The development of the drones, thought to have a range of about 75 miles, represents a milestone for the country’s military and scientists, Pakistani and Western analysts said.
“It is a landmark and a historic event, wherein a very effective force multiplier has been added to the inventory of the armed forces,” the Pakistani military said in a statement.
For years, Pakistan’s military has seen up-close the effectiveness of the U.S. drone campaign, which has included hundreds of strikes within the country’s borders. When the United States began using armed drones after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf asked President George W. Bush to supply drone technology to his country.
The United States declined, setting in motion Pakistan’s homegrown effort to develop the technology.
Pakistan’s military first revealed its drone technology at a trade show last year, but Monday’s formal unveiling coincides with an ongoing farewell tour by Kayani, who is retiring after two terms as army chief.
Brig. Muhammad Saad, a former senior officer in the Pakistani military familiar with the subject, said the country already had less-sophisticated drones for intelligence gathering, with a range of about six miles. The newer models, he said, will prove useful for the “collecting of more operational intelligence” that could help guide helicopter gunships and fighter jets to specific targets.
“This is a great achievement, and the drones can be used instead of surveillance jets and fighter jets that would be costlier” to fly, Saad said.
Saad and other observers said Pakistan is still years away from being able to develop armed drones. Still, Monday’s announcement is likely to unnerve Pakistan’s neighbors, including India and Afghanistan.
Peter W. Singer, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution, said most surveillance drones can be armed, though they will lack the precision of U.S.-developed models.
“Almost any unmanned system can be armed in a crude style, such as dropping a bomb or even turning it into an equivalent of a cruise missile that you fly into the target,” said Singer, adding that the announcement will probably add to growing fears about proliferation of drone technology.
The Pakistani military’s announcement comes as the country is facing growing discontent in some parts over recent U.S. drone strikes, including an attack this month that killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
Protests continued Monday in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the aftermath of the strike, as well as one last week that killed several commanders affiliated with the Haqqani militant network.
Since Saturday, supporters of the province’s chief political leader, Imran Khan, have been attempting to disrupt NATO supply convoys traveling to and from landlocked Afghanistan. The protesters set up checkpoints on at least three suspected supply routes, requiring truck drivers to verify that they are not carrying goods for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, protesters dragged some truck drivers out of their vehicles, but local police said Monday that they would try to guarantee safe passage of the cargo.
Spokesmen for the NATO mission in Afghanistan did not respond to requests for comment.
Ministers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government also marched in protest at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar on Monday.
“We have told the U.S. that no more drone strikes on our land will be tolerated,” said Sirajul Haq, a senior government minister.
At the federal level, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly condemned the strikes but has vowed that NATO supply routes will remain open.
After last week’s strike, Sharif’s government issued a statement saying that it has the capability to shoot down U.S. drones. “However, we are a responsible state and do not want to take any decisions in haste,” said Rana Tanveer Hussain, the minister of defense production.
Khan reported from Peshawar. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.