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Pakistan’s Drone Programs Poised for Growth

Pakistan’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs are poised for significant growth through the 2020s.

The country has at least two medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs under development – i.e., the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) Shahpar-2 and unnamed Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) drone – and active contracts for Chinese CH-4s.

In addition, Pakistan will also deploy a new communications satellite (SATCOM) equipped with Ku-band and Ka-band transponders, i.e., the PakSat-MM1. Though meant for civilian usage, the fact that Pakistani military service arms (especially the Navy) are acquiring SATCOM terminals suggest that the armed forces can theoretically use the PakSat-MM1 and current PakSat-1R for defence purposes.

Each service arm of the armed forces – i.e., Pakistan Army, Pakistan Navy, and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) – is acquiring drones. Each service arm seems focused on developing its ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and targeted, low-intensity attack capability against asymmetrical threats.

However, Pakistan’s drone programs may expand beyond mitigating non-conventional threats and, in line with each service arm’s unique circumstances, niche roles of conventional value.

Pakistan Army

While each service arm will likely procure multiple types of drones, this article will assume, for simplicity purposes, that each arm will procure one type of domestic UAV. In the case of the Pakistan Army (PA), the main UAV type would be the NESCOM Shahpar-2, which seems to have recently been inducted.

The initial use-case of the Shahpar-2 could very well be COIN related, specifically in regard to boosting the ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) presence along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Quwa has an analysis that examines the cost feasibility and practical plausibility of eliminating apparent gaps in the border by using the Shahpar-2. It is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to totally rely on UAVs to monitor the border and thwart intrusion. Rather, Pakistan will likely have to invest in a robust ground surveillance radar (GSR) network plus an enhanced policing/internal security management element as well.

The Shahpar-2 seems to be of a similar size and capability to Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2. Though Turkey used the TB2 in its own COIN operations, Turkey also saw success in using the TB2 for conventional operations against armour and short-range air defence systems (SHORAD).

With it possessing a similar drone design, the PA can consider deploying the Shahpar-2 in a similar manner – i.e., targeted attacks against specific enemy assets (such as SHORAD inputs) and surveillance or target location/identification for stand-off range weapons, such as artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems.

Use against a conventional enemy does increase the risk of loss, but drones are, by nature, meant for high-risk use. The constraint that could prevent the PA from using its drones in this way would be cost. Expendability is only feasible when the cost of replacing lost aircraft is low.

To control costs, Pakistan would need to either source low-cost components from overseas, or indigenize the inputs (e.g., the engine and materials for aerostructures). To feasibly indigenize inputs, Pakistan would need to build economies-of-scale through large domestic UAV orders. It is unclear if the PA would acquire the Shahpar-2 (or drones in general) in large quantities or, instead, use UAVs for niche roles.

Pakistan Navy

Like the Pakistan Army (PA), the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) drone procurement appears to be focused on either surveillance or mitigating asymmetrical threats. For its surveillance requirements, the PN operates Boeing ScanEagle and the Schiebel Camcopter S-100. In terms of handling asymmetrical threats, the PN ordered a MALE drone off-the-shelf – this is likely a variant of the CH-4.

Currently, it does not seem that UAVs would take on any of the PN’s main combat roles (aside from maybe targeted strikes against non-conventional threats). In other words, while there may be designs potentially capable of anti-ship warfare (AShW) or anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the PN is focused on improving its capabilities in those areas through new manned aircraft, such as the next-generation long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) program based on the Embraer Lineage 1000E.

The interesting aspect of the PN’s drone requirements is that it requires diverse types of aircraft to fulfill each of its mission requirements. For example, if it wants to improve its shipborne drone capabilities, the PN will need to invest in additional vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs. VTOL is worth observing as the PN adds more ships to its fleet, especially in terms of fast attack crafts and small patrol vessels. UAVs of this type can help these small ships build long-range, over-the-horizon situational awareness.

If the PN is looking to boost its long-range maritime patrol capability, it may look at a purpose-designed MALE UAV platform. This type of UAV would help the PN expand its maritime ISR coverage and offload some of the work away from the new LRMPAs. Deploying these UAVs in lieu of additional numbers of LRMPAs might also be more affordable upfront and, potentially, in terms of operating and support costs.

In terms of combat, these UAVs can support the PN’s surface warships with over-the-horizon targeting or situational awareness. They could even augment the LRMPAs in the ASW role by supporting them in the surveillance/tracking roles and, potentially, some weapons deployment (e.g., depth charges).

Pakistan is currently developing a 1.5-ton MALE UAV. If the PN is not interested in deploying ASW or AShW munitions from its drones, it could stick to the existing model, or request a slightly enlarged version. For PAC, a MALE UAV of this nature – i.e., 2-to-3-tons – could be a logical next-step. However, the PN would likely want maritime specific design attributes, such as salt-erosion-proofing, such a drone.

The previous PN Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Zafar Mahmoud Abbasi, said that the PN’s new internal R&D bureau, the Naval Research and Development Institute (NRDI), is doing work on UAVs. Thus, the PN could potentially commission its own programs in the coming years, especially niche applications (such as VTOL drones for shipborne operations). Ideally, NRDI and PAC would collaborate on a fixed-wing naval ISR drone to complement the next-generation LRMPA.

Pakistan Air Force

Currently, the centerpiece of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) future drone plans seems to be PAC’s 1.5-ton MALE UAV. The design is similar in scope and capability as Turkey’s Anka and China’s CH-4 platforms. If it enters operational service, the PAF would likely use its own UAV in a similar manner, i.e., primarily an ISR system with precision-attack capabilities for use against low-intensity, asymmetrical targets.

The PAF opted an original design route for its UAV, which indicates a willingness to develop an internal design and development capability for the future. Thus, it would not be surprising if the PAF pushes for a larger UAV based on the learnings of its 1.5-ton program, much like how China developed the CH-5 MALE UAV, or how Turkey is developing the Aksungur. The PAF (and PN) could use a drone of this type to boost its ISR capabilities through long-range and long-endurance flight.

Strategic Solutions

Finally, the private sector firm Integrated Dynamics is developing its own High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) UAVs, the Solaris and Stratos. If successful, the Stratos HAPS UAV could add another dimension to Pakistan’s drone deployment by enabling a satellite-like image intelligence (IMINT) capability. It could, for example, fit a lightweight synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to the Stratos and deploy the UAV.

If Pakistan’s drone programs grow, it will do so in tandem with its space development program. For each service arm to deploy a true beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) capability (for long-range operations), the armed forces will need a robust SATCOM solution. The upcoming PakSat-MM1 will improve Pakistan’s SATCOM in the near future, but it will have a lifecycle of 15 years, so a successor would need to be on the roadmap. This successor would likely involve more of a defence/strategic focus because by the time it would need to launch, the armed forces’ SATCOM usage will likely be extensive (i.e., through drones, LRMPAs, AEW&C, combat aircraft, and many other assets).

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