Pakistan plans to buy 48 attack drones from China. This deal, according to the Chinese state-run Global Times, is the “largest such arms deal of its kind.” The cost of this deal has not been made public.
What’s so special about China’s attack drones?
The Chinese attack drones Pakistan is planning to buy are called the Wing Loong II, and they are manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group. The drone is a high-end multi-role reconnaissance and strike aircraft system. It is capable of carrying 480 kgs of munitions.
The Pakistan Air Force’s Sherdils Aerobatic Team announced the deal on its official Facebook account on Sunday. The team gave no additional information, including when the deal was struck, when the drones will be delivered, or how much it will cost Pakistan. The team also revealed that going ahead, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra will jointly develop the drones.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, the Wing Loong II made its maiden flight in February 2017. Within 10 months of its maiden flight, the drone cleared multiple live firing tests which were based on the needs of customers, such as hitting moving, stationary and time-sensitive targets and air-ground coordination. Further, the report says China received a large overseas order for the attack drones even before the maiden flight. However, the report did not name the buyer. If the deal with Pakistan is confirmed, it would be the biggest drone export for China ever, Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told the Global Times.
China is catching up fast
There are reports that China sold the Wing Loong to the UAE and Egypt last year. The U.S., Russia and France are the biggest arms sellers globally. However, China is catching up fast. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms trade, China’s arms exports increased 38% between 2008-12 and 2013-17.
China has emerged as the biggest weapons exporter to Islamabad following the latter’s not-so-smooth relations with the U.S. According to the figures from SIPRY, exports of weapons from the U.S. to Pakistan have dropped from $1 billion to $21 million since 2010. China’s weapons exports to Pakistan also dropped during the same period, but the drop was less steep, from $747 million to $514 million.
About 20 years ago, China lacked the technology to compete with the West, but now, it is more or less on par with Western countries.
“Many countries also see Chinese supplies as more secure, as Beijing does not tend to cut them off over awkward issues such as democracy or human rights,” SIPRI senior researcher Siemon Wezeman said, according to the Tribune.
India vs. Pakistan
The news about Pakistan buying the Chinese attack drones comes just days after India finalized a crucial deal with Russia for sophisticated S-400 missile defense systems. India sealed the deal with Russia despite U.S. objections. Russia’s S-400 is seen as the world’s most lethal surface-to-air missile system.
However, the Chinese attack drones will boost the Pakistan Air Force’s offensive drone capabilities, giving it an advantage over arch-rival India, which still does not have an armed UAV. Reports suggest India is in talks with the U.S. for 100 jet-propelled Avenger Predator drones. India reportedly has 10 advanced Heron drones from Israel, while the Trump administration has also approved the sale of 22 Sea Guardian drones to India.
The U.S. drones — the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper — are believed to be more advanced than the Chinese drones. However, Song claims the Chinese drones will be more successful in the international market because they perform more or less the same functions but cost less.
In July, Pakistan and Turkey signed a deal worth $1.5 billion for 30 Turkish T129 attack helicopters. The deal is seen as the biggest export deal for the Turkish defense industry.
Seeking up to $7 billion IMF bailout
Pakistan’s decision to buy Chinese attack drones comes at a time when it is seeking its largest bailout from the IMF. Pakistan Finance Minister Asad Umar will visit Bali this weekend to attend the fund’s annual meeting, according to the Financial Times.
On Monday, Umar revealed that the government plans to approach the IMF for a financial support package to avert the foreign currency crisis. Umar’s revelation underscores Pakistan’s growing financial problems and suggests an end to the efforts by Prime Minister Imran Khan to avoid an IMF bailout. Citing people aware of the matter, the FT says Pakistan plans to ask for loans totaling $6 billion to$7 billion, similar to Pakistan’s last bailout in 2013.
“Ultimately, the authorities felt it was important to present a request which would not trigger undue pressure from the IMF’s biggest stakeholders — especially the US,” one economist who was consulted on the plan told the FT.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani rupee dropped sharply by 7% to Rs133 per dollar. The Pakistani rupee is down 25% since December 2017.