For the longest time, Pakistan has had the ambition of owning and operating armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the CIA’s Predator and Reaper.
Previously, the refrain in the local drone manufacturing industry and armed forces was that Pakistan didn’t have a satellite of its own. Thus, it was next to impossible to even think about acquiring or building such complex aircraft.
However, with the first anniversary of Pakistan’s first ever fully functional communication satellite, the Paksat-1R, on August 12 – is the ambition still a pipe dream?
Although Paksat-1R is a commercial satellite used widely by media houses and telecom companies, can it – if the need arises – be used for military purposes?
“The focus of communication satellites such as Paksat-1R is to contribute towards the socio-economic development of the country,” Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) Chairman Ahmed Bilal told The Express Tribune.
However, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility completely. “You can use a knife to cut vegetables, but it can also be used to … (points towards his throat).”
The Suparco chairman chose his words carefully when asked whether Paksat-1R could support any future local drone endeavours of Pakistan. “Satellites don’t give us anything in real time. But the technology can complement a number of [other complex] systems.”
Bilal also clarified that contrary to popular belief, Pakistan Army was not the biggest client of the Paksat-1R, adding that the telecom sector and media houses were its major customers.
Need for satellite links?
Modern drones are designed to fly autonomously, which means they can be preprogrammed to fly a route until fuel and batteries run out.
Locally manufactured unmanned aircraft in Pakistan face limitations beyond a 200-kilometre radius from their point of control. Ground stations stop receiving any video or data from the drones which also affects the ability to control and manipulate cameras, sensors and armaments on board the aircraft.
This is where the satellite link comes in: it relays data back to the operator and can be used to send commands to the drone.
Aerospace design engineer from MIT and Integrated Dynamics CEO Raja Sabri Khan stresses the link is not the only factor in developing Predator-level drones. “The satellite provides a long range monitoring and control link between the operator and the drone; it does not replace the essential systems required to operate and manufacture the drone.”
Managing director of another local UAV manufacturer East West Infiniti, Dr Haroon Javed Qureshi says the Paksat-1R is a geostationary satellite with an approximate distance of 38,000 kilometres from central Pakistan. US military satellites, on the other hand, are not geostationary. Instead, they are Middle Earth Orbiting (MEO) or Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites.
Pakistan already has a wide range of locally manufactured unmanned aircraft such as the Pakistan Navy’s recently inducted Uqaab series. But none of them are armed or designed for long endurances.
Raja Sabri Khan says their range is limited to only a few hours as compared to the US Predator’s 48 hours over station capability. The satellite has nothing to do with this lack of capability.
State vs private-run industry
Dr Qureshi says complex systems such as the Predators evolved over 15-16 years.
Pakistan flew its first UAV in 1992: around the same time the US was developing the Predator.
“The key difference is that all US/Israeli UAV programmes are private businesses; the government just pays them development costs, but here all the projects are state-owned and we just pay salaries,” adds a skeptical Qureshi.
“The bottom line is we are not using the right methodology and lack the vision or drive. The moment military and government establishments leave this to the [private companies in the local drone manufacturing] industry, we may actually have a system that can be called the Pakistani Predator.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2012.