On September 7, Pakistan officially became the world’s ninth country to successfully develop an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, which it used in an operation against Taliban militants in the northwestern tribal area along the border with Afghanistan. Three militants died in the attack. Beyond furthering Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban, the Pakistani drone conveyed to Washington that the era of Washington’s own drone activities within Pakistan’s borders is drawing to a close.
The United States started its drone campaign against Islamist extremists in the country’s tribal areas in 2004. Since then, there have been hundreds of drone strikes on high-profile militants linked to al Qaeda and Taliban. The strikes have been effective insofar as they have killed many high-profile Taliban and al Qaeda militants in the country’s tribal region—for example, Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of Pakistani Taliban, who was involved in the killing of thousands of innocent Pakistani citizens and died in 2013; and Hakimullah’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who died in 2009. As a result of these losses, the Pakistani Taliban, although not defeated, has come under serious strain.
The U.S. drone war, however, has long been unpopular and polarizing. Pakistan’s Islamist and right-wing political parties, including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which heads a coalition government in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, have strongly condemned the program. PTI, which is led by former international cricket star Imran Khan, blocked NATO supply lines for months in 2013 in retaliation for the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, just as the government was sitting down with the Pakistani Taliban for initial peace talks. The U.S. drone program was also unpopular under former General turned President Pervez Musharraf, but he was better able to ward off the opposition. As civilian politicians returned to the fray, first under Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and later under current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the program became all the more politically untenable.
Islamabad first asked the United States to transfer armed drone technology to Islamabad during the Musharraf years, but the country did not make a formal request until 2009, when Gilani was in office. Sharif likewise formally asked the United States for the technology in 2013. The United States continuously refused, not wanting the know-how to proliferate. It was particularly apprehensive of Pakistan sharing highly classified information with its close ally China. And so Pakistan focused on its own drone program.
Pakistan’s efforts to build surveillance drones began in earnest in 2008, when the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) purchased Falco drones from Selex Galileo of Italy at a cost of $40 million. Since then, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Islamabad has manufactured Falco in collaboration with the Italian firm. The PAF principally uses the drone for electronic surveillance and homeland security operations.
By March 2015, the country was ready to successfully test-fire its first homegrown Burraq armed with a new air-to-surface missile, named Barq (“Lightning”). Out of this program apparently came Burraq, which is believed to be based on the Falco–Selex Galileo technology. In Islamic traditions, Burraq is described as a creature from the heavens that carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back during Miraj, which is celebrated once a year by Muslims all over the world by spending the whole night in prayer. The earliest models of Burraq, a remotely operated aircraft, were capable only of surveillance and intelligence gathering and were used by the Pakistani military to track down militants. They are still part of the campaign, called Zarb-e-Azb, which was launched last year against militants in tribal areas and has severely disrupted their networks across the country and left over 3,500 dead.
In 2009, Pakistan started a program—a joint venture of the PAF and the National Engineering and Scientific Commission, a civilian defense research and development organization—to develop an armed version of Burraq. As in other Pakistani defense projects, China’s cooperation has been instrumental. In 2010, China sold Pakistan Chinese radar systems and the ShanDian-10 (SD-10) midrange homing missiles to equip Pakistan’s 250 JF-17 Thunder jets. The SD-10 is a radar-guided air-to-air missile that China developed in 2002. It is unclear how much Pakistan paid, but Islamabad had initially made a similar deal with the French firm Thales SA at a cost of $1.6 billion. Then the deal was canceled with Thales and Pakistan purchased the technology from China.
Throughout the development process, civilian players have also been key. Private drone firms, including East West Infiniti Private Ltd., Surveillance and Target Unmanned Aircraft (Satuma), Integrated Dynamics, and Global Industrial Defence Solutions, have already showed off a wide range of small and midsize reconnaissance drones in the arms fairs hosted from time to time by Islamabad. Meanwhile, state-owned aviation firms—including Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Air Weapons Complex, and National Development Complex—have played an important part in manufacturing armed drones.
By March 2015, the country was ready to successfully test-fire its first homegrown Burraq armed with a new air-to-surface missile, named Barq (“Lightning”), with pinpoint precision at an undisclosed location. And then this month, the country startled the world by targeting and killing at least three high-profile militants in its first drone attack in the tribal region along the Afghan border. With its all-weather capability and pinpoint accuracy, Burraq will truly be a force multiplier. It has the ability to fire missiles at both stationary and moving targets. Burraq is generally considered to have the combined features of both the U.S. Predator and the Chinese CASC Rainbow CH-3.
Having watched the decade-long U.S. drone campaign in the Af-Pak region, Pakistan is set to launch its own campaign, which it hopes will be more effective against militants in the tribal region. It is likely to try to use precise drone strikes to restrict the movements of Taliban insurgents. All the while, it will be able to conduct the campaign without the pressure of public resentment about violations of Pakistan’s territorial integrity, which the government can ill afford. To see how this might play out for the United States, it is worth remembering how Islamabad reacted to a NATO attack on a Pakistani military outpost that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghanistan border in November 2011. Islamabad cut NATO supply lines and asked the United States to vacate the country’s Shamsi air base, which the United States had been using to launch drone attacks on militants in the country’s tribal areas. Similar moves could be in the offing.
Meanwhile, outside of Pakistan, the country’s entry into the drone club has triggered a race in South Asia. India has recently accelerated its homegrown unmanned aerial vehicle development program, known as the Rustom-2. It has reportedly expedited its work on weaponizing the Rustom-1 medium-altitude long-endurance UAV, which it wants to test-fire this year. The Indian government has apparently also approved the purchase of ten armed UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries under a $400 million acquisition deal.
The international fallout from the program is thus worrying, but from a domestic defense point of view, Pakistan’s entry into the drone program is a phenomenal achievement. The fleet of armed drones has strengthened the nation’s muscle against both internal and external threats. Internally, the country faces a Taliban-led insurgency in its northwest and a separatist insurgency in its southwest. Externally, the country faces a volatile situation on both its eastern border with India and its western border with war-torn Afghanistan. With both armed and unarmed UAVs, the country can better monitor the situation on its borders and perform missions such as intelligence gathering and target detection and destruction.