According to military officials the domestically-made drone killed three militants on its first deployment near the Afghan border.
The drone was unveiled to the public in March, and made its first combat flight on Monday. The Pakistani Army reports that the drone fired missiles at a militant compound in the North Waziristan tribal region..
Armed drones fire laser-guided missiles at militants
During the unveiling of the Burraq (Prophet’s Horse) drone, it was revealed that it was capable of firing laser-guided missiles. The United States repeatedly refused Pakistani requests for assistance in developing drone technology, although U.S. drones frequently carry out strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
The strikes have provoked serious opposition within Pakistan, where many regard them as a violation of national sovereignty. The development of locally-produced drone technology may be one way to strip continued U.S. operations of any legitimacy that they may previously have enjoyed.
Major General Asim Bajwa, a Pakistani military spokesman, told the press that the drone hit an installation in the Shawal valley where militants were thought to be hiding.
The Burraq drones carry two laser-guided Barq air-to-ground missiles, and Bajwa took to Twitter to report the successful strike.
“1st ever use of Pak made Burraq Drone today. Hit a terrorist compound in Shawal Valley killing 3 high profile terrorists,” he said in a message on his verified Twitter account.
1st ever use of Pak made Burraq Drone today. Hit a terrorist compound in Shawal Valley killing 3 high profile terrorists.Details follow
— AsimBajwaISPR (@AsimBajwaISPR) September 7, 2015
Pakistan joins small group of nations to use drones in combat
The deaths of the 3 militants could not be confirmed by independent sources because access to the area is restricted. As a result of the action, Pakistan becomes one of a select group of countries which have used drones in combat situations.
According to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, only the U.S., Israel and the United Kingdom had previously employed combat drones. Other countries, including South Africa, France, Nigeria, Iran and China, have reportedly fitted weapons to unmanned vehicles, although they have not been used in combat. Pakistan announced its drone program in late 2013, and progress towards combat drones has been rapid.
Military figures initially claimed that its drones would only be used for surveillance purposes. Earlier this year a militant attack which killed around 150 students and teachers at a military school caused officials to abandon that stance.
Drone strikes controversial in Pakistan’s tribal regions
Now that Pakistan has demonstrated the combat capabilities of its drone, it seems that it will join the U.S. in using drones to strike militant camps along the border with Afghanistan. There has been no announcement as to whether the two nations will coordinate their efforts.
U.S. drone strikes in the region began in 2004, and hundreds of missions have been run since provoking considerable opposition. That opposition subsided slightly as the Pakistani military launched its own offensive against the militants, but the conflict has proven to be harder than predicted on Pakistani troops.
Although officials claim to have cleared the militants from large swathes of the tribal belt, analysts believe that the battle for the Shawal Valley is proving difficult. The army announced a final assault on the valley in July, but has been met with strong defensive action from the militants who take advantage of a number of trails and tunnels which lead to Afghanistan.
Ground troops held back for most of August as Pakistan launched repeated airstrikes in order to break down militant positions, before a renewed ground operation was announced on August 20.
Potential ramifications of drone strikes
The decision to introduce armed drones could have important consequences for Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors. Tensions remain high with India, and Afghanistan will also be concerned by drone strikes along its border.
A doctrine for the use of drones has not yet been announced, leading to fears that they could be used across international borders. Technical details about the drones are vague, but it is thought that they have a range of around 75 miles.
Other concerns have arisen about protocols for avoiding civilian casualties during drone strikes. It is thought that foreign hostages may be held by militants on Pakistani soil, and their lives would be endangered by indiscriminate strikes.
The issue has been raised before, as a U.S. drone strike killed two foreign hostages in the Shawal Valley in January. The Washington Post spoke to residents of the tribal belt, who claimed they would still oppose drone strikes.
“Many times the drone has missed the target and innocent people have been hit,” said Malik Ghulam Khan Wazir, a tribal elder from North Waziristan. “In the past, we protested against America, but now against whom do we protest?”