Indian military experts, however, were quite unperturbed about the development. “They will be good targets for our air defence missile systems. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like Wing Loong-IIs may be good over Chhattisgarh but will be dead meat in defended or hostile airspace along the Line of Control or for that matter, Doklam,” said a senior officer.
The news about the Wing Loong-II deal emanating from Beijing and Islamabad, incidentally, comes soon after India inked the $5.43 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) deal with Russia for advanced S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems, which can track and destroy hostile strategic bombers, stealth fighters, spy planes, missiles and drones from 380-km away.
The reports did not mention the cost or delivery schedule of the deal for the Wing Loong-IIs, which are manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group, but they are billed as China’s latest strike-capable, medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) reconnaissance drones. With a payload capacity of over 400-kg, Wing Loong-II can carry armaments like the Lan Jian-7 (Blue Arrow-7) air-to-surface missiles and TG-100 laser-guided bombs.
India, of course, already has some weaponized drones in its UAV fleet. It has upgraded its Israeli-origin Heron and Searcher-II drones with “add-ons” to ensure they can undertake combat missions over and above their surveillance and precision-targeting roles.
India also inked the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US last month, which will allow it greater access to military platforms with encrypted and secure communications and data links like the Predator-B or weaponized Sea Guardian drones. Such armed drones can track enemy targets and then let loose “Hellfire” missiles and “smart bombs” on them before returning to their home bases to re-arm for the next mission like manned fighter jets.
Indian officers contend their “armed Herons”, which are also MALE drones capable of flying for well over 24 hours at heights over 32,000-feet, are “somewhat better” than the Wing Loong-IIs. “The American Predators and Reapers are in a different league altogether. They are much more technologically advanced than the Wing Loong-IIs, with better engines for higher ranges and speed,” said an officer.
The Chinese drones, however, are much cheaper than the American ones. With the US also restricting the export of armed drones, Chinese drones have found ready buyers in Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, among others.
Reporting China’s move to sell the 48 Wing Loong-IIs to Pakistan, the state-controlled Global Times quoted a military expert, Song Zhongping, as saying that the deal, if confirmed, would be Beijing’s largest export deal for drones till date.
Pakistan Air Force’s Sherdils Aerobatic Team has confirmed the deal on its official Facebook account on Sunday, the newspaper said. The aerobatics team also said the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra and the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group will jointly manufacture the Wing Loong-II drones in the future. China and Pakistan already jointly manufacture the JF-17 Thunder, a single-engine multi-role fighter jet.