The information on the U.S. State Department’s agreement to satisfy Pakistan’s request for the purchase of 8 American F-16 fighters with all associated equipment for a total amount of approximately $ 700 million, which appeared in early February caused the predictable negative response in neighboring India and triggered a debate in the U.S. Senate, where the deal was subject to approval.
A month later, further fuel was added to the flames when there was a report on Pakistan’s plans to increase its order of F-16 fighters to 18 as part of the program of replacing obsolete and almost decrepit Chinese and French fighter jets, which have been the part of the Pakistani air forces since the 70-80s.
First and foremost it is necessary to explain what kind of fighter jet the F-16 is. It is a “light-weight fighter”, which is designed to attack ground and air targets. The Lockheed company (now Lockheed Martin) designed it long time ago (in the late 60s early 70s). However, since then the F-16 has repeatedly undergone in-depth modernization and is currently manufactured in several versions, confirming the view that this fighter turned out to be one of the most successful projects of the leading American defense company. In total there over 4,500 units of this aircraft have been manufactured (by today’s standards, this is a giant series), and they are currently in use in the air forces of dozens of countries. The latest versions of the F-16 are still quite up to date, especially given the “cost/efficiency
Оne of the most important arguments in favour of Pakistan’s request is that it is necessary to maintain the manufacturing lines at Lockheed Martin, continuing production of the F-16. The continuing high potential of F-16 rekindles the political aspects of Washington’s deliveries of these fighters to the regions, where the situation