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Pakistan Takes Delivery of CH-4 Drones from China

According to open-source export-import records, the Chinese defence contractor Aerospace Long-March International (ALIT) delivered five CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicles to the Pakistan Army.

The shipment was recorded on 15 January 2021. It is not yet clear if this order is an initial batch ahead of a larger acquisition, or a small-scale purchase for testing or limited utilization.

Pakistan joins Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Myanmar, and Jordan as an operator of the CH-4. It is unclear if Pakistan ordered the CH-4A or CH-4B. If the CH-4B, the Pakistan Army will gain another armed drone (in addition to its Burraq-series) for unmanned combat operations.

The CH-4 reportedly has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 1,300 kg. According to ALIT, the CH-4 can carry up to four munitions (weighing 50 kg each) plus an electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) turret. It has a reported endurance of 40 hours and a cruising speed of 180 knots.

Pakistan was initially linked to a possible CH-4 drone purchase in 2016 when Shi Wen, the lead designer of drones at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) at the time, said the company was talking to a South Asian customer. In June 2016, a Wing Loong had crashed in Mianwali, Pakistan from an “experimental flight,” indicating that Pakistan was evaluating Chinese UAVs.

There was a report that Pakistan was ordering 48 Wing Loong-II UAVs from China with a local production agreement involving PAC. However, Quwa was not able to verify the authenticity of the news as it did not connect to any official channel or reliable insider source. In fact, the news did not align with how the PAF was planning its future UAV procurement at the time, which was (and still is) an indigenous effort.

In 2017, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) announced an in-house medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV program under its Project AZM initiative. The PAF tasked the newly established Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development (AvRID) bureau under Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to lead the indigenous MALE UAV program. It is unclear if the prototype underwent its maiden test flight, which was scheduled for 2019. In January 2021, observers spotted a prototype MALE UAV at PAC. The design seems to mirror the same general design concept of the Anka, Wing Loong, and CH-4 (i.e., the Predator). It likely uses a piston engine, though there is a chance that its MTOW may be less than the aforementioned UAVs.

Despite the presence of an in-house MALE UAV program, it appears that both the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy proceeded with imported aircraft. In fact, in 2018, the Pakistan Navy inquired with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) about the latter’s Anka-S. In 2020, the Pakistan Navy revealed that it signed a contract for a “long-range, high-endurance” UAV. However, a local source said that the Navy ordered the CH-4 from China. Currently, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) seems to be focused on Project AZM.

There was an opportunity to consolidate the MALE UAV programs of each service arm. However, the Army and Navy opted to go ahead with the CH-4. This outcome was likely due to siloed planning and decision-making between the three service arms. It will be worth observing if the Army and Navy proceed with a follow-on order for CH-4s (or some other UAV type). If they limit their respective orders to small batches, the Army and Navy could be looking forward to inducting the PAC MALE UAV when it is available.

It is unlikely that the CH-4 acquisition is a sign of an expansive drone usage program (akin to what Turkey is doing in Syria and Libya). For now, it seems that the Army and Navy are more inclined to use the drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike operations against non-state actors. For the Army, securing China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects from such threats is a priority.

Pakistan can best execute an aggressive drone strategy through its domestic MALE UAV program.

First, it is already investing in the overhead (e.g., jigs) to manufacture the aircraft. The only way to sustain a large overhead expense is to commit to a large production order. PAC could be looking to export its drone, but the best guarantor for orders should be the PAF, i.e., the domestic backer.

Second, Pakistan controls the platform, so it can dictate the types of subsystems and weapons for the aircraft. In fact, Pakistan should be moving towards manufacturing these miniature guided munitions, be it under license or through original design and development work.

Third, Pakistan could also free itself of any supply-side restrictions on its drone usage through its domestic program. Pakistan can work on long-range, beyond-line-of-sight communication systems so that it could operate UAVs flexibly and deep within contested or enemy territory.

Finally, an expansive drone program would be too costly to sustain through solely imports. In contrast, a domestic program could serve as a stimulus for the local economy and, potentially, drive private sector growth if PAC sub-contracts production work to other companies. It may even incentivize local actors to develop critical inputs, such as the engine and sensors, if there is enough domestic demand.

Despite the CH-4 orders, it seems that Pakistan is still intent on sustaining its drone procurement through Project AZM. It is likely that the Army and Navy’s timelines did not align with those of Project AZM, hence the CH-4 orders. Once PAC’s MALE UAV enters serial production, the armed forces as a whole could pivot to the indigenous design, and in the future, limit its imports. In terms of the latter, niche applications such as high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs could be of interest in the coming years.

Currently, Pakistan’s mainstay UAVs comprise of the Leonardo Falco, the National Engineering & Scientific Commission (NESCOM) Burraq, and the Global Industrial Defence Solutions (GIDS) Shahpar. The PAF had acquired the Falco with a local production license, but it is unclear if PAC is still manufacturing the drone. The Burraq seems to be a joint-venture with CASC involving the CH-3-series as the basis for the UAV, and the Shahpar could be a more indigenous program drawing on local design expertise and inputs.

The PAF seems to be the primary operator of each UAV. The PAF is using the Falco and Shahpar in the ISR roles, while deploying the Burraq for armed operations. Based on the serial numbers, it appears that the PAF is operating at least 44 Falco UAVs, 35 Burraqs, and 70 Shahpars. These are minimum estimates – the actual numbers could be higher so as to sustain coverages and cover for attrition.

For the PAF, the in-house MALE UAV design could be a means to consolidate its future lightweight drone fleet to one platform. That platform could operate as both an effective ISR tool as well as attack asset. In both cases, it will provide more range and payload than the PAF’s current aircraft. The PAF could procure at least 100 of PAC’s MALE UAV to gradually replace its legacy drones. If the Army and Navy each commit to their own expansive drone programs, the domestic production run could reach 200 aircraft.

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