The Obama administration on Saturday notified the US Congress of its decision to sell eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The estimated cost of the sale is $699.4 million. Pentagon’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency said the sale would improve Pakistan’s capability to meet current and future security threats. The deal will now go through a 30-day notification period after which it is likely to be finalised.
Earlier this week, the US State Department informed the US Congress that it was committed to improving Pakistan’s precision strike capability, a veiled reference to sale of F-16 fighter jets.
Pakistan has been receiving F-16 fighters from the US since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was the US President and General Zia-ul Haq the military dictator of Pakistan. The first batch of F-16 fighters came to Pakistan in 1983. Consequent to the 1985 Pressler Amendment brought about by Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, supply of 18 F-16s was stopped after the first 40 fighters were received by Pakistan Air Force (PAF).
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Following the 9-11 terror attack and subsequent US military operation in Afghanistan, the supply of F-16 fighters resumed to Pakistan. In 2006, Pakistan inked a deal with the US for purchase of 18 new F-16C/D block 50/52 aircraft, with an option to buy another 18 more. The first three F-16C/Ds were delivered in June 2010 with the rest were inducted into the PAF by the end of 2012. US also gave 14 used F-16s to the PAF in 2012.
In February 2014, Pakistan announced that it is buying an entire squadron of 13 F-16 A/Bs from Jordan. Delivery of the new aircraft began in April last year, and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) currently has 76 F-16 fighters in its armoury. Meanwhile, the complete old lot of F-16 fighters has been upgraded in Turkey in the past decade.
These new eight F-16s are not going to alter the military balance between India and Pakistan in a significant way, but they carry a lot of symbolism for Pakistan. The narrative built around F-16s allows Pakistani military to send a signal to the public of its modern capabilities while the politicians can showcase their ability to extract goodies from the US. It is something the US officials understand rather well.
Leaked Wikileaks cables had quoted US diplomatic officials as having said that the “PAF is obsessed with F-16s” and the fighters have “an inflated symbolic importance in the public imagination”. PAF’s operations chief, Air Vice Marshal Khalid Chaudhry, was quoted in a Wikileaks cable of March 2006 as telling visiting Pentagon official John Hillen to “ensure the F-16 deal has enough sweeteners to appeal to the public… (such as smart bombs and night vision)… but not to offer the PAF things it cannot afford.”
The US proposal of sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan is, however, not going down well with New Delhi. India believes that these fighters have limited value against terrorists and will be used to sharpen the Pakistani military prowess against India. Moreover, the sale sends a wrong political signal when both India and the US have been cooperating on containing and eliminating terror emanating from Pakistani soil.
There is a possibility that India’s response – to call the US Ambassador to India to the foreign ministry and read a demarche to him on Saturday morning – may be seen as an over-reaction. It may also end up hyphenating India and Pakistan again in Washington, something which India has worked hard against in the last 15 years. But the fact that the Indian government still chose to make a public statement shows that India has been deeply hurt by the US decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan. This ought to caution the US — and other western nations — planning to sell military hardware to Pakistan.