U.S. hopes to give Pakistan drones within a year

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 29, 2010 4:29pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon aims to deliver a fleet of surveillance drones to Pakistan within a year, but weaponized versions of the unmanned aircraft are still off-limits, a U.S. military official said on Monday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans in January to provide Islamabad with what aides said at the time were 12 Shadow drones, aiming to boost its ability to track insurgents.

But a senior U.S. military official, briefing reporters at the Pentagon on the condition of anonymity, said Islamabad was still weighing whether Shadow drones were the model of unmanned aircraft best suited to its needs.

"We looked at Shadows. We looked at Scan Eagles and other tactical UAVs that are out and about and what we want to do is try to find out" which model is best, the official said, referring to drones as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Shadows are manufactured by AAI Corporation, a unit of Textron Systems, while Scan Eagles are manufactured by Boeing Co.

Islamabad has also pressed for weaponized drones, like the ones the CIA is covertly using in Pakistan to track and kill al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

The official, asked about that request, said general U.S. policy was not to export weaponized capabilities of any drone aircraft. Washington has been reluctant to share sensitive technology so far.

The number of surveillance drones that the United States would eventually provide to Pakistan depends on the cost of the model selected, the official said.

"A key factor will be how quickly we can get the capabilities to them," the official said.

Pressed on timing, the official said: "I would like to think that we would get them there within a year."

Pakistan is already using some non-U.S., imported drone technology and has modified a C-130 military transport aircraft to allow some surveillance activities, the official said.

Drones have proven to be a crucial technological advantage for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing it to remotely track militants and giving commanders battleground imagery in real time.

Gates told a Senate hearing last week it was in the U.S. interest to try to help close allies get drone technology, despite limitations on exports imposed by an international pact, known as the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The MTCR is a pact among at least 34 countries aimed at curbing the spread of unmanned delivery systems that could be used for weapons of mass destruction.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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