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Pakistan Showcases New Shahpar-II Drone

Pakistan’s Global Industrial & Defence Solutions (GIDS) showcased its new armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Shahpar-II, at the Egypt Defence Expo (EDEX).

The Shahpar-II is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV developed by the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM). NESCOM/GIDS are marketing the Shahpar-II as a multi-mission UAV capable of targeted strikes, surveillance, and an array of intelligence-gathering roles.

An evolution of NESCOM’s Shahpar UAV, the Shahpar-II is a larger and longer-ranged design. GIDS, which is the marketing arm of various Pakistani state-owned enterprises (SOE), revealed that the Shahpar-II was in development since at least 2017. NESCOM officially revealed the Shahpar-II at the 2021 Pakistan Day Military Parade, which took place on March 23. It seems that the Pakistani armed forces are inducting the Shahpar-II, but they are also comfortable with allocating production for export as well.

The Shahpar-II’s airframe is a canard-pusher design. In its surveillance configuration, the Shahpar-II has a service ceiling of 20,000 ft and endurance of 14 hours. In its attack configuration, the Shahpar-II provides a service ceiling of 18,000 ft and an endurance of 7 hours. When using satellite communication (SATCOM), the Shahpar-II can fly a range of up to 1,050 km. However, with a standard line-of-sight radio link, the Shahpar-II offers a range of up to 300 km. It seems that Pakistan is offering both options for export.

GIDS did not disclose the actual payload capacity of the UAV, but it revealed that the Shahpar-II can carry a Burq laser-guided air-to-ground missile (AGM) on each wing. It can carry an alternative AGM weighing up to 60 kg. It is not known if the Shahpar-II can employ multiple munitions from each wing if the weight of those systems stayed under the 60 kg limit. However, if capable of that configuration, then the Shahpar-II could theoretically carry miniature guided munitions like Roketsan’s MAM-C, which weighs 6.5 kg.

The Shahpar-II can offer a variety of configurations for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles. These include communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The Shahpar-II can also carry an electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret. In fact, GIDS is offering the domestically-built Zumr-II, which weighs 49 kg.

Based on GIDS’ information, Pakistan’s ‘standard’ configuration of one Zumr-II EO/IR turret and two Burq AGMs would indicate a minimum carrying capacity of 170 kg. If accurate, this would make the Shahpar-II comparable to the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, which has a carrying capacity of over 150 kg. In fact, both UAVs are broadly similar in their respective capabilities (though the TB2 has a markedly higher service ceiling). There are even indications that the Shahpar-II offers some of the same key features as the TB2, including an automated take-off and landing system (which Pakistan has been developing).

Development of the Shahpar-II predates the Nagorno Karabakh conflict (where Azerbaijan had reportedly used the TB2 to neutralize Armenian armour assets). However, the Bayraktar TB2’s record in that conflict as well as Turkish operations in the Middle East likely caught Pakistan’s interest. Not only can a drone the size of the TB2 change close air support (CAS) dynamics, but it can even be an effective tool against enemy air defence assets. For Pakistan, having a comparable local solution could not have come at a better time.

From a deployment standpoint, Pakistan could be interested in acquiring the Shahpar-II in sizable numbers for use as a flexible CAS and, potentially, suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) asset. In fact, with GIDS highlighting the Shahpar-II’s varied configuration options – e.g., ELINT – one can see that Pakistan itself is or may been interested in fitting and using the Shahpar-II in that manner.

Armed with the Burq AGM, Pakistan could use the Shahpar-II to target enemy tanks, artillery, and infantry fighting vehicles (IFV). The Zumr-II and Burq AGM is the baseline combination. In the long-term, Pakistan could explore more sophisticated munitions, such as top-attack-capable AGMs, guided sub-munitions, or even small, lightweight loitering munitions. Pakistan can buy these munitions off-the-shelf.

Regarding SEAD, Pakistan can use the Shahpar-II with ELINT payloads to monitor electromagnetic emission (e.g., radar) activity and, potentially, armed Shahpar-II to attack enemy air defence sites. Given that the Shahpar-II is a relatively low-cost unmanned asset, Pakistan would be willing to use these drones in high-risk ways. If it can field enough units, it can undertake high-risk missions in succession.

From a development standpoint, the Shahpar-II is a significant breakthrough. Granted, NESCOM could be using an impactful degree of commercially-available off-the-shelf (COTS) inputs. So, the Shahpar-II is likely not a fully indigenized drone. However, the design and development experience are invaluable. If Pakistan can build momentum on the Shahpar-II (the way Baykar Makina has been via the TB2), its development could branch out to both larger UAV designs and more sophisticated applications.

One area Pakistan ought to look into are attritable UAVs such as loyal wingman drones. Baykar Makina is developing the MIUS unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). With a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 3,500 kg to 4,500 kg, the MIUS will offer a payload of 1,500 kg. Turkey expects to use the MIUS UCAV as a loyal wingman, carrier operations aircraft, and strike UCAV.

To build a credible conventional deterrence in the long run (especially against exponential jumps in India’s defence industry growth and gradual incline of defence spending), Pakistan should look in novel directions for its own needs. MIUS-type UCAVs can offer strike-capable payloads, but with relatively low price-tags.

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) response strategy (i.e., ‘Swift Retort’) to India’s Balakot strikes was centered on its own strike package. However, the PAF had to mobilize 24 aircraft across three different platforms to undertake this operation, and that too while avoiding an escalation. If Pakistan was in an active war, it would be difficult to operations of that scale repeatedly, much less in succession or simultaneously. India could potentially neutralize air bases, which would strain the PAF’s capabilities.

However, a MIUS-type UCAV could make Swift Retort-type deployments more scalable and responsive. It could remove many manned aircraft – and the risks associated with using high-cost assets and personnel – from the equation. Moreover, if the UCAV is designed for rocket-powered takeoffs, the PAF would not need runways to deploy those drones. Instead of concentrating them at airfields, the PAF could distribute the UCAVs (and, by extension, its capabilities) to many different areas. It would be difficult for the IAF to find and neutralize all of those locations.

Granted, the gap between the TB2 and MIUS is significant, but there are likely key organizational lessons in Baykar Makina that Pakistan’s NESCOM should adopt. With sufficient investment and time, there is no reason why NESCOM cannot create a similar development track and, in turn, produce a MIUS-type UCAV for use in the 2030s and beyond. Of course, a joint-venture with Baykar Makina (or other companies from Turkey, South Africa, etc) could also be on the table.

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