Pakistan, the country that has been subjected to more secret US drone strikes than any other, has hailed the development of its first unmanned combat plane as a “great national achievement”.
In a significant breakthrough, the country’s army announced on Friday it had successfully test-fired a missile from an indigenously developed drone – a technical feat few nations have managed.
Army chief Raheel Sharif was among the engineers and scientists who witnessed the demonstration of a technology that has largely been the reserve of a few countries, such as the US and Israel.
The army said the drone, named Burraq after the flying horse of Islamic tradition, successfully hit stationary and moving targets with its Barq laser-guided missile with “impressive pinpoint accuracy”.
The system would be a “force multiplier in our anti-terror campaign”, said an army spokesman, Asim Bajwa.
Developing homemade drones has been a priority for Pakistan given the extensive use made of them since 2004 by the CIA to target terrorist groups in the restive north-west tribal belt.
The controversial weapons have proved irresistible given their ability to linger over their targets for extended periods of time, collect intelligence and deliver deadly missiles far more cheaply than conventional aircraft.
But the US supplies only its most trustworthy allies with the capability and has refused repeated requests from Pakistan, which has been attempting to join the club of countries with armed drones for at least two years.
Although it already has surveillance drones, arming them requires numerous technical problems to be overcome.
During the ongoing “Operation Zarb-e-Azb” operation against militants in North Waziristan, a major sanctuary for militant groups bordering Afghanistan, the country has made extensive use of bombs dropped from fighter planes.
The army has repeatedly claimed no civilians were killed in the extensive air campaign, but the claim has been impossible to verify.
US drone attacks have been decried by many Pakistanis and activists around the world who claim innocent lives have been lost and entire civilian populations traumatised by the continued presence of drones.
Islamabad makes diplomatic protests against US drone strikes as a matter of routine, although there is considerable evidence Pakistan has given its consent to the strikes.
Although the military recognises the US drone campaign has been effective, many believe it is an unacceptable infringement on the country’s sovereignty.
According to the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA has carried out 413 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004.