On Wednesday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on Twitter that he had “conveyed concerns” to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin on the US decision to provide Pakistan with a $450 million package for what the Pentagon has called the “F-16 Case for sustainment and related equipment”. Singh said the conversation ended warmly with a discussion on “growing convergence of strategic interests and enhanced defence and security co-operation”. The two ministers discussed “ways to strengthen technological and industrial collaboration and also explore co-operation in emerging and critical technologies”.
This was the first public statement by India on the latest US F-16 package to Pakistan. The Ministry of External Affairs has been quiet, though Ministry officials have said they communicated India’s objections to US officials who were in New Delhi for the 2+2 Inter-sessional and Maritime Security Dialogues, and for a Quad Senior Officials Meeting at the time of the announcement on September 7.
This is the first American military assistance package to Pakistan after the Trump Administration ended defence and security co-operation with the country in 2018 after accusing it of giving only “lies and deceit” for the billions of dollars that the US had “foolishly” given it.
The Department of Defense readout on Austin’s call with Singh made no mention of Indian concerns on the F-16 package. As it demonstrates “strategic autonomy” to engage with every side — Quad one week, and Russia and China the next at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand — India appears determined to swallow its disappointment. After all, if New Delhi can stay away from zero sum games, work around Western sanctions to buy oil from Russia, and keep friends in all camps, what prevents the US from pleasing a non-NATO ally?
According to the September 7 Defense Security Co-operation Agency press release, included in the $450 million package — the proposed contractor for which is Lockheed Martin — are technical and logistics services for follow-on support of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet. There is participation in several technical coordination groups, aircraft and engine hardware and software modifications and support, equipment support, manuals, precision measurement, and a range of related elements of aircraft maintenance.
In effect, this means a life-time upgrade for Pakistan’s existing fleet of F-16s.
“The proposed sale does not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions,” the release stated. “[It]…will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with US and partner forces in ongoing counter-terrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations”.. Also, “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region”.
How F-16s warjets help in counter-terrorism remains unclear, as much of the heavy lifting in such operations has been done by American UAVs.
I conveyed India’s concern at the recent US decision to provide sustenance package for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet.
Look forward to continuing dialogue with Seceratry Austin to further consolidating India-US partnership. 3/3
— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) September 14, 2022
Among the speculated reasons for the Biden Administration’s reversal of Trump’s policy on Pakistan, one revolves around the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Questions have swirled, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as to who provided the intelligence for the drone strike that killed the al-Qaeda chief in a posh house that belonged to Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Last year, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had categorically denied American assertions that it was negotiating air space rights for security-/counter-terrorism-related operations in Afghanistan. Has the change of government brought a change in US attitude?
Imran’s allegations of a US hand in his ouster did not prevent the Shehbaz Sharif government from repairing ties with the Biden administration. Both Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI head Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum have been in active touch with their US interlocutors. Anjum visited the US in May, and Bajwa reportedly asked for help secure an IMF package for Pakistan, which has been granted.
Imran’s recent comments in an interview to a Pakistani TV channel that he is, in fact, not anti-US, and that he has been in touch with various US officials, suggest that the new turn in US-Pakistan relations was inevitable. All players — Pakistan’s military, its ruling and opposition politicians, and the US — know they need one another, and that the rest is rhetoric.
All this time, the Biden Administration has been conveying its own concerns to India on New Delhi’s “lukewarm” attitude to the sanctions against Russia, and its “neutrality” in the war. The gesture to Pakistan serves to convey that disapproval in concrete terms.
Some observers believe there could be yet another reason: in the geopolitical churn arising from the Russia-Ukraine war, the US is trying to break China’s hold on Pakistan with sweeteners of its own. The Pakistan Air Force now has more Chinese JF-17 Thunder fighter jets than F-16s — but it continues to rely on the ageing American aircraft, as the India-Pakistan 2019 skirmish demonstrated.
The JF-17s are now manufactured at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra jointly with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, and its Klimov engines are Russian-built. Significantly, on March 23, Pakistan’s National Day, PAF chief Zaheer Ahmad Babar Sidhu led the flypast in an F-16.
According to Brig. Rahul Bhonsle (retd), who runs the online portal Security Risks Asia, the sustainment programme for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet would enhance conventional deterrence versus India. He says that the last aerial skirmish between Pakistan and India on February 29, 2019 — during which the PAF brought down a MiG-21 flown by IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman — showed that the F-16 is the aircraft that Pakistan will use in any future encounter with India.
“India will have to effectively enhance conventional combat capability of the IAF to continue to meet the challenge of a resurgent PAF,” he says in an article on his site.
In August 2019, several months after that encounter, the State Department wrote to the PAF chief pointing out that the F-16s had been moved to “unauthorised” forward operating bases in defiance of an agreement with the US. The letter, quoted by a US media organisation, said that such actions by Pakistan risked allowing these weapons to fall in the hands of “malign actors” and “could undermine our shared security platforms and infrastructures”.
The letter did not explicitly mention the February 29 incident. According to an Indian source, under its agreement with the US, Pakistan must station the F16s at the Jacobabad air base in Sindh, and the Americans were upset at evidence that they had been moved from there. Three years later, that does not appear to matter any more.
Sliced another way, the package could also be a US signal to both Islamabad and New Delhi that it is time to break the long impasse in relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message of commiseration with Pakistan over the floods did not lead to any further steps, especially after Prime Minister Sharif ruled out the tentative suggestion of trade with India by his Finance Minister Miftah Ismail. At the time of writing, no meeting was scheduled between the two PMs in Samarkand. But it had not been ruled out either.