National Interest reports that satellite photography has found what looks to be a large combat drone of Chinese manufacture sitting on a runway in Pakistan.
The images, which date from November 2017, reportedly captured what appears to be a Wing Loong I medium-altitude, long-endurance drone on a runway at the Alam Air Base in Mianwali, Pakistan.
Experts reportedly identified the drone by its fourteen-meter wingspan and distinctive V-shaped tail. The Wing Loong series of drones is essentially a Chinese version of the American Predator drone, capable of conducting longer-range missions than the drones currently deployed by Pakistan’s military.
As National Interest goes on to explain, the drone appears to be parked in Pakistan for a test flight, as there was no sign of additional drones or support equipment. Also, the drone was painted white instead of the battlefield grey China prefers for deployed unmanned aerial vehicles.
Pakistan is believed to have tested the same series of Chinese drone at least once before, in 2016, and is thought to have utilized Chinese assistance in developing the smaller armed drones its military currently employs against militant groups in the Pakistani tribal regions.
The National Interest piece cites theories that Pakistan is either developing an “indigenously-produced” long-range drone that will be rather heavily based on the Wing Loong I or is using the Chinese aircraft to train its drone operators. When the 2016 Wing Loong I flight over Pakistan ended in a crash, there was speculation the Pakistanis were evaluating the technology for purchase, along with other products of the Chinese combat drone industry.
Some analysts believe China has been looking to fill a void left by American military exports, which until now have been restricted by the classification of long-range heavy drones as cruise missiles under a treaty dating back to the 1980s that China is not a party to, although the Trump administration might change that. Restrictions on American exports have given China an opportunity to establish itself as the top supplier of low-cost combat drones. This also dovetails with China’s strategy to overwhelm a smaller force of superior American UAVs with a swarm of cheaper drones modeled on American hardware, should a direct military conflict occur between the two countries.
China is also looking to develop regional political influence and might see the currently strained relationship between Washington and Islamabad as an opportunity to move in on Pakistan, where it is already investing billions in developing infrastructure for its “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. Pakistan’s reliance on high-end U.S. military equipment has been seen as a major obstacle to China drawing Pakistan fully into its orbit.