Pakistan turns to drones of its own
citizens are irked by U.S. drones, and its requests to buy them from
Washington have been rebuffed. So it owns and operates Italian-made
models, a version of which it is developing itself.
By Alex Rodriguez
October 9, 2009
Reporting from Kamra, Pakistan
the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, people are accustomed to the
hum of American drones overhead -- and don't like it. The drones kill
civilians as well as militants, they say, and their use also tramples
This summer in the Swat Valley,
Pakistanis again heard drones whirring in the sky, but there was a
difference. They were Pakistani-owned and operated, a toe-in-the-water
foray into a technology that is revolutionizing warfare.
weren't missile-carrying drones like the ones used by the U.S., but
unmanned aerial vehicles that sent images of targets back to Pakistani
command posts. Symbolically, however, they were crucial baby steps for
a country desperate to develop its own fleet to better combat a
Rebuffed for security reasons in its
efforts to buy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, from the United
States, Pakistan instead bought unarmed Falco reconnaissance drones
And in a small, glass-walled laboratory at a
state-owned defense enterprise here in Kamra, east of Islamabad, it is
gearing up to produce its own modern tactical drones similar to the
Falcos it used over the Swat Valley.
Drones have dramatically
changed the landscape of war, from Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistani border.
U.S. drones equipped with Hellfire missiles have been one of the most
effective weapons against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding out in
Pakistan's tribal areas, killing at least nine top leaders.
drone strike Aug. 5 killed Baitullah Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban
leader blamed for overseeing many of the suicide bomb attacks
throughout the country, as well as the December 2007 assassination of
former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
For years, private
Pakistani aviation firms have manufactured small, less-sophisticated
drones, which have been used for purposes such as ground-to-air target
The government has repeatedly asked Washington to
give it weapons-carrying drones like the ones used by the U.S. military
to strike militant targets in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal
Areas, the badlands along the Afghan border that serve as safe haven
for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
Washington has refused,
however, citing its concerns that Pakistan's intelligence services
could pass on sensitive data about the drones and their operation to
Pakistan has not stopped trying to acquire
drones from the United States, but it has decided to begin making its
own. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a state-owned defense
manufacturer, is teaming up with the Italian company Selex Galileo to
produce the Falco locally.
Pakistani technicians at Kamra are
still in training and several months away from beginning to manufacture
them. In the meantime, Pakistan decided to buy about two dozen Falcos
from Italy and put them to use in Swat.
The Pakistani military
relied heavily on fighter jet airstrikes to eliminate Taliban
infrastructure in Swat, and aerial images taken by Falco drones helped
them pinpoint those targets.
"Our recent area of interest has
been the war on terror, and we've deployed [Falco drones] very
successfully," said Air Marshal Farhat Hussain Khan, chairman of the
Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. "It's been extremely useful in the
Falco drones, Khan said, were used during
the Swat offensive to locate "all kinds of targets ranging from
hide-outs, bunkers, ammo dumps, pickets and other [Taliban]
Defense analyst Talat Masood, a retired
Pakistani general, said producing surveillance drones will be a good
first step toward Pakistan's eventual goal of having UAVs capable of
"My own assessment is that they have helped
in improving intelligence and operations capability of the Pakistani
army in Swat," Masood said. "If they were equipped with missiles, then
Pakistan would take a quantum leap in counter-insurgency capability."
Pakistani public would probably be more tolerant of civilian casualties
caused by drones produced and operated by the country's own forces,
"If an American drone attacks and there's
collateral damage, there's huge anti-American sentiment here," he said.
"At the same time, Pakistani civilians have died during Pakistani
military operations, and it doesn't generate the same kind of
Though the United States won't supply Pakistan with drones, it has at
times shared surveillance data gathered by American UAVs.
in turn, has been more cooperative in providing intelligence to help
U.S. drones find their targets. The drone strike against Mahsud was
preceded by Pakistani intelligence that helped the U.S. pinpoint his
Lt. Col. Gohar Majeed, who is helping lead drone
production at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, said the country's air
force would like the firm to build eight to 10 drones.
Falcos produced in Pakistan, like the Italian-made aircraft, won't have
strike capability and won't be able to fly nearly as long as the CIA's
Predator and Reaper drones. The Falco's flight endurance time is eight
to 14 hours, whereas the Predator's flight duration record is 40 hours.
got limited range and limited payload capability," said a spokesman for
the Pakistani air force, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We do
get real-time pictures from it. . . . It's a tactical tool."
Pakistan's ultimate desire, drones equipped with missiles, can
eventually be achieved by modifying existing UAVs, Khan said. The
question he can't answer is how long that will take.
three years is not enough time to develop such a program," Khan said.
"But everything's possible. There are no hurdles that cannot be
2009 Los Angeles Times