The US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to disclose the cost or model of the non-lethal, short-range aircraft. – File Photo by Reuters

ISLAMABAD: The United States will provide Pakistan with 85 small “Raven” drone aircraft, a US military official told Reuters on Thursday, a key step to meeting Islamabad's calls for access to US drone technology.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to disclose the cost or model of the non-lethal, short-range aircraft, which are manufactured by the US-based AeroVironment Inc.

A company spokesman said the Raven is used by US allies including Italy, Spain and Norway and is one of the most widely utilised unmanned aircraft in the world.

The disclosure is another sign of growing US military assistance to Pakistan, a crucial if often tense ally in the US fight against al Qaeda and insurgents attacking US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Pakistan is expected to receive roughly $3 billion in US military aid in the upcoming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused the country's intelligence agency of a having a longstanding relationship with Haqqani militants targeting US forces in Afghanistan.

The White House said in a report to Congress released this month Pakistan lacked a robust plan to defeat Taliban militants, and noted its security forces are struggling to hold areas cleared of the al Qaeda-linked fighters at great cost.

Still, US military officials also praise increased efforts by Pakistan's military over the past several years in tackling some insurgents and say cooperation at a tactical level on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is greatly improved.

“It represents a level of coordination that is better than it's ever been,” Mullen told reporters.

SHADOW DRONES?

The Raven, according to the company website, has a wingspan of just 1.4 metres (4.5 feet) and a weight of 1.9 kilos (4.2 pounds). It can deliver real-time colour or infrared imagery, giving troops on the ground an edge on the battlefield.

A senior US defence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Raven drone order is separate from US plans to offer Pakistan much larger, longer-range surveillance drones, a proposition put forward by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Pakistan in January 2010.

That offer delighted Islamabad at the time but Pakistani officials say those talks have been held up over complaints about the cost proposed by Washington and a slow timeline for delivery.

The US defence official suggested those talks were nearing conclusion.

“We're in final discussions about which one they really want. They think they want the Shadow,” the senior US defence official said.

Gates had originally offered Pakistan 12 Shadow drones, manufactured by AAI Corporation, a unit of Textron Systems.

They are not the weaponised versions being used by the CIA to track and kill al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Pakistan but are used strictly for surveillance and intelligence gathering.