According to a report in the most recent edition of the National Journal, Pakistan has recently unveiled drones that some believe are derived from Chinese drones.
“Already, Pakistan has remote-piloted aircraft,” the report notes. “Islamabad uses surveillance drones to provide the military with a real-time picture of its restive border areas or counter terrorism operations. Pakistan unveiled two new drones in November: Burraq, named after the winged horse from the heavens that transported Islamic prophets, and Shahpar.”
The National Journal report noted that Pakistan had claimed that both drones were domestically built and that neither would be armed. However, the report also points out, citing defense analysts, that the drones bear a close resemblance to the Chinese-made Rainbow CH-3. The Rainbow CH-3 is able to launch missiles.
Pakistan’s desire to acquire armed drones is no secret. It has urged the U.S. to sell it armed drones for years, which Washington has refused to do. The U.S. keeps a tight lock on the export of its armed drones. According to the National Journal report, only the United Kingdom has been sold U.S. armed drones although certain other close U.S. allies—may soon also fly American drones.
Israel also has armed drones but would be unlikely to export them to Pakistan given U.S. opposition and the fact that Islamabad is a Muslim country that has ties to some of Tel Aviv’s rivals in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East.
Islamabad’s need for such drones is also urgent. Pakistan’s military would almost certainly use the drones to target inward-focused terrorists operating in Pakistan’s far western region. It has been widely reported that the United States has, at times at least, aided in this effort by using its own drones to eliminate targets at the behest of the Pakistani military.
Having its own armed drones would allow Pakistan to intensify this effort, especially given the strong reluctance on the military’s part to execute a larger counter terrorism operation in the tribal areas where most inward-focused terrorists are believed to be taking refuge. Furthermore, Pakistan could use drones in cross-border operations against Afghanistan where some of the Pakistani terrorists could conceivably find sanctuary in the future should they be driven out of the tribal areas by Pakistan’s military.
It’s also not at all unlikely that China would willingly sell Pakistan armed drones. As The Diplomat has previously noted, China is expected to be by far the fastest growing UAV producer over the next five years. Although most of these drones will be destined for the People’s Liberation Army and other domestic users, Beijing has a clear desire to also use its growing drone market to increase defense exports. In fact, as noted earlier this month, China has already sold Saudi Arabia drones.
Moreover, China’s relationship with Pakistan is far stronger than its ties to Saudi Arabia, or any other country in the Middle East. This is especially true when it comes to arms sales. Indeed, by some estimates, Pakistan purchased some 55 percent of China’s total defense exports between 2008 and 2012. These arm sales most certainly include advanced aircraft. Indeed, one of the largest defense projects between Pakistan and China is their joint development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet, which Islamabad hopes to begin exporting as early as this year.
Therefore, although the report remains unconfirmed at this point, it would be surprising if China didn’t sell Pakistan armed drones in the coming years.