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Artist's impression of the Gremlin airborne decoy system. Photo source: DARPA

Could Decoy Drones be on Pakistan’s Roadmap?

Pakistan’s first indigenously designed medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Shahpar-II, is off to a promising start. It is being inducted by the Pakistan Army (PA) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), while Global Defence and Industrial Solutions (GIDS) is now marketing a Block-II version. The National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) is also developing a larger and more capable variant, Shahpar-III.

In terms of developing MALE UAVs, it appears that Pakistan – especially through NESCOM – is making progress. In fact, the jump from the Shahpar-II to the Shahpar-III will be significant.

The Shahpar-III will have a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 1,650 kg, payload of 400 kg to 530 kg across six hardpoints, 20 hours of endurance, range of 3,000 km, and service ceiling of 35,000 feet. It will be Pakistan’s largest indigenous drone to-date and a domestic analogue to systems like the Turkish Anka-S, Chinese Wing Loong-II, and American MQ-1C.

However, each of Pakistan’s service arms is looking to leverage drones to augment – or even supplant – key aspects of their operations. From vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs to loitering munitions of various sizes to unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), the imperative from all of the Tri-Services is driving the Pakistani industry to develop many solutions.

This work could extend into the development of attritable unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for the PAF. In a recent promotional video, the PAF stated that developing manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capabilities was one of its goals.

While the PAF is likely referring to its use of existing MALE and high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs in concert with crewed fighter aircraft, the MUM-T concept is evolving to include many types of drones, from loitering munitions to an array of jet-powered systems. The latter include flying-wing strike UCAVs, loyal wingman drones, and attritable decoy drones.

The PAF’s entry into next-generation MUM-T could involve the acquisition – or, potentially, the development – of jet-powered attritable decoy drones. Following loitering munitions, decoy drones would likely be the lightest and lowest cost pieces of a future MUM-T deployment.

However, where loitering munitions are specifically designed to identify and attack a target, a decoy drone could undertake additional roles, such as electronic attack (EA) or electronic countermeasures (ECM), on top of being a loitering munition. Thus, like a loitering munition, a decoy is an expendable system, perhaps akin to a cruise missile, but with the flexibility of drones, such as swarming. In other words, it is a relatively simple and low-cost design, one that can be built in significant numbers to absorb utilization (which leads to attrition).

Thus far, today’s decoy drone programs seem to be based on target drones or air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). For example, the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) Super Şimşek decoy drone is a direct evolution of the TAI Şimşek target drone. The Şimşek has a MTOW of 70 kg, wingspan of 1.5 m, and length of 2.3 m. It has a top speed of around Mach 0.5, service ceiling of up to 20,000 feet, endurance of 45 minutes, and range of over 70 km.

Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) Simsek Target Drone
Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) Simsek Target Drone

Pakistan already has two target drone programs: Sysverve Aerospace’s Hadaf-series and the High-Speed Target Drone (HSTD) developed by the PAF’s National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP). The PAF did not release the specifications of the HSTD, but it may be similar to the Hadaf-series, the specifications of which are known via the Defence Export Promotion Organization (DEPO).

According to DEPO, the Hadaf-1 has a wingspan of 1.2 m, a length of 1.6 m, a range of 20 km, an endurance of up to 30 minutes, and a speed of Mach 0.24. The Hadaf-2 has a wingspan of 2.0 m, length of 3.2 m, range of 20 km, endurance of 20 minutes, and speed of Mach 0.32. There is a “Hadaf High-Speed” under development; it has a wingspan of 1.8 m, a length of 3.5 m, an endurance of 40 minutes, a range of up to 100 km, and a speed of Mach 0.5.

Sysverve Aerospace Hadaf-1 Target Drone
Sysverve Aerospace Hadaf-1 Target Drone

The Hadaf-1 and Hadaf-2 may not match well with the Şimşek, but the Hadaf High-Speed is promising. If successful, it would give Pakistan at least one target drone platform to develop further into a decoy, provided it gets the requisite investment.

Compared to the Şimşek, the Super Şimşek is larger and heavier. It has an MTOW of 200 km, a wingspan of 1.75 m, a length of 4 m, a service ceiling of 35,000 ft, an endurance of one hour, a range of 700 km, and a payload of 35 kg. The payload can be used for a munition and/or an EA/ECM kit that can be used for radar jamming/spoofing. To fully leverage its range, the Super Şimşek is meant to be launched from the air, potentially by a HALE UAV. In addition to radar jamming/spoofing, the Super Şimşek can be configured for 10 other mission applications.

