India witnessed a significant drone attack at the Air Force Station in Jammu on June 27, 2021. The airbase, which is 14 km away from the India-Pakistan border, was attacked by low–flying drones that dropped two improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One IED exploded on the roof of the building, and the other in an open area.
Reports suggest that the drone incursions across the border have intensified since then. Drone sightings have increased manifold along the India–Pakistan international border and along the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir.
India’s Border Security Force (BSF), which guards the international border on the Indian side, reported more than 268 drone sightings in 2022, compared to 109 in 2021 and 49 in 2020.
The rapid growth in drone sightings suggests that drones have emerged as a new strategic tool used by Pakistan to gain an advantage in the border conflict with India. Drones are also increasingly a tool of choice for transborder terrorist organizations and Pakistan-backed proxies in India.
Pakistan has been developing and deploying these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones for various purposes, including military operations, intelligence gathering, and cross-border smuggling. Pakistan claims to have the fourth-largest drone arsenal in the world, after the US, UK, and Israel.
The Origins of Pakistan’s Drone Program
Pakistan’s drone program can be traced back to 2009, when it created its first indigenous drone, the Burraq. The Burraq was designed to carry a 50 kg payload and had a range of 200 km. Pakistan aims to used the Burraq for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. In 2015, Pakistan became the fourth country in the world to successfully deploy an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) in an active operation. The UCAV was called the Bayraktar-1 TBK and was developed by Turkey. The Bayraktar-1 TBK had a range of 300 km and could carry a 500 kg payload. It could also perform precision strikes on ground targets with a laser-guided weapon system. Pakistan has since upgraded its Bayraktar-1 TBK with new features such as improved avionics, navigation systems, and weapons. Pakistan has also deployed several UCAVs for combat operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley.
The Current Status of Pakistan’s Drone Program
Pakistan has been investing significantly in UAVs for both military and civilian purposes. According to a senior researcher associated with the Rawalpindi Based Online Strategic Think Tank, Global Defense Insight, both the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Navy have been benefiting from this. The Pakistan Navy is already operating several UAVs for surveillance such as the Scan Eagle and Uqab.
Reports suggest Pakistan has also set up six drone centres across the border to smuggle arms and drugs into India through Punjab province. These drone centres are allegedly operated by Pakistani Rangers in collaboration with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Pakistani Drones Cross-border Terrorism and Smuggling
Drones flown out of Pakistan have also been used to target Indian military installations and civilians in Kashmir. In June 2021, a drone attack on an Indian Air Force station in Jammu was claimed by Pakistani non-state actors as retaliation for India’s surgical strikes on terrorist camps across the Line of Control (LOC) in February 2019. This was the first instance of drones being used to target military installations in India.
Pakistan’s drone smuggling is not only a way of providing arms and drugs to its proxies in India, but also a way of destabilizing India and undermining its security. Pakistan wants to create chaos and violence in India by fueling the insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab, where it has been supporting various militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen, and others. Pakistan also wants to weaken India’s economy and society by spreading narcotics and weapons among the youth, who are then recruited or coerced into joining terrorist organizations. Pakistan’s drone smuggling is also a sign of its desperation and frustration in the face of India’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Pakistan has also been facing international pressure and sanctions for its role in sponsoring terrorism so Islamabad’s drone smuggling is therefore a desperate attempt to regain some leverage and influence over India by using its proxy war tactics.
The Implications and Future of Pakistan’s Drone Program
Pakistan’s drone program poses a serious threat to South Asia’s regional security. Drones can be used for both kinetic operations – attacks in military and civilian spaces – and non-kinetic operations – smuggling of counterfeit currency, drugs, small arms, and ammunition across the border. Drones can also be used for long-range precision strikes that reduce close combat on the battlefield and avoid human losses.
Pakistan’s drone program is a growing threat that requires constant international vigilance. Drones are not only a tool of war but also a tool of terror that can cause immense damage to lives and property. Pakistan needs to cooperate with its neighbors to prevent escalation of violence in South Asia.
Pakistan’s drone program is likely to continue growing as the country is reportedly planning to acquire more advanced drones from China such as Wing Loong-II Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which have long-range strike capability with a satellite link. Pakistan is also reportedly planning to co-produce Anka combat drones with Turkey which are considered Turkey’s most advanced drones to date.