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Stra­tegic Stud­ies. “That said, it’s not something coun­tries would go out of their way to pub­li­cize, par­tic­u­larly Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s gov­ern­ment has pe­ti­tioned Wash­ing­ton for a morator­i­um on U.S. drone strikes. The com­plex polit­ics mean that Pakistan might re­frain from ad­vert­ising its quest to arm its own drones. The Pakistani mil­it­ary did not re­spond to ques­tions about the spe­cif­ic cap­ab­il­it­ies of its drones, and Sartaj Aziz, ad­viser to Pakistan’s prime min­is­ter on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, sidestepped when dir­ectly asked wheth­er Pakistan wants its own armed un­manned fleet to take out ex­trem­ists.

“I think our nor­mal air­craft do it very well,” Aziz says. “But [drone] tech­no­logy is of course use­ful for weath­er-map­ping; a num­ber of oth­er ag­ri­cul­ture ap­plic­a­tions; re­mote sens­ing. We’d cer­tainly like that tech­no­logy. It’s also very sig­ni­fic­ant in the IT field.”

More than 70 coun­tries around the world have or are de­vel­op­ing drones. The Rand think tank es­tim­ates that 23 coun­tries either have de­veloped or are de­vel­op­ing an armed vari­ety, Pakistan in­cluded. But the cur­rent sup­pli­er mar­ket re­mains tiny. That’s be­cause the tech­no­lo­gic­al leap re­quired to get from a sur­veil­lance drone that flies us­ing ra­dio waves to a plat­form that can strike tar­gets from a more re­mote loc­a­tion is so great. In­deed, only three coun­tries are known to have arm­able drones on the mar­ket: the United States, Is­rael, and China.

The United States keeps a close hold on its ex­ports. Only the United King­dom flies armed U.S.-made drones, al­though Italy and France are said to be work­ing on a deal to get them.

Is­rael, which has demon­strated its drone-strike cap­ab­il­it­ies in Palestini­an-con­trolled ter­rit­or­ies and Le­ban­on, is the biggest seller around the world, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. con­gres­sion­al source. But Is­rael is un­likely to sell weapons tech­no­logy to Pakistan for a host of reas­ons, not least a re­luct­ance to an­ger Wash­ing­ton or jeop­ard­ize its busi­ness with In­dia.

This leaves China as Pakistan’s most ob­vi­ous part­ner. No sur­prise there: Pakistan works with China on fight­er jets, so why not work to­geth­er on un­manned aer­i­al plat­forms?

Even China’s armed-drone cap­ab­il­it­ies, however, are still tech­nic­ally un­proven. Beijing has not yet pub­licly used its armed drones to strike tar­gets, al­though at trade shows it has dis­played vehicles cap­able of drop­ping bombs or mis­siles. Some look quite sim­il­ar to U.S. drones, in­clud­ing a Pred­at­or knock­off that can be out­fit­ted with laser-guided mis­siles sim­il­ar to the Hell­fire that Saudi Ar­a­bia re­cently snapped up.

By con­trast, the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary has a cadre of proven op­er­at­ors who use a com­plex satel­lite sys­tem to con­trol drones around the world, to strike tar­gets thou­sands of miles away in places like Afgh­anistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Ye­men. Its aer­i­al sys­tems are in­teg­rated with ground op­er­a­tions so troops can call in air sup­port and have a bomb drop where they want it to drop. Even if China con­tin­ues in­vest­ing heav­ily, it lacks the years of prac­tice that the United States has in us­ing armed drones in war zones.

But per­haps that doesn’t mat­ter for Pakistan. To tar­get en­emies in­side its bor­ders, Is­lamabad doesn’t need the ex­tra range from satel­lites.

Bur­raq, for in­stance, could fire laser-guided mis­siles, in­clud­ing ones from China, so long as it had a com­mu­nic­a­tions link to a ground-con­trol sta­tion and skilled op­er­at­ors who could syn­thes­ize in­tel­li­gence and mark the tar­get. Pakistan could build re­lay sta­tions to en­sure that its drones don’t lose sig­nal in the moun­tain­ous north­w­est bor­der re­gion. “These are all things they could con­ceiv­ably do, es­pe­cially with Chinese help,” the con­gres­sion­al source says. “We have no idea if they’re do­ing it.”

It’s prob­ably not a deal-break­er for a coun­try like Pakistan if Chinese drones lack the abil­ity to trans­mit in­form­a­tion, or res­ol­u­tion, the way Amer­ic­an-made mod­els do. “The Chinese tech­no­logy will be less ad­vanced,” Phil Fin­neg­an, the dir­ect­or of cor­por­ate ana­lys­is for Teal Group, says. “But it’s a big ad­vance over not hav­ing the tech­no­logy at all.” Pakistan may ac­tu­ally get a bet­ter deal part­ner­ing with China to tail­or still-de­vel­op­ing tech­no­logy to its de­sired range for leth­al strikes, and cus­tom-fit weapons it already has for drones.

Wash­ing­ton does not be­lieve that Is­lamabad would use its mil­it­ary tech­no­logy to tar­get mil­it­ants who threaten any­thing oth­er than Pakistani in­terests. That’s cer­tainly one of the main reas­ons U.S. of­fi­cials are re­luct­ant to even con­sider selling armed drones to Pakistan.

But if Pakistan gets the tech­no­logy from China, it will have even less in­cent­ive to tar­get the mil­it­ants it does not view as a dir­ect threat.

Na­tions that buy U.S. drones rely on Wash­ing­ton for spare parts and soft­ware up­grades. Without any type of forced re­li­ance, the di­vide between Pakistan and the United States could deep­en — at a time when the U.S. troop draw­down in Afgh­anistan already com­plic­ates the lo­gist­ics of car­ry­ing out uni­lat­er­al Amer­ic­an drone strikes in Pakistan.

Also, Pakistan’s use of less pre­cise Chinese tech­no­logy could be risky — and not just for people in the strike zone. “If they fire, say, an AR-1 [Chinese mis­sile], and it misses a tar­get,” says Har­is Khan of the Pakistan Mil­it­ary Con­sor­ti­um think tank, “and it hits a house two blocks away, and people make a big fuss about it “¦ they’ll say, ‘Uncle Sam did it.’ There’s al­ways the ques­tion of blam­ing everything on the United States.”

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