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All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Pakistan Finds Faults in Chinese-made UAS

By Matiar Chowdhury:


The faults in Chinese-made Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have been damaging Pakistan military capability, said a Bangladesh based think tank.

A critical part of Pakistan’s military capability has run into serious trouble with the Chinese-made Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) remaining on ground due to crippling defects within days of induction.

The three-armed drones, designed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group of China and sold by China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC), were inducted into Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in January 2021. These aerial combat drones are part of a larger deal between Pakistan and China to co-produce 50 of them in Pakistan.

Both Pakistani and Chinese military officials had boasted that these armed drones, capable of firing laser-guided bombs and missiles to attack and destroy air or ground-based targets, would give nightmares to Indian ground formations in high-altitude areas. But it is the PAF officials who are grappling with the nightmare of these armed drones running aground due to serious faults.

What has added to the Pak air force’s misery is the pathetic service and maintenance provided by the Chinese firm. CATIC has so far been indifferent to desperate calls for repair and maintenance of the grounded drones. The spares supplied by the firm were substandard and mostly unfit for use. The engineers dispatched to Pakistan to make the grounded aerial vehicles operational at the earliest proved to be incompetent. Pakistani officials have now asked the Chinese firm to send a better trained group of professionals to tide over the serious crisis.

One of the critical failures has been that of GPS, a key component of an armed drone. Two of the three drones experienced repeated GPS failures during test flights and had to be grounded. A failed GPS in a drone is like a heart failure. Pakistani officials wanted to know if the GPS was failing because of local interference and if so, the drone’s anti-jamming capability would be compromised, making it an easy target during operations.

Equally serious problem was the leakage of nitrogen from EO/IR cameras mounted on the UAVs, which rendered Electro-Optical / Infra-Red (EO/IR) systems useless. These imaging systems provide total situational awareness both day and night and in low light conditions. Given its importance, Pakistan Air Force officials wanted an immediate replacement of the EO/IR pods. The Chinese firm was yet to respond to the urgent plea.

Serious faults were also detected in High-Performance Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) within hours of its putting the drones into operation. These radars provide advanced geospatial intelligence capabilities in all weather conditions besides complimenting the Electronic Warfare payload of the drone. Faulty SARs leave the unmanned aerial vehicles blinded, unfit for operation.

Another critical failure has been that of SATCOM in some of these drones during launch and take-off stage. On the ground, the SATCOM antenna failed during the Site Acceptance Test (SAT).

Other defects included failure of the rear fuel pump on the UAV. Interestingly, the spares supplied by the Chinese firm with the drone were also found to be mismatched. Similarly, the de fuelling equipment supplied with the drones was found to be unserviceable due to contamination. Its replacement is still awaited by PAF.

This is not the first time that Pakistan military brass is realising the unreliability of Chinese military hardware and poor, substandard servicing and maintenance. Pakistan Air Force has been coping up with a series of inferior military hardware imported from China, including combat aircraft and armed drones, two critical operational components.

(Matiar Chowdhury London 1st October 2021.)