Monday, April 27, 2009

Flying high in Korangi :Pakistani drones




Looking at the facility from outside, no one would guess what goes on within the 90,000-square-foot research facility of Integrated Dynamics (ID), a privately owned company in Karachi. There are no signboards indicating that ID is in the business of developing drone technology for military and civilian use. Surprisingly, there isn’t even an army of security guards manning the complex as one would expect upon entering the gate. A lonesome gate keeper lets us in without a fuss. Even more startling is the ease with which R.S. Khan, ID's chief executive, states that ‘drone technology has existed in Pakistan for the last 20 years.’ Khan, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics, is quick to clarify that his company has ‘never been asked to develop a drone which has an armed implication.’ Instead, ID develops advanced Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle (UAV) systems capable of reconnaissance missions as well as target decoys for anti-aircraft missiles. His customers, he says, include the armed forces of the country as well as foreign buyers from the US, Australia, Spain, Italy and France.

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

Interestingly, there are several public sector companies involved in developing UAVs in Pakistan, including the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Air Weapons Complex (AWC) and National Development Complex (NDC).

The PAC's Uqaab drone is in use by the Pakistan Army, and, according to unconfirmed reports, is being upgraded with Chinese help to carry a weapons payload. Other PAC UAVs include the Bazz and Ababeel. AWC's Bravo+ UAV is in use of the Pakistan Airforce (PAF). The PAF recently acquired an unarmed Italian drone called the Falco UAV, which is reportedly being used for surveillance and battleground assessments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In 2008, the Pakistan Navy also reportedly completed trials of UAVs - the Austrian Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and Swedish Cybaero - from a Pakistani frigate in the Arabian Sea.

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.


The EWI's Heliquad UAV is considered a stealth design because of its small size and Whisper Watch signals intelligence package, which is capable of picking up radio and other communication signals. ID's Nishan Mk1 and TJ1000, Vision MK1 & MK2, Tornado, Border Eagle, Hornet, Hawk and Vector are also popular models employed by the armed forces for reconnaissance missions and target practice (each model varies in range and endurance). Satuma's UAVs, with similar functionalities, are called Flamingo, Jasoos and Mukhbar. For its part, the GIDS develops the Huma-1 UAV and its own version of the Uqaab.

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.

Policy on drones

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.'

Drones vs. casualties

According to news reports, US drone attacks have killed around 701 people in Pakistan since 2006, including 14 alleged Al Qaeda leaders. Although armed UAVs or drones provide safety to their operators since they cannot be harmed if the aircraft are shot down during combat operations, they come at the cost of scores of civilian casualties, who bear the brunt of aerial raids. Therefore, it is debatable whether the armed drones, even if built and controlled by Pakistan, would actually make a difference in terms of changing the sentiment of the people against their devastating impact.


The way forward

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.

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