TAI Super Simsek
TAI Super Simsek

While an evolution of a target drone, the Super Şimşek is also similar in some respects to an ALCM. It uses an air-breathing miniature turbojet engine to fly at long range and, ultimately, reach a target. It also carries a payload, which could comprise of an EA/ECM suite or a small explosive warhead. Some decoy programs lean more on ALCM approaches.

The U.S. ADM-160-series of ‘Miniature Air-Launched Decoys’ (MALD) aims to provide decoy and jammer support to U.S. Air Force (USAF) air operations. Like the Super Şimşek, the ADM-160 is an air-launched system powered by an air-breathing engine. It is equipped with an EA or ECM payload for radar jamming/spoofing functions. Likewise, the U.K. developed a variant of its SPEAR-series ALCM for the decoy and radar jamming/spoofing role.

MBDA SPEAR-3 EW
MBDA-SPEAR-3-EW

There is overlap in how to develop a dual-role decoy/jamming-and-munition drone. In some ways, the two can use the same core technology, like miniature turbojet engines and internal EA/ECM equipment. In other areas, there will be differences based on how one aims to use the system; for example, a well-designed targeting drone-based platform may offer superior maneuverability, which can help in air-to-air engagements.

Even if one were to split the decoy drone concept into two branches, i.e., ALCM-based and maneuverable target drone-based, Pakistan has the groundwork to develop both.

A maneuverable target drone-based design similar to the Super Şimşek may be farther out, but there are several positive signs that it could emerge. First, the PAF seems to have a strong imperative or drive for building MUM-T capabilities sooner rather than later. Second, the PAF could build upon existing target drone platforms. Third, the PAF is leveraging the help of a seasoned drone producer, Baykar Group, at NASTP to fill any technical gaps.

An ALCM-based decoy could be close to materializing. In fact, the PAF is clearly working with Baykar Group to develop a new ALCM, i.e., KaGeM V3. This new ALCM may be lighter-weight than the Taimur and Ra’ad-series, perhaps light enough to be carried by a HALE UCAV such as the Bayraktar Akıncı. Its specifications are not known, but its total weight could range from 30-50 kg (similar to the Baykar Kemankeş) to over 100 kg (like the ADM-160 and SPEAR-3).

While the PAF scaled back its ambitions (from trying to develop an original next-generation fighter through Project AZM), it can undertake advanced drone development. Although drone development is not trivial, it is far more accessible for Pakistan’s state-owned and privately-owned industry players to pursue. This includes UCAV technology.

This is why pursuing decoy drone technology – using both target drones and ALCMs alike – is a prudent step. Not only would it help Pakistan develop its expertise in aerodynamics, aerostructure or airframe materials, and flight control technology, but it would also drive serious investment in key fields like automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

These domains are just as important as the hardware layer as they enable autonomous operations, such as automatic adaptive flight routing (e.g., going from high-altitude flight to low-altitude terrain hugging automatically after ascertaining a threat or obstacle), automatic sensor data collection and target identification, and independently adjusting radar jamming frequencies based on real-time information, among others. These domains are also scalable in that Pakistan can apply these technologies to its munitions and other types of UAVs.

The next logical jump from a 200 kg to 300 kg decoy drone would be a larger decoy/attritable UCAV — at least 1,000 kg — and, from there, an even larger loyal wingman UCAV. Starting with a decoy drone could enable Pakistan to gradually shift to larger air system designs iteratively.

For reference, the Emirati EDGE Group Jeniah UCAV (which is currently under development) will have a length of 10.5 m, a wingspan of 6.5 m, MTOW of over 4,000 kg, and payload of 480 kg for air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface munitions.

EDGE Group Jeniah UCAV
EDGE Group Jeniah UCAV

These larger UCAVs could augment the PAF’s crewed jets in air-to-air and air-to-surface operations. Though it would be ambitious and technologically complex, a loyal wingman UCAV would be more feasible for Pakistan than a next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), which was the original aim of Project AZM.

First, as noted above, Pakistan already has the basic foundations to pursue a loyal wingman. It is not ‘close’ to developing one, but with experience in target drones and ALCMs, the likes of NESCOM and NASTP can make a credible start. Decoys – from enlarged target drones to ALCM-based systems – are a logical next step, especially when both systems require a major investment in developing autonomous flight and mission execution systems.

Second, there is a scalable need. The PAF would need to acquire a sizable number of loyal wingman UCAVs to support its offensive operations and absorb attrition. Be it the private sector or state-owned entities, the PAF’s need for loyal wingman UCAVs could be both long-term and expansive, making its production a promising investment area.

Third, Pakistan will find it easier to develop or absorb the critical inputs of UCAVs compared to a crewed NGFA. The barrier-to-entry to producing its engine, aerostructure materials, and flight control system is much lower compared to a stealth fighter.

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