Pakistan moves to drone independence

By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
Asia Times
Dec 3, 2009

QUETTA, Pakistan - Having already gained experience and guidance from the United States on the effective use of drones, Pakistan is working on its own Predator-like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have helped revolutionize warfare.

The growth of Pakistan's indigenous UAV industry is of great importance for the country's defense, as the nation is on the front line of the "war on terror".

State-owned defense enterprise Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra, east of the capital, Islamabad, is engaged in manufacturing Falco pilotless planes in collaboration with Selex Galileo of Italy. Initially, the Falco system is for aerial reconnaissance and information gathering. The country later plans to induct UAVs equipped with weapon systems to carry out offensive operations.

These high-tech efforts come as the country's defense expenditure is expected to exceed the budgetary allocation of 343 billion rupees (US$4 billion) by about 20% during the fiscal year ending next June, because of military operations against militants in North-West Frontier Province.

Local analysts believe that production of surveillance drones is the first step and that by modifying existing UAVs the country can eventually achieve its ultimate goal of producing drones equipped with missiles. The US is already using such weapons against Islamist extremists in the country's tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

Rebuffed for security reasons in its efforts to buy UAVs from the US, Pakistan instead bought unarmed Falco reconnaissance drones from Italy, according to a report published in Los Angeles Times in October. Pakistan has not stopped trying to acquire drones from the US, but has decided to begin making its own. The report claimed that Pakistani technicians at Kamra are still in training and several months away from beginning to manufacture them.

The Falcos produced in Pakistan, like the Italian-made aircraft, won't have strike capability or be able to fly nearly as far as the US's Predator and Reaper drones, the LA Times report said, citing Lieutenant Colonel Gohar Majeed, who is helping lead drone production at the PAC.

Pakistan's armed forces are at war with Pakistani Taliban insurgents in the country's northwest and are working with American drones. The drones' capabilities are being put at the disposal of the Pakistani forces, giving them experience in the effective use of the machines and their successful deployment.

Burraq is the country's latest domestically produced UAV, is based on the Falco-Selex Galileo technology and is believed to be intended as the Pakistan's main equivalent to the American Predator.

"PAC engineers have been working on the first UAV project of the country for two years," according to a report published on the aviation industry Flightglobal website in August. Pakistan is also reported to be flight-testing the Burraq, named for a winged-horse type creature in Islamic tradition. The Burraq is to be equipped with National Engineering and Scientific Commission (or NESCom) designed laser designator and laser-guided missiles. Unlike the Falco, Burraq will be able to attack and destroy targets.

Pakistan has now virtually become a member of the club of countries manufacturing drones. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) desperately needs UAVs capable of firing at targeted militants.

The Falco, with an autonomous navigation and control system, has a standard control link range of 200 kilometers and is capable of short take-offs from semi-prepared airstrips. Among its prominent features are automatic take-off and landing, fully redundant and fault-tolerant control systems and near-real-time target image processing.

Selex Galileo has test flown a Falco at the company's UAV test facility at ParcAberporth in west Wales in the UK. The vehicle was equipped with the active electronically scanned array PicoSAR and an infrared sensor. The high-resolution SAR (synthetic-aperture radar) makes the radar particularly useful for detecting disturbances in ground surface.

Pakistan's aviation firms have been involved in manufacturing small drones for years. Integrated Dynamics (ID), a local firm has been producing smaller UAVs for the government and commercial market for the last 12 years. Other private enterprises, including Surveillance & Target Unmanned Aircraft (Satuma) and East West Infiniti (EWI), have been involved in manufacturing UAVs in the country. State-owned aviation firms which produce UAVs include the Air Weapons Complex (AWC), National Development Complex (NDC) and PAC.

Some analysts believe that Pakistan is manufacturing the latest UAVs with the help of Turkey and China. The new Uqaab UAV is believed to have been developed with the help of Turkey. In March 2008, Pakistan announced the successful completion of flight tests of Uqaab, which appears similar to the US Army RQ-7B Shadow 200. Equipped with a night vision camera, the US Shadow 200 UAV has the capability to fly as high as 15,000 feet and stay 5.5 hours in the air.

China has helped Pakistan in strengthening its defenses, particularly the aviation industry. Beijing extended support in designing a fighter aircraft, the JF-17 Thunder, to meet Pakistan's specific defense needs, besides helping to set up aircraft production facilities in the country.

The first production JF-17 Thunder produced in Kamra was last month handed over to PAF. The light-weight, all-weather aircraft has the capability to carry short as well as long-range air-to-air missiles and its integrated avionics made it capable for fighting in the air for a longer period.

Pakistan plans also to acquire four airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft from China.

In the current fiscal year, Pakistan's defense expenditures are estimated to be somewhere between 400 billion and 410 billion rupees, up by about 70 billion rupees on the 343 billion rupee allocation. Last year, the allocated amount of 296 billion rupees was twice revised upwards to 329 billion rupees, to be 11% over the budget estimates.