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Pakistan Looks to Use Drones as Strike Assets

In a new promotional video covering the newly launched National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP), the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) revealed that it was integrating numerous stand-off range (SOW) air-to-surface munitions to its newly inducted Bayraktar Akıncı and Bayraktar TB2 drones.

The Bayraktar Akıncı is a high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drone with a payload capacity of 1,500 kg, top speed of 150-195 knots (depending on engine type), and endurance of 24 hours. The Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone with a payload capacity of 150 kg, top speed of 70-120 knots, and an endurance of 27 hours. By acquiring both drones, the PAF essentially gained a ‘heavyweight-lightweight’ combination between the Akıncı and TB2, respectively.

The PAF’s Bayraktar Akıncı was displayed with the ‘Indigenous Range Extension Kit’ (IREK) precision-guided bomb (PGB) kit, laser-guided bomb (LGB), and MK-83 general purpose bombs (GPB). The Bayraktar TB2, on the other hand, was displayed with the KEMANKEŞ miniature cruise missile. The KEMANKEŞ  weighs 30 kg and offers a range of 200 km with a 6 kg warhead.

Separately, the PAF also showed that it also had a new variant of the KEMANKEŞ known as the KaGeM V3, a reportedly larger and longer-ranged cruise missile.

The munition inventories of both the Akıncı and TB2 indicate that the PAF could be looking to use drones as a mainstay strike asset. The PAF’s Akıncı, for example, was shown with heavier munitions, notably 500 kg-class MK-83s, be it as free-fall GPBs, long-range PGBs, or LGBs.

This could be a significant shift in weapons deployment as it can give the PAF a lower-cost and lower-risk means of carrying out precision strikes. For example, a JF-17 or F-16 would ostensibly cost more to fly than an Akıncı; thus, for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, the PAF could opt to rely more on the Akıncı for precision-strikes than manned fast jets. In turn, the PAF can spare its F-16 and JF-17 airframes of the stress of strike missions while also making those aircraft more available for external conventional threats.

Likewise, the PAF is also seemingly exploring the use of lighter ‘smart’ munitions, like the KEMANKEŞ, from the smaller Bayraktar TB2. Besides being compatible from a wider assortment of aircraft (not least lighter ones like the TB2), small long-range munitions can offer different benefits. For example, by focusing more on accuracy, the end-user could have a higher chance of striking and destroying its target, thus reducing the need for a larger warhead (which adds weight and, in turn, requires more power to fly at long-range).

Should Pakistan’s COIN challenges flare up again, the Akıncı and TB2 could play the leading role in providing the necessary air-to-ground attack support. In addition to potentially lower operating costs (and flexibility gains by freeing up manned fighters), the drones could stay in the air for longer periods of time. The drones are not constrained by aircrew fatigue, nor do they cost as much as a manned fighter if lost mid-operation.

Thus, the PAF could maintain pervasive surveillance and attack coverages through its drones, which may be an advantage when dealing with constantly moving and widely distributed insurgent targets. It should be noted that the PAF’s drones will be further supplemented by Pakistan Army (PA) drones; the latter will primarily comprise of domestically built designs, like the Shahpar-2 and, possibly, forthcoming Shahpar-3 (a 1,650 kg drone with an overall payload capacity of 400-500 kg across six hardpoints).

One should also expect both the PAF and PA to utilize satellite communication (SATCOM) to operate their      respective drone aircraft. Thus, the sorties of these drones could involve hundreds, if not several thousand, kilometers of flight so as to cover large stretches across the Tribal Areas, Baluchistan, and other key zones.

In theory, the PAF could use the Akıncı and TB2 as SOW carriers in a conventional conflict, especially if the drones deploy their weapons from well within Pakistani territory. However, it is unlikely that these drones would be the primary strike assets in those situations as, currently at least, the PAF’s offensive doctrine is centered on the F-16, JF-17, and Mirage III/5s. These fast jets have proven their utility in those situations, and for now, the PAF will likely lean on them until a suitable fast jet drone becomes available.

In that respect, it seems that Baykar Group is interested in marketing the Bayraktar Kızılelma jet-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to the PAF. The company’s chairman, Selçuk Bayraktar, presented Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, with a scale model of the UCAV with the Pakistani flag.

For the PAF, leveraging a near-supersonic UCAV for the offensive strike role would likely make more sense than a piston or turboprop-powered design. The Bayraktar Kızılelma, for example, will have a top speed of Mach 0.9, payload capacity of 1,500 kg, and endurance of five hours.

The Kızılelma UCAV would still have a lighter payload capacity than the JF-17; however, it would also be a stealthier platform, and – being unmanned and simpler in design – more attritable. Hence, the PAF could use the UCAV more aggressively by sending it for higher-risk missions, like precision strikes that are deeper across the Line of Control (LoC) or against enemy air defence systems.

The UCAV’s lighter payload capacity may be offset by the availability of smaller ‘smart’ munitions, such as the KEMANKEŞ and KaGeM V3. With it exploring the utility of these new munitions through the TB2, the PAF could be studying the concept of UCAV-centered operations.

Ultimately, it is not known if the PAF will acquire the Kızılelma. However, by acquiring both the Akıncı and the TB2, the PAF has shown considerable trust in the Bayraktar-series. For its part, it also seems that Baykar Group wants to cement its position in Pakistan through investments and collaborative efforts. Thus, it is plausible that the PAF may acquire a jet-powered UCAV capability through Baykar Group, be it in the form of the Kızılelma or, potentially, a custom design tailored for the PAF’s requirements.

Overall, it would be interesting to see if the PAF starts looking at drones – especially jet-powered UCAVs – as an alternative to additional manned fighters. If the UCAVs offer a credible capability in niche areas, like deep-strike, COIN, suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) and destruction of enemy air defence (DEAD) missions, and other roles, the PAF may reduce manned fighter investment in those areas. In other words, the PAF may not need as many strike-capable manned fighters in the future.

It would also be worth seeing how UCAVs would affect Pakistan’s industrial landscape. Compared to next-generation manned fighters, jet-powered UCAVs might be easier and more affordable to manufacture. In fact, given their attritable nature, Pakistan could be better served to build a robust production capacity for UCAVs of varying sizes, configurations, and capabilities rather than a singular flagship stealth fighter. The latter could be more feasible via a collaborative consortium (e.g., with Türkiye), while UCAVs could be an area involving more Pakistani ownership and, potentially, a relatively easier pathway to developing needed aerospace technologies, like engines, airframe materials, flight control systems, etc.

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