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Asian Militaries Love Their Homegrown Drones

April 26, 2021
Via ISPR.

The annual Army Day parade on March 25 served as a grandiose martial spectacle for Pakistan. Aside from the usual columns of tanks and armored vehicles, semitrailers rolled by the crowded pavilions to reveal the latest unmanned aircraft manufactured by the state-owned enterprise Global Industrial Defence Solutions (GIDS). One of them carried what was arguably the parade’s highlight–the full-sized Shahpar II medium altitude drone. For years the existence of this particular model never went beyond speculative commentary and unsourced photos. There was little to no evidence of it having entered production. From now on, however, it’s clear GIDS’ success at manufacturing drones can propel it to the very cutting edge of unmanned systems.

When assessed in a regional context there’s now at least a handful of Asian countries–China, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Pakistan–who’ve built thriving industries dedicated to mass-producing unmanned aircraft. Turkey in particular is redefining its air power not just with armed drones but very long-range unmanned models able to carry out missions far beyond national borders. The upcoming Bayraktar Akinci and the TAI Aksungur have no comparable peers within NATO and are a generation ahead of what most countries in the Middle East possess. Meanwhile, China and Iran are continuing with separate national drone programs that are outstripping the US’ once unchallenged dominance in unmanned technology.

Returning to Pakistan’s own progress with drones, years spent slowly adopting and adapting the technology are paying off. The Shahpar II’s appearance defies the usual layout for drones of its class. Rather than an airframe similar to the widely imitated Hermes 450 the Shahpar II employs a delta wing layout with canards on either side of the nose. The addition of prominent winglets–these are the vertical extensions on the wingtips–indicates the Shahpar II is optimized for loitering in midair for extended periods. There are no official performance characteristics for the Shahpar II at the moment. Its dimensions and shape, however, are suited for a long endurance drone with a modest payload.

The original Shahpar manufactured by GIDS is the unarmed counterpart of the Burraq. Pakistan’s military do have bragging rights when it comes to possessing the first combat drone in Central Asia and South Asia despite a shoestring budget. The Burraq itself is a very basic delta wing model with just two hardpoints for missiles or bomblets. Its origins are Chinese, being a licensed copy of the CASC CH-3 drone, which has been sold to the Nigerian military. So GIDS chose a proven design as the basis for a larger drone and the result is the Shahpar II. There’s little indication Chinese expertise and parts were involved in the Shahpar II’s assembly; the newest Chinese drones approved for export have enlarged payloads for carrying a lot of weapons.

It’s important to emphasize the Shahpar II is a purely surveillance medium altitude/long endurance (MALE) drone and doesn’t carry munitions. The exact benchmark for “long endurance” does vary so its actual mission time can reach beyond a modest 10 hours–it’s sibling the Shahpar has an endurance described as “more than seven hours.” Given the airframe’s length and weight the engine is a turbopropeller of unknown origin that’s probably able to produce 120 horsepower. Whether or not the Shahpar II is later rebuilt for combat missions depends on its end users. If it does have to carry out airstrikes someday an entirely new variant is needed with a larger engine and a new pair of wings that each have hardpoints.

Pakistan isn’t alone in building up its inventory of unmanned systems. The eventual success of the Shahpar II will accelerate its later domestic efforts and result in new pathways for national aerospace technology. This is apparent in other countries that have pursued localized production of UAVs rather than ordering these from abroad. The success of Iran and Turkey in such endeavors is beyond dispute. China, in particular, has pole vaulted ahead of the United States in drone technology and even surpassed Israel in output and variety. The rapid advance of Asian drones is hard to miss for anyone paying attention. Both South Korea and Taiwan, for example, are developing their own long endurance drones simultaneously with lethal drone swarms for ground combat.

India’s powerful state-owned aerospace manufacturing sector has made its own advances in unmanned systems but the realities of its procurement system and an alliance with the US meeans its military prefers ordering the needed models from abroad. A surprising laggard in Asian drone technology is Japan. Its mature aerospace sector and strong supply chain should mean it has no barriers to overcome in assembling drones yet this isn’t the case. Other than acquiring US-made drones, there’s no evidence yet of a Japanese drone program meant to fulfill its national security requirements. The absence of a unified European drone program is another surprising gap when surveying unmanned systems on a global scale. While some national programs are remarkable, no European country has put together a drone fleet comparable to those now in service in Asia.

In just a dozen years Europe as a whole has fallen behind Asia in the production and advancement of military drones.

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