New threat to India? China to sell 48 armed drones to Pakistan

Wing Loong II model A model of China's Wing Loong II armed drone at an exhibition in the UAE | AP

China will sell 48 high-end military drones to its "all-weather ally" Pakistan in what a military observer said will be the largest deal of its kind, official media in Beijing reported on Tuesday.

The cost of the deal was not revealed.

The Wing Loong II, a high-end reconnaissance, strike and multi-role long-endurance unmanned aircraft system, is manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Industrial (Group) Company. 

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will also be jointly manufactured, state-run Global Times reported.

China, an "all-weather ally" of Islamabad, is the largest supplier of weapon systems to the Pakistan Army. Both the countries also jointly manufacture JF-17 Thunder, a single-engine multi-role combat aircraft.

The announcement by China to permit the sale of high-end military drones comes in the immediate backdrop of India's move to acquire S-400 sophisticated missile defence systems from Russia. The deal was clinched during last week's visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi.

The deal for the acquisition of Chinese drones was announced by the Pakistan Air Force's Sherdils Aerobatic Team on its official Facebook account on Sunday, the Global Times report said.

It did not reveal the cost of the deal, when it was struck or when the Wing Loong II drones will be delivered.

The air force academy aerobatics team announced that in the future, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China's Chengdu Aircraft Industrial (Group) Company will jointly manufacture the Wing Loong II drones, the report said.

Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group did not confirm when the drone deal was reached.

The Wing Loong II drone made its maiden flight in February last year, an earlier report by the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

A Xinhua report in December last year said the Wing Loong II drone has already obtained the largest order of Chinese UAVs in the overseas market, even before its maiden flight.

According to the report, the Wing Loong II system is composed of a ground control station and various numbers of drones.

Within 10 months of the maiden flight of the Wing Loong II, multiple live firing tests had been conducted in accordance with the requirement of its customers, including stationary targets, moving targets, time-sensitive targets and air-ground coordination, the report said.

A deal involving as many as 48 Wing Loong II drones, if confirmed, would be China's largest export deal for drones to date, Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times.

It makes sense the Pakistan aerobatic team was closely involved with the deal, Song said, noting that the team is expected to train the drone operators.

The deal is noteworthy given the close military ties between the two countries and Pakistan's need for drones, Song said.

US drones like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are technologically more advanced, but Washington limits their export, Song said.

Chinese drones will enjoy more success in the international market in the future, he said, as they perform similarly at a lower cost.

"Chinese UAVs like Caihong series also have clients from countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia," Song added.

About the Wing Loong II drone

The Wing Loong II drone is believed to have an endurance of up to 20 hours and can carry a payload of at least 500kg, including anti-tank missiles and guided bombs for attack missions.

While China did not specify the first buyer, there has been speculation that the Wing Loong II drone was purchased by the UAE after the US declined the sale of armed drones. Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong II have already been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the ongoing conflict in Yem