ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —The global proliferation of armed aerial drones took a major leap forward Friday when Pakistan’s military said it had successfully tested its own version and would soon deploy them against terrorists.
The drone, designated the Burraq, will be equipped with a laser-guided missile capable of striking with pinpoint accuracy in all types of weather, the military said. In the Koran, Burraq is the name of the white horse that took the Islamic prophet to heaven.
Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief of staff, witnessed the test and commended the country’s engineers and scientists for “untiring efforts to acquire state-of-the-art technology” that puts “Pakistan in a different league.”
“It’s a great national achievement and momentous occasion,” Sharif said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not related to the army chief, said the weapons would “add a new dimension to Pakistan’s defenses.”
Pakistan’s decision will likely accelerate the already supercharged race among nations to follow in the footsteps of the United States by deploying unmanned aircraft as an instrument of war.
According to the New America Foundation, there is evidence that eight other countries — the United States, South Africa, France, Nigeria, Britain, Iran, Israel and China — have already put weapons onto unmanned aircraft. The United States, Britain and Israel are the only three that have fired a missile from a drone during a military operation, the foundation said.
Dozens of other countries, including Pakistan’s archrival, India, are in the process of developing them, according to the foundation. And last month, the Obama administration said it would permit the export of armed drones to U.S. allies who request them on a “case-by-case basis.”
Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said Pakistan’s test confirms that the use of drones in warfare is here to stay.
“This is not the start of the race; it’s mile seven of the race,” said Singer, adding that India will probably also be able to quickly deploy an armed drone.
Still, he cautioned, the introduction of drones into Pakistan’s arsenal is not likely to alter the balance of power between the two nuclear-armed countries.
“We are not talking about technology that requires the Manhattan Project,” said Singer, referring to the U.S. effort to build the world’s first nuclear weapon during World War II. “The ability to fire a rocket off a drone is fundamentally different than a global operation where someone sitting in Nevada can fire from a plane 7,000 miles away.”
It was not immediately clear how quickly Pakistan plans to deploy its drones on the battlefield. But the military released a photo showing a dozen of them arrayed in a parking lot. Pakistan’s military said the drone was indigenously produced, but there have been recent reports that it was also seeking drone technology from China.
In November 2013, Pakistan announced that it had developed an unarmed drone. At the time, military leaders said the drone would be used only for surveillance and suggested that they had no plans to arm the craft.
But Pakistan’s military posture changed after the Pakistani Taliban attacked an army-run school in Peshawar in December, killing about 150 students and teachers. After that attack, the military stepped up its campaign against Taliban strongholds in the northwestern part of the country near the border with Afghanistan. On Friday, before it announced the drone test, Pakistan’s military said airstrikes had killed 48 militants in Pakistan’s tribal area near the Afghan border over the previous 24 hours.
Saad Muhammad, a retired brigadier general in the Pakistani army, said the availability of drones will make it far easier for the military to track and kill militants.
“Pakistan is going to be facing this asymmetrical warfare for years to come,” Muhammad said. “There are areas where the state still does not have complete control and the enemy comes into sight for a very little time. . . . It’s very costly to keep fighter planes in the air even for an hour.”
U.S. officials offered no immediate comment on Pakistan’s announcement. Since 2004, U.S. drones have been targeting al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants who have found refuge in northwestern Pakistan. Those strikes have killed more than 2,700 people, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which monitors violence in the region.
Pakistani leaders have repeatedly condemned those strikes, saying they have killed scores of civilians and violate the country’s sovereignty.
James L. Cavallaro, director of the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford University, said Pakistan’s decision to use drones domestically should not absolve it from questions about whether they are moral or a violation of international law.
“Weaponized drones facilitate killing by states,” Cavallaro said. “The weapon is one that raises important concerns about unbridled state power, the ease of killing and imbalance in the principles of risk involved in warfare.”
Pakistan’s drone test was the second major announcement this week from the country’s military about its growing arsenal. On Monday, the military said it had successfully tested a new medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.
The Shaheen-III missile has a range of 1,700 miles and is capable of carrying a warhead to any part of India as well as deep into the Middle East, including to Israel, the military said.