October Issue 2015
To Drone or not to Drone
On March 13 this year, Pakistan successfully tested the country’s first indigenous armed drone. ‘Burraq,’ as it has been christened, was supposed to be a scary prospect for terrorists in Pakistan as it is designed to fly in all weather conditions and strike with pinpoint accuracy.
“#COAS witnessed test fire on static & moving tgt. Impressive pinpoint, accuracy, all weather. Multiplies capability against terrorists,” the Director General, Inter Services Public Relations, Asim Bajwa tweeted that day.
“This newly developed arsenal will increase the military’s capacity in fighting terrorism,” remarked the army chief, General Raheel Sharif.In November 2013, Pakistan had already developed surveillance drones. ‘Burraq’ and ‘Shahpar’ are the first locally developed drones dedicated to surveillance.
In November 2013, Pakistan had already developed surveillance drones. ‘Burraq’ and ‘Shahpar’ are the first locally developed drones dedicated to surveillance. They have been developed with the assistance of the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM), a Pakistani scientific research organisation which is controlled by civilians.
“Technologically, it’s a massive achievement,” says political scientist and military analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi. “Pakistan has had surveillance drones that take pictures and collect data. But armed drone technology is an achievement. Not many countries have it,” he adds. “It increases the capability of the security forces to target terrorists in tribal areas, especially in difficult terrain. Drone technology first allows them to gather the information and then to target the militants.”
Khalid Muhammad, defence analyst and author of Agency Rules, says, “A good deal of the design concept and tech is taken from the ‘Predator’ and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, ‘Rainbow.’ The drone technology was tested during Khyber-1 very quietly.”
And what about Burraq’s accuracy?
“Dead on!” Muhammad exclaims. “We aren’t at the same distances yet, but I believe with the 4th or 5th iteration, we’ll have a significantly better piece of military hardware.”
“It’s not as advanced technologically as the Predator drones,” he adds, “but it gives us all the same abilities without the stigma of US/CIA drone strikes in our tribal areas.”
On September 7, three alleged militants were killed in the Pakistan-made Burraq’s first strike in North Waziristan. It was touted as a major turning point in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capacity.
Capital TV’s editor of national security affairs and Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Ejaz Haider asserts that drones alone cannot provide the decisive edge in conflicts.
“US weaponised drones, which operate Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS), are extremely effective in tactical-operational terms. Quite apart from any legal and other questions, purely in operational terms, weaponised drones offer a very accurate, if not precise, platform,” says Haider.
“That said, to think that effective drone strikes can change the strategic hue of a conflict is to assign them a role that they cannot perform. They are a great platform for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) but winning a war requires much more than ISTAR capabilities,” he adds.
Haider continues: “For the Pakistan Army, drone use is a great operational help in ISR terms against an adversary that is elusive and often inaccessible. It helps save lives of its own forces while degrading the adversary. That said, winning a war is always a function of a multitude of factors.”
If reports are to be believed, CIA and ISI have collaborated, through intelligence sharing, in many of the high-profile drone manoeuvres over the past decade. Shouldn’t that provide the Pakistan Army with more wherewithal and experience to enhance its counter-terrorism prowess?
“There is no concrete evidence to prove the CIA-ISI collaboration,” claims Rizvi. “Even when they were using the Shamsi base, the basic information gathering was done in the US.”
Awami National Party’s (ANP) senior vice president, Bushra Gohar, however, disagrees. “US drones couldn’t have operated inside Pakistan without an agreement. They continue to do so, though there is little transparency about the level of mutual understanding between the two. There is sufficient information, however, that they were operated from Pakistan for several years,” she says.
On September 17 and 18, 23 alleged militants were killed in back-to-back CIA drone strikes. With Pakistan now possessing and using its own drone technology, shouldn’t any heretofore agreement with the CIA now be reconsidered?
“Pakistan would not like the US to use its drones now,” says Rizvi, “but I don’t think the Americans will pay heed.”
“There is still vagueness about the government’s drone policy and operations in the tribal areas,” says Gohar.
“Creating hype against drones from time to time, through right-wing organisations and the media, as leverage for negotiations has been ineffective, counter-productive and has created much confusion and political polarisation,” she adds.
Haider points out a crucial difference between US and Pakistani drone strikes.
“Unlike the United States, the Pakistani military is fighting for control of Pakistani territory,” he says, adding that, “The ISR capability the drones offer must be utilised for better real-time information of the battlefield. The more one can cut through the fog of war, the better it is.”
But what about the civilian casualties and collateral damage that have been used as a pretext to condemn US drone strikes? Will Pakistani drone strikes be treated differently from US strikes?
“Even if it’s the Pakistani drone, the risk of civilian casualties will always be there. But it will not be scrutinised to that extent, because America invokes more antagonism,” claims Rizvi. “However, if the Pakistani drone is used frequently, maybe some human rights groups will protest,” he adds.
“It shouldn’t be our drone versus their drone — the principle should remain the same,” emphasises Gohar. “The hue and cry against US drones by the likes of Imran Khan had nothing to do with human loss and more to do with protection of the ‘good Taliban’ and for power pressure tactics.”
She continues: “The unsuccessful March drama was scripted to create confusion. Imran Khan and other rightist proxies were nominated by the Taliban as their representatives and received support in the General Elections in 2013 to be their voice in Parliament.”
“Since then, the people of FATA have all been displaced and their homes and livelihoods destroyed. If human loss was a concern, we would see all those marching against drones out on the streets protesting for their fundamental rights, return and rehabilitation.”
Muhammad believes that collateral damage through Pakistani drones will be significantly less.
“To understand that, you need to understand the history of Burraq. When it was first launched into limited service, it was for intelligence gathering and surveillance. It was basically used to track militants. Then during Khyber-1, it was weaponised for low-intensity support functions. For example: clearing a path for the armed forces, taking out targets that were in stronger positions,” he says.
“When we understand that these are being handled by Pakistan’s own military, I feel a higher level of comfort. They are the ones that first implemented the box strategy on the US drones during Musharraf’s government,” he adds. “Since the drones are being used for multiple duties, we can expect that the collateral damage will be significantly lower and that there will be better targeting of actual militants.”
But of course the Pakistani drones don’t carry the ‘breach of sovereignty’ baggage that US drones did.
“ANP believes we should not only question violation of our air sovereignty by drones but also question violation of our land sovereignty by terrorists of all shades and nationalities using our soil for terror attacks both inside and outside” says Gohar.
There’s turmoil in Pakistan’s largest province over sovereignty as well. Will Pakistani drones be used to take down separatist militants in Balochistan and elsewhere?
“I don’t think the situation in Balochistan merits the use of armed drones,” says Rizvi. “Maybe for surveillance, but not for attacks,” he adds.
Muhammad disagrees: “I would expect that they will be used against the insurgents in Balochistan as well. I don’t see them being used anywhere else because of population and development. Urban centres are a no-go area obviously, but they could be employed for Intel and surveillance.”
So what is the long-term solution in the tribal areas?
“FATA needs to be fully integrated. A parliamentary oversight of the foreign and security policies and operations is imperative,” says Gohar. “Transparency and accountability should be ensured,” she adds.
“We hear about 90 per cent of the region being cleared in the on-going military operation, but we’ve been hearing the same for over a year now,” she claims.
“While top terrorist leaders have been killed in US drone attacks, we haven’t seen any mention of high-profile militant leaders being killed in the Pakistani military operations.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.