In the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, people are accustomed to the hum of American drones overhead -- and don’t like it. The drones kill civilians as well as militants, they say, and their use also tramples Pakistani sovereignty.
This summer in the Swat Valley, Pakistanis again heard drones whirring in the sky, but there was a difference. They were Pakistani-owned and operated, a toe-in-the-water foray into a technology that is revolutionizing warfare.
They weren’t missile-carrying drones like the ones used by the U.S., but unmanned aerial vehicles that sent images of targets back to Pakistani command posts. Symbolically, however, they were crucial baby steps for a country desperate to develop its own fleet to better combat a home-grown militancy.
Rebuffed for security reasons in its efforts to buy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, from the United States, Pakistan instead bought unarmed Falco reconnaissance drones from Italy.
And in a small, glass-walled laboratory at a state-owned defense enterprise here in Kamra, east of Islamabad, it is gearing up to produce its own modern tactical drones similar to the Falcos it used over the Swat Valley.
Drones have dramatically changed the landscape of war, from Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistani border. U.S. drones equipped with Hellfire missiles have been one of the most effective weapons against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal areas, killing at least nine top leaders.
A drone strike Aug. 5 killed Baitullah Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader blamed for overseeing many of the suicide bomb attacks throughout the country, as well as the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
For years, private Pakistani aviation firms have manufactured small, less-sophisticated drones, which have been used for purposes such as ground-to-air target practice.
The government has repeatedly asked Washington to give it weapons-carrying drones like the ones used by the U.S. military to strike militant targets in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the badlands along the Afghan border that serve as safe haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
Washington has refused, however, citing its concerns that Pakistan’s intelligence services could pass on sensitive data about the drones and their operation to militant leaders.
Pakistan has not stopped trying to acquire drones from the United States, but it has decided to begin making its own. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a state-owned defense manufacturer, is teaming up with the Italian company Selex Galileo to produce the Falco locally.
Pakistani technicians at Kamra are still in training and several months away from beginning to manufacture them. In the meantime, Pakistan decided to buy about two dozen Falcos from Italy and put them to use in Swat.
The Pakistani military relied heavily on fighter jet airstrikes to eliminate Taliban infrastructure in Swat, and aerial images taken by Falco drones helped them pinpoint those targets.
“Our recent area of interest has been the war on terror, and we’ve deployed [Falco drones] very successfully,” said Air Marshal Farhat Hussain Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. “It’s been extremely useful in the current situation.”
Falco drones, Khan said, were used during the Swat offensive to locate “all kinds of targets ranging from hide-outs, bunkers, ammo dumps, pickets and other [Taliban] infrastructure.”
Defense analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said producing surveillance drones will be a good first step toward Pakistan’s eventual goal of having UAVs capable of carrying missiles.
“My own assessment is that they have helped in improving intelligence and operations capability of the Pakistani army in Swat,” Masood said. “If they were equipped with missiles, then Pakistan would take a quantum leap in counter-insurgency capability.”
The Pakistani public would probably be more tolerant of civilian casualties caused by drones produced and operated by the country’s own forces, Masood said.
“If an American drone attacks and there’s collateral damage, there’s huge anti-American sentiment here,” he said. “At the same time, Pakistani civilians have died during Pakistani military operations, and it doesn’t generate the same kind of sentiment.”
Though the United States won’t supply Pakistan with drones, it has at times shared surveillance data gathered by American UAVs.
Pakistan, in turn, has been more cooperative in providing intelligence to help U.S. drones find their targets. The drone strike against Mahsud was preceded by Pakistani intelligence that helped the U.S. pinpoint his whereabouts.
Lt. Col. Gohar Majeed, who is helping lead drone production at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, said the country’s air force would like the firm to build eight to 10 drones.
The Falcos produced in Pakistan, like the Italian-made aircraft, won’t have strike capability and won’t be able to fly nearly as long as the CIA’s Predator and Reaper drones. The Falco’s flight endurance time is eight to 14 hours, whereas the Predator’s flight duration record is 40 hours.
“It’s got limited range and limited payload capability,” said a spokesman for the Pakistani air force, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We do get real-time pictures from it. . . . It’s a tactical tool.”
Pakistan’s ultimate desire, drones equipped with missiles, can eventually be achieved by modifying existing UAVs, Khan said. The question he can’t answer is how long that will take.
“Two or three years is not enough time to develop such a program,” Khan said. “But everything’s possible. There are no hurdles that cannot be crossed.”