Drones – Made In Pakistan
By DION NISSENBAUM
KARACHI, Pakistan—This country’s defense industry is building what companies hope will be a domestic fleet of aerial drones that can take over the U.S.’s role in attacking militant strongholds.
The U.S.’s persistent use of armed drones to kill militants in remote parts of Pakistan has created a public backlash that has damaged the relationship between the two nations.
American attempts to reduce the number of civilian casualties by tightening oversight of such strikes have done little to reduce popular opposition in Pakistan to the attacks nor mute Pakistani leaders’ routine protests.
But Pakistan isn’t altogether against drones. The nation’s leaders want to have more control over where and how they are used, and are encouraging local drone makers to build up the country’s budding arsenal.
“The future era is toward unmanned operations,” said Sawd Rehman, deputy director of Rawalpindi, Pakistan-based Xpert Engineering, which builds aerial drones. “The policy of self-reliance is always priority No. 1 of every nation.”
Mr. Rehman is part of a new wave of executives in the Pakistani defense industry who have studied American drone strikes with a mix of scorn and envy. He and other Pakistanis view U.S. drone attacks on militant sanctuaries as counterproductive because of the anti-American hostility they have fueled.
Instead, Xpert and a small number of other companies are working to develop the country’s own fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles—a force they hope will one day supplant the American drones that dominate the country’s border with Afghanistan.
“We have tried our best asking the United States to transfer this technology to us so we can fight our own war instead of somebody from abroad coming and doing it,” said Maj. Gen. Tahir Ashraf Khan, director general of Pakistan’s Defense Export Promotion Organization. “Those efforts did not meet with success, so we decided to venture into this field ourselves—and we have gone pretty far ahead.”
Pakistan’s military already uses a small but growing number of unarmed drones, some of them manufactured at home, to monitor the borders, coast and mountain ranges that serve as sanctuaries for some of the world’s most wanted militant leaders, including the Taliban and its allied Haqqani Network.
U.S. officials agreed last year to sell Islamabad several dozen small, unarmed Raven model drones with limited short-range surveillance capabilities. American officials have steadfastly opposed Pakistani requests for the transfer of U.S. armed drone technology to Pakistan.
The Pentagon declined to comment on Pakistan’s drone program or the reasons for not giving it U.S. technology.
Washington is resuming about $1 billion in military aid after freezing it when Pakistan blocked U.S. access to supply lines into Afghanistan. That followed an American border strike that killed 25 Pakistani troops in November 2011. The standoff ended over the summer with a U.S. apology.
Without advanced satellite technology, the Pakistanis are incapable of developing armed drones by themselves now. It will take years, if not decades, for Pakistan to develop a fleet of armed drones to rival America’s Predator and Reaper models, many analysts and people in the industry say.
“We don’t have the capability,” said Muhammad Sulaiman, a sales manager for Global Industrial Defense Solutions, or GIDS, a consortium of Pakistani companies that sells drones, tanks and planes to the nation’s military. “Maybe Pakistan will need another 50 years.”
To expand its capabilities, Pakistan is looking for help from China, which has marketed its own version of armed drones to developing countries.
“Pakistan can also benefit from China in defense collaboration, offsetting the undeclared technological apartheid,” Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said at a recent arms expo in Karachi, in apparent reference to U.S. reluctance to share its technology with Pakistan.
GIDS produces one of Pakistan’s newest and most advanced drones, a medium-range vehicle called the Shahpar that can fly for about seven hours—a fraction of the 40 hours a Predator can spend in the sky.
To supplement its nascent drone industry, Pakistan has been working with Italy’s Selex Galileo SpA to produce a medium-range Falco drone with limited capabilities that the Pakistani military has been using for surveillance since at least 2009, when the government staged operations against militants based in Swat Valley in northeastern Pakistan.
While Pakistan has looked to other countries to advance its drone capabilities, one Pakistani company said it has exported a small number of drones to a private company in the U.S.
Raja Sabri Khan, chief executive of Integrated Dynamics, a Karachi-based drone manufacturer, said he thought the U.S.’s use of armed drones has given the industry a bad name. He aims to help rehabilitate the perception of drones by promoting their peaceful uses, such as the ability to locate flood victims for rescue. “Drones can be used for saving lives, for security,” he said. “I’m absolutely against drones for armed purposes.”
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at email@example.com