The Bush administration’s decision to sell 25 F-16s to Pakistan was balanced by its decision to offer India 125 upgraded F-16s or F-18s and broader cooperation in systems for military command and control, early-warning detection, and missile defence. Washington said it was creating "a decisively broader strategic relationship" with India that might even encompass the sale of nuclear power plants.
Even then, there was jubilation in Islamabad. In theory, the F-16 can prevent the intrusion of hostile aircraft into Pakistani territory, engage enemy army form! ations on the ground and carry out long-range offensive missions. It is one of the best multi-role combat aircraft in the world and 4,400 of them fly in two dozen air forces. They are even flown by the USAF aerobatics team, the Thunderbirds.
But everyone has a different interpretation of the F-16 deal with Pakistan. Commenting on the sale, Condi Rice said, "What we are trying to do is solidify and extend relations with both India and Pakistan… at a time when they have improving relationships with one another."
Stephen P Cohen of the Brookings Institute argued that the deal would give Bush more influence in Pakistan. "This gives us leverage on Musharraf in pushing him in the direction of accommodation over Kashmir and other disputes," Cohen said. Pakistan, he added, remained a top priority for Washington: "It’s got nuclear weapons, it’s in a critical part of the world, and we can’t afford to let it go down the drain."
The chief of the PAF, Air Chief Marshal Sa! adat, saw it is as a symbolic victory that would help stem the tide of growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. From day one, he said, Pakistan had been impressing upon the US government that by selling F-16s to Pakistan, the Americans would convince the Pakistani people of their sincerity. He said the number of the aircraft was irrelevant since "10, 15, 20 aircraft would not make a world of difference in our operational capability."
But are the people of Pakistan that emotional? They know that war is a numbers game. True, the acquisition of 25 F-16s represents a boost of some 80 percent in the PAF’s current inventory of frontline aircraft, which is limited to 32 F-16s. The PAF is outnumbered by the Indian Air Force (IAF) by about 6:1 in the ratio of frontline aircraft, which include about 195 SU-30s, Mirage 2000s, MiG-29s and Jaguars.
But 25 F-16s will not make a dent in this adverse combat ratio. To place Pakistan’s deal in perspective, even the tiny nation of Bahrain h! as 22 F-16s in its inventory. Thailand has more than 50, Singapore has about 70, UAE 80, Taiwan 150, Turkey 240 and Israel 362.
A serious commitment by the US to Pakistan’s air defences would require the sale of a hundred aircraft. In the 1950s, the US sold Pakistan 120 F-86 Sabre aircraft, which were frontline fighters in those days. The 14 Starfighters that came later were a token. The small number of Mirage IIIE’s in Pakistan’s inventory during the 1971 war became a liability as the PAF ended up husbanding them rather than risking them in combat.
A total of 40 F-16s were inducted into the PAF between 1983-87, during which time Pakistan fought Washington’s proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. These deliveries comprised the A/B Block 15 variants equipped with short-range Sidewinder missiles. Through attrition and combat, the number is now down to 32 aircraft, flown by Squadrons 9 and 11. Incidentally, the Jordanian Air Force flies the same F-16s.
Pakistan ordered 71 copies of the advanced C/D derivative in the late 1980s/early1990s. The aircraft were expected to cost about $25 million a piece but the Pressler Amendment blocked their delivery. By the end of 1994, 17 of these planes had been built and were placed in storage. The rest were never produced.
Pakistan, which had already paid $685 million on the contract for the first 28 F-16s, insisted on either having the planes delivered or getting its money back. It is unclear what happened. There are rumours that the US has now paid varying amounts back to Pakistan in cash and in kind (white wheat).
In the mean time, the PAF was forced to deploy the F-7P, a Chinese variant of the Soviet MiG-21 and a decidedly inferior to the F-16. The PAF also operates some 185 F-7s equipped with the Sidewinder missile.
The F-16 deal raises five questions. First, why has Washington changed its mind about supplying F-16s to Pakistan? As noted by Cohen, it has pegged Pakista! n as a state with nuclear weapons that is brimming with jihadis and a rogue scientist nuclear proliferation network. Only the military can keep the baddies in check. India, on the other hand, is the world’s largest democracy and an enlightened state. It has been charged with keeping the Chinese in check, in a replay of the post 1962 India-China war strategy on a grander scale.
Second, against whom will the planes will be used and for what purpose? They cannot be used to fight non-state actors like Al Qaida. And since Pakistan has no external enemies anymore, to quote General Musharraf, they are not needed against India.
Third, should there be another India-Pakistan war, will America not impose an arms embargo on the belligerents, as it did in 1965? This will hardly affect India, which has a domestic production capability, but it will cripple Pakistan’s war-fighting capability.
Fourth, who will gain from the sale of the F-16s? Clearly, Lockheed Martin that buil! ds the plane in Texas. And, of course, the military rulers of Pakistan who can claim that they have negotiated a strategic breakthrough with the Americans. Fifth, who will lose from it? The people of Pakistan, for whom the prospect of democracy has been pushed further off in the future. Millions will go hungry to bed and remain illiterate since their government thought it better to spend $60 million a copy on the F-16s.
The people of South Asia are the losers as well, now that the India-Pakistan arms race has been rekindled with gusto. China will step up its military modernisation programme, creating more pressures on everyone.
Someone with the job of convincing Congress that simultaneously selling F-16s to India and Pakistan is not a bad idea has come up with the gratuitous argument that no two countries armed with F-16s have ever gone to war. One could use the same logic to sell nuclear weapons to every state, since no two nuclear-armed states have ever gone to war.
Dr AHMAD FARUQUI is an economist and author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column originally appeared in the Daily Times.