Sunday, 18 November 2012

Pakistan racing to develop armed drones but lacks key technology; China offers help

Pakistan’s largest drone, the Shahpur, has a wingspan of about seven meters (22 feet) and can carry 50 kilograms (110 pounds). The U.S. Predator, which can be equipped with two Hellfire missiles, has a wingspan more than twice that and a payload capacity over four times as great.

Pakistani drones also have much more limited range than those produced in the U.S. because they are operated based on “line of sight” using radio waves, rather than military satellites. The Shahpur has a maximum range of 250 kilometers (150 miles), while the Predator can fly over five times that distance.

The British newspaper The Guardian reported Tuesday that Pakistan was working on an armed drone but did not provide details.

The market for drones has exploded in Pakistan and other countries around the world in recent years, as shown by the array of aircraft on display at the defense exhibition in Karachi. Hoping to tap into a worldwide market worth billions of dollars a year, public and private companies wheeled out over a dozen drones that ranged in size from hand-held models meant to be carried in a backpack to larger aircraft like the Shahpur.

All the Pakistani drones on display were advertised as unarmed and meant for surveillance only. One private company, Integrated Dynamics, even promotes its aircraft under the slogan “Drones for Peace.” But several models developed by the Chinese government were marketed as capable of carrying precision missiles and bombs.

The Chinese government has offered to sell Pakistan an armed drone it has produced, the CH-3, which can carry two laser-guided missiles or bombs, industry insiders said.

Also being offered to Pakistan is a more advanced drone, the CH-4, which closely resembles a U.S. Reaper and can carry four laser-guided missiles or bombs, according to Li Xiaoli, a representative of the Chinese state-owned company that produces both the CH-3 and CH-4, Aerospace Long-march International Trade Co., Ltd.

Pakistan has yet to purchase any armed Chinese drones because their capabilities have yet to be proven, but is likely to do so in the future, said the civilian with knowledge of the Pakistani military’s drone program.

Only a few countries, including the U.S., Britain and Israel, are known to have actually used armed drones in military operations.

“China is a bit of a tough nut to crack as you’d expect,” said Huw Williams, a drone expert at Jane’s International Defense Review. “They frequently wheel out exciting looking aircraft but are yet to really demonstrate anything earthshattering.”

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