Chinese drones over the skies of Balochistan

Away from media glare, the Pakistan Army launched Operation “Bolan” a large-scale military operation in the mountain ranges of Bolan, Balochistan at the end of October 2022. The operation in Bolan came after the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) issued an ultimatum for prisoner swap talks with the Pakistan Army. The BLA released a media statement giving one week time to Pakistani authorities for prisoner swap negotiations, till 4 November 2022. The group had expressed its willingness to engage in negotiations with the Pakistani state in the presence of international arbiters but warned that if the Pakistani Army resorted to violence and aggression to free its prisoners, the BLA would promptly execute them. That this operation against the BLA was in the offing is evident as China had been pressurising the Shahbaz Sharif government about the safety and security of Chinese personnel working in Balochistan. Most recently, this disquiet was expressed to the Prime Minister during his visit to China.

The military operation is going on in the areas of Bolan, Kaman, Yakho, Uch-Kaman, Gumbadi, Darag Pirani, Saro, Buzgar, and Sangan in Sibi, while the army is also advancing in the mountain ranges adjacent to the Harnai district of Balochistan. Helicopters have been seen shelling in Uch-Kaman areas and massive explosions have also been heard. According to residents of these areas, they have a fear of being targeted by the Army. While the Pakistani Army has used fighter jets and armed helicopters against Baloch rebels for several years, a new development of note has been the use of combat UAVs. The Balochistan Post tweeted that China and Turkey have supplied various models of combat UAVs to Pakistan. According to the information on Twitter and Pakistan-based defence blogs, Chinese CH-4B UAVs have been spotted over Bolan. Pakistan had received five Cai Hong 4 (Rainbow 4, or CH-4) multirole medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs from China in January 2021. A Chinese PLA detachment based in Pasni, Gwadar helps the Pakistani military operate these CH-4B drones. The Pakistan military has a naval air station at Pasni, PNS Makran. China is developing the Port of Gwadar under the China-Pakistan Economic Agreement (CPEC), a premise for deploying PLA troops in the region.

Pakistan’s use of combat drones against Baloch insurgents is yet another example of militaries turning to drones for combat purposes after watching the deployment of UAVs in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Pakistan has received the Bayraktar Akinci and TB2 drones from Turkey.The CH-4B has an 18-meter wing span, a 1.3-ton take-off weight, and a 350-kilogram payload. The UAV can carry weapons, including Lan Jian 7 (Blue Arrow 7) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, TG100 laser/INS/GPS-guided bombs, and the AR-1/HJ-10 anti-tank missile—the Chinese version of the Hellfire missile. It has a weapon that can be fired from a distance of 5,000 meters and is made especially for high-altitude operations. The UAV also features a retractable electro-optical sensor turret and a data link to the ground control station. In addition, the CH-4B has a contemporary, two-person control station that allows for both line-of-sight and satellite communications. Military watchers say this Chinese drone resembles the American MQ-9 Reaper.

The current situation arose when BLA claimed(25 September 2022) that its fighters had cornered two Pakistani agents, Kaleem Ullah and Muhammad Faisal Basheer, in an intelligence-based operation in Harnai district of Balochistan. The two prisoners were brought before the “Baloch National Court” where the BLA senior command unanimously decided that by following the international laws of war, as enshrined in the Geneva Convention, two prisoners would be swapped with the Pakistani state for detained Baloch political activists.

After this, the Pakistan Army launched an operation where one of the two participating helicopters was shot down. The BLA accepted responsibility for detaining the mentioned persons, attacking the coal trucks, and shooting down the helicopter. The BLA released two statements regarding the prisoner swap negotiations, but the Pakistani Army did not respond. Meanwhile, scores of people took to the streets in Pattoki, a small city in Punjab’s Kasur district, to protest for the safe release of Faisal Basheer, one of the prisoners detained by BLA. The family members of the detainee entreated the Pakistani authorities to negotiate the release of Faisal Basheer, but no developments have been made by the authorities so far. The Pakistani Army deployed jets and helicopters against Baloch nationalists in the highlands of Bolan. Pakistani military operations were resisted by the Baloch militias, which, in turn, killed two SSG Commandos, while the BLA claims that eight SSG men were killed. The Pakistan Army claimed that seven people, including three BLA militants, were killed (12 November 2022) in two incidents in Bolan and Kech districts. The forces launched the operation in the mountainous area after a tip-off about the presence of armed militants of a banned outfit in the area.

Faiz M Baluch, editor of online news website Balochwarna and the UK-based treasurer of the Free Balochistan Movement (FBM) claimed (India Narrative, 23 March 2022) that, “China is assisting Pakistan in many ways. It is providing technology to Pakistan. We believe that China is assisting Pakistan in tracing the locations of the Baloch fighters. China is complicit in the Baloch genocide. In February, at least ten Baloch fighters were killed in a drone attack in Hoshab, Turbat, in the Makran region. We strongly believe that China assisted Pakistan in the drone attack as it is not that capable.”

The Pakistani military has long been accused of excesses committed against the people of Balochistan. According to a report in The Balochistan Post, the Human Rights Council of Balochistan received 41 cases of enforced disappearance and thirty cases of extrajudicial executions in Balochistan during October 2022. The latest operations by the Pakistan Army in Balochistan are yet another example of the continued persecution of the Baloch people. The new dimension is the introduction of drones, of Chinese origin, being seen in the conflict zone. Militaries the world over have realised the value of using unmanned aerial combat vehicles. This has been witnessed in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and in the war in Ukraine. Pakistan is anyways a beneficiary of Turkish weaponry and therefore, it is likely that the military will now use more drones on internal security duties. Remember that even in the civil war in Myanmar, both the government forces and rebels are using drones! There is thus an important lesson to be learnt here. China is one of the world’s largest manufacturer of drones. For it to supply such platforms to its all-weather friend is a natural consequence of ties. However, far more dangerous is the presence of PLA detachments in Balochistan which appear to be helping Pak forces fly such drones. In the long run, such developments will have implications for regional security.