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Pakistan Continues Investing in Drone Development

Currently, Pakistan is actively developing new medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) across two state-owned entities (SOE), the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).

The NESCOM design is the Shahpar-II, which Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD) revealed on March 23 during the annually-held Pakistan Day parade. The Shahpar-II is an evolution of the Shahpar, which is the first UAV that was locally designed, developed and manufactured in Pakistan. The Shahpar-II was likely under development since at least 2017, potentially earlier.

The Shahpar-II builds on the same general design template of its predecessor, but it is a larger aircraft and exhibits a number of noticeable changes. The most noticeable of these changes is the addition of an area in the fuselage for a satellite-communications (SATCOM) terminal.

According to Global Industrial Defense Solutions (GIDS), which is marketing the Shahpar-II, the MALE UAV has a flight ceiling of 20,000 ft, endurance of over 14 hours, and data-link range of 300 km. Since GIDS is looking to export the Shahpar-II, these are likely baseline specifications. For example, Pakistan could use SATCOM to achieve a longer, beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) data-link range.

That said, based on these specifications, the Shahpar-II seems to be similar in size and capability to the Turkish Bayrkatar TB2. Currently, it seems that Pakistan is slating the Shahpar-II as mainly an intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition (ISTAR) asset. However, it is certainly large enough to carry small air-to-surface munitions, should Pakistan opt for it.

On the other hand, PAC’s MALE UAV, which has been in development since at least 2017, is now confirmed to be an MQ-1C Gray Eagle or Anka-A-sized drone. This would be the largest drone (or aircraft in general) to have been designed and developed in Pakistan to-date.

According to a catalogue published by the Defence Export Promotion Organization (DEPO), the PAC MALE UAV will have a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 1,596 kg.[1] It will have a payload capacity of 350 kg distributed across four hardpoints. It will use a 200 hp engine which, interestingly, is the same output as the Lycoming IO-360-A1B6 used by the Super Mushshak. However, it is unclear if it is the same engine or, as importantly, if Pakistan would use that engine to power the production-ready drone.

Thus far, it seems that the Shahpar-II reached a production-ready state, hence its showcase at the Pakistan Day parade and entry as an exportable product under GIDS. The PAC MALE UAV is still under development, but that is not surprising considering how it is a more complex aircraft. For reference, it had taken Turkey five years from the time it flew the Anka-A to have an operationally-ready version in the Anka-S.

That said, PAC is certainly at the stage of at least manufacturing a prototype of its MALE UAV. Footage of its Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF) shows the presence of at least one jig set-up for the drone.

Overall, the development of the Shahpar-II and the PAC MALE UAV show that Pakistan is taking both drone operationalization and development seriously. Though Turkey had shown the value of using drones of this size in combat, these programs predate recent events in the Middle East.

In fact, Pakistan already built a sizable drone force under the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), so these new UAVs may have already been planned and accounted for as part of a long-term roadmap. However, a significant point to note is that the Shahpar-II and PAC UAV are both much larger and longer-ranged aircraft than the drones the PAF is already operating (i.e., Falco, Burraq and Shahpar-I). In other words, these new drones will support a significant capability boost for the PAF once they are inducted in large numbers.

Moreover, these drones will likely draw upon the armed forces’ growing investment in space development – i.e., SATCOM. The PakSat-1R is technically SATCOM-capable through its Ku-band transponders, but since Pakistan has a roadmap for multiple satellites through the 2020s and 2030s, it may include Ka-band and/or X-band transponders to its capability mix in the coming years. Overall, the infrastructure for drones is now coming into place at the both the operational and local industry (albeit via SOEs) levels.

When it had greenlit these new drone programs, Pakistan may have looked at them as new assets for its counterinsurgency (COIN) and ISR operations. However, Turkey’s use of the Bayraktar TB2 against armed forces targets had highlighted that these drones can work in conventional warfare scenarios.

In this respect, it will be worth observing how Pakistan approaches miniature air-to-surface munitions. It has a locally branded design called the Barq, which may be a domestically built version of the Chinese AR-1. The Barq is the primary weapon of the Burraq armed UAV, which was inducted in November 2013.

However, the Barq is a short-range (i.e., under 10 km) missile. Pakistan could also look into longer-ranged munitions in the 100 kg-plus weight range (which the PAC MALE UAV could carry). In fact, one trend that is catching on in other countries is the development of miniature cruise missiles akin to the MBDA SPEAR-series. Pakistan could use the inputs from PAC’s High-Speed Target Drone (also under development) as a starting point to design a 30-50 km-ranged miniature air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).

The combination of a MALE UAV and small UAV could enable Pakistan to carry-out precision-guided strikes against key targets in high-risk areas and scenarios, e.g., enemy air defence systems. Likewise, investment in a Small Diameter Bomb (SDB)-type weapon (e.g., Turkey’s Aselsan SDB) could allow for strikes against hardened or reinforced targets at stand-off range.

In any case, with the utility of drones in conventional warfare more apparent, one should see how Pakistan adapts its roadmap for the next three to five years. Thus far, there have been no signs of Pakistan pursuing drone swarming solutions, though that might now change as India is operationalizing such a system.

That said, Pakistan’s SPD did showcase a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV at the Pakistan Day parade (possibly the GIDS Scout VTOL UAV). Thus, Pakistan may already be working towards a swarming capability using the systems it already has under development.

Besides new applications and drone designs, one major long-term opportunity – if not necessity – is the need to indigenize the supply chain for drones. This is a scale-intensive area that requires large number of aircraft to maintain a credible capability. The most cost-effective way to achieve that scale is to source as many inputs (e.g., composite materials, engines, aerostructures, and weapons) from the local industry.

With at least two MALE UAV programs at the end of the development pipeline (with possibly a third drone program under the umbrella of the Pakistan Navy), SPD ought to consider a domestic powerplant as well as a more extensive aerostructures and materials investment. Fortunately, engine applications for drones may be less complex and cost-intensive compared to manned fighter aircraft, so this area could be a viable start for Pakistan in developing its own critical inputs.

[1] Defence Export Promotion Organization (DEPO). Catalogue for Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. URL: http://depo.gov.pk/download/catalogue/public/PAC.pdf

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