Sunday 5 September 2021

Lifting The Veil - Pakistan’s Chinese UCAVs

By Farooq Bhai in collaboration with Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The presence of Chinese unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) in the ranks of the Pakistani Armed Forces has long been the subject of speculation in the press. No ground images have ever been released that could confirm the presence of the UCAVs on Pakistani soil, further adding to the speculation. Even though Pakistan has so far managed to keep the status of its Chinese-delivered UCAVs highly elusive, a large amount of information can be found through open-source investigations. This reveals an extensive arsenal of Chinese-made UCAVs that are currently in service with the various branches of the Pakistani Armed Forces.

Acompanying the sighting of UCAVs on satellite imagery of air bases located throughout the country have been rumours of Pakistan launching an assembly line for Chinese-made UCAVs. So far no evidence has been brought forward that points towards such a capability having been established, and current evidence instead appears to suggest that Pakistan will soon supplement its Chinese UCAVs with a number of indigenous systems. In August 2021 it was announced that Pakistan will manufacture some components for the TAI Anka UCAV and collaborate in further development of the Turkish system, possibly paving the way for more Turkish technology to be absorbed in their indigenous UAV programmes. [1]
Wing Loong I - Pakistan Air Force
The first confirmed sighting of a Chinese UCAV in Pakistan occurred in 2016, when an example crashed in the vicinity of Mianwali air base, catching the media's attention. [2] Through images of the crashed UCAV it could soon be confirmed that the Wing Loong I had indeed arrived to Pakistan. In 2017 and 2018, two Wing Loong Is were spotted on satellite imagery of Mianwali air base, indicating that multiple drones were either undergoing evaluation or more likely, were in fact already in active service.
Intriguingly, in 2019 both vehicles were no longer visible in satellite imagery of Mianwali air base and no news was released before both the Wing Loong Is made their reappearance two years later in February 2021. It currently remains unclear which branch of the Pakistani Armed Forces operates the Wing Loong I as no data on any official purchases has ever been released. That said, the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) is the most likely candidate as they would later also acquire the successor to the Wing Loong I, the Wing Loong II. 

Wing Loong II - Pakistan Air Force
In 2018 it was reported by Indian media that Pakistan was in negotiations to co-produce some 48 Wing Loong IIs at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). [3] No official sources from the PAF would go on to confirm the news, and a year later it was in fact revealed to have been incorrect. However, this did little to deter the PAF from actually acquiring the Wing Loong II, albeit three years later than had originally been forecast by Indian media. In early 2021 it was reported that the PAF had ordered Wing Loong IIs from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). Although the order appears to have been for a sizeable number of systems, there currently appears to be no intention of co-producing the Wing Loong II in Pakistan. 

A Wing Loong II was then spotted at Mianwali air base in July 2021, the same air base that had previously accommodated the Wing Loong I. The Wing Loong IIs received by Pakistan reportedly come equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) in addition to a wide range of air-to-ground weaponry. Equipped with a total of six hardpoints to carry guided missiles and bombs, the Wing Loong II gives the PAF a distinct edge over India, which currently has no UCAVs in operational service except for two MQ-9B SeaGuardians that have been leased by the Indian Navy for maritime surveillance. 

CH-4B - Pakistan Army Aviation Corps and Pakistan Naval Air Arm
Unlike the Pakistan Air Force's Wing Loong series of UCAVs it acquired from AVIC, the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps instead chose to buy the CH-4B UCAV from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). A large amount of CH-4B UCAVs were reportedly ordered by the Army Aviation Corps, with the first batch of five CH-4B UCAVs arriving in Pakistan in early 2021. At least four of these were then deployed to Bahawalpur Army Aviation Corps air base in the vicinity of which a dedicated UAV training airspace zone had been setup by the Army Aviation Corps. [4]
In addition to the Pakistan Army Aviation, the Pakistani Navy (PN) was also known to be in the process of acquiring armed drones, as the PN's chief had reportedly said in his farewell speech that the PN would acquire armed UCAVs for maritime roles. [5] The UCAVs were revealed to be CH-4Bs as well by sources who were familiar with the matter and were in a position to confirm. [6] While no PN CH-4B has been spotted so far, a small rapidly deployable hangar often associated with UAVs has been built at the PN's Turbat Airbase in mid-2021 indicating that the PN either has operational CH-4B UCAVs, or is set to receive them at some point in the near future. These are likely to be equipped with a SAR radar fitted for maritime surveillance, supplementing the P-3 Orion currently used in this role.

To the military analyst, it is quite impressive how well Pakistan has hidden its acquisitions of Chinese UCAVs thus far – though perhaps equally impressive have been the efforts of OSINT researchers to find them. In the future, this fleet of Chinese UCAVs is to be supplemented with indigenous designs developed with Turkish assistance, though Pakistan is unlikely to make any kind of formal declaration when this occurs. Perhaps in ten years time we will be looking for these designs on satellite imagery, ensuring the lively game between OPSEC and OSINT never goes dull.

Special thanks to @detresfa_
[2] Chinese-Made Drone Crashes In Pakistan
[3] Chinese Wing Loong II drones sold to Pakistan 
[4] Pakistan Takes Delivery of CH-4 Drones from China
[5] Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi (R) Speech | Pak Nav
[6] Haha like we're going to reveal our sources ;) 
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