In a recent interview with China Daily, Shi Wen, who is the lead drone designer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), shed light on what may be talks between China and Pakistan over the sale of CASC CH-4 armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones.
CASC is a leading (if not the leading) Chinese firm involved in the development and production of UAVs, especially armed UAVs, an increasingly popular product segment among the world’s militaries, particularly those unable to access armed UAVs from the West. In fact, this is an area where the Chinese defence industry has taken a lucrative lead, especially in the Middle East.
The company’s product line centers on the Cai Hong (i.e. Rainbow), which secured its first export order in 2003-2004 when “a South Asian country” purchased a number of CH-1s. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, CASC succeeded in developing an exportable armed drone design in the form of the CH-3 and CH-3A. With the AR-1 laser-guided air-to-ground missile (AGM), the CH-3/CH-3A saw success in securing multiple sales. In fact, the Burraq armed UAV produced by NESCOM evidently draws its lineage from the CH-3A design.
Following the success of the CH-3 and CH-3A, CASC began exporting the much improved CH-4. Compared to the CH-3A, the CH-4 offers substantially improved range and payload (with the baseline CH-4A capable of carrying four AGMs in comparison to the CH-3A’s two). An evidently compelling package, the CH-4 saw export success in the Middle East, specifically with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), each of whom deployed the system into live operational theatres.
Shi Wen expects additional orders to come through once prospective buyers are able to pull through their difficult economic conditions. At present, Shi Wen claims that talks are underway with an existing South Asian customer for the CH-4. It is possible that the customer Shi Wen is referring to is Pakistan. Pakistan began deploying the Burraq as part of its COIN operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2013.
It would be an interesting acquisition, especially with CASC awaiting the release of an export license for the CH-5, which is not only its latest product, but also its largest and most capable design yet. The CH-5 boasts a wingspan of 21 metres, endurance of up to 30 hours, a cruising speed of 160-220km/h, and a range of up to 2000km (if linked to a satellite communication and navigation network). It is essentially CASC’s equivalent to the MQ-9 Reaper.
Assuming the country Shi Wen is referring to is in fact Pakistan and not Bangladesh, Myanmar or Sri Lanka, the purchase of the CH-5 may be a better route than the CH-4. Make no mistake, compared to the CH-3A, the CH-4 (especially CH-4B) would be a substantive improvement, but the cost of inducting a new platform may be better realized by inducting a much more capable system – i.e. the CH-5. With the CH-5, Pakistan could make use of its substantially heavier payload capacity by arming it with a higher number of munitions, such as laser-guided AGM, laser-guided rockets, and potentially even laser-guided bombs. Alternatively, Pakistan can utilize the UAV’s long endurance time for long-haul intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
It will be interesting to see if Pakistan will be able to utilize UAVs with satellite support. If Pakistan could pair its purported military-grade access to the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System with a proprietarily owned communications satellite, it could use long-range UAVs at beyond-line-of-sight. Granted, this may not have much utility within Pakistan’s borders (as it could freely host ground-control stations), but there may be some value of such an arrangement over Pakistan’s maritime theatre.
In any case, nothing is confirmed, this is mostly speculation on our part. We will have to wait a bit to see if Pakistan is indeed pursuing a new UAV type from China. If anything, we may see some substantive moves in that direction during IDEAS 2016, which is scheduled to take place in November.