Although he may not have been asked to develop an armed drone, Khan, who previously worked as a consultant for Pakistan’s aerospace agency Suparco, points out: ‘If we consider the fact that drone development has been taking place in Pakistan for the last 20 years, I think the technology for flying long-range autonomous missions has existed for at least 10-12 years.’ Given Khan's estimations about local drone development, it is unclear why Pakistan is asking the US to handover its armed drone technology, especially that of the infamous Predator. President Asif Ali Zardari recently told the British daily Independent that the US should give Pakistan the ‘weapons, drones and missiles that will allow us to take care of’ the militant threat in the tribal areas.' ‘If you ask anyone in Pakistan involved in the business of making unmanned UAVs whether something similar to the Predator drone aircraft can be made, the answer would be yes,' explains Khan. 'I won’t say we can make it overnight or by tomorrow. But I won’t say either that it is a matter of decades. I would say that, if given the task, we can make such aircrafts in a few years.' As a technologist, Khan is hesitant to speculate as to why the Pakistan government or armed forces are not investing in home-made technology. 'I think you need to ask the policy makers that.'
UAVs in Pakistan
Private sector companies are also involved in the design and development of UAVs. Apart from ID in Karachi, East-West Infinity (EWI), Satuma and Global Industrial Defense Solutions (GIDS) are in the drone-making business.
Even though almost all UAVs in the country have been built for military applications - reconnaissance, simulations, decoy systems, remote sensing - none of them are reported to be capable of firing arms. Moreover, none of the above-mentioned facilities are involved in large-scale, mass production of UAVs.
It is still not clear what Pakistan’s policy regarding unmanned drones is. On the one hand, Pakistan has ‘condemn[ed] in the strongest terms’ any US drone attack. On the other hand, reports have emerged that the US has the tacit approval of the current government.
Previously, former president Pervez Musharraf had reportedly authorized Washington to launch Predator drones from secret bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad. Google Earth images of an airbase in Balochistan hosting Predators had also emerged at a time when Pakistan was adamantly claiming that all drones were flying in from Afghanistan. More recently, the Pakistan Army ‘practiced’ shooting down drones, but even then, foreign aircrafts continued to rain in their missiles.
ID's Khan explains that shooting down drones to prevent attacks is a viable option. ‘From a technical standpoint, all it takes is a simple air-to-air or surface-to-air missile to bring the drone down. Almost all of these aircrafts have a very low radar signature. But they’re not undetectable. They can be detected,' he says. 'The question really is whether one wants to bring one down or not.'
Apart from their use in a military context, there is a need to deploy UAVs for the benefit of Pakistani communities. UAVs abroad are being used for a variety of civilian services, including search and rescue operations, environmental analysis, assisting local law enforcers, scientific research and even transport. Situational awareness about a potentially hazardous or calamity-hit areas, for example, in the aftermath of an earthquake, could also be gained through the use of such systems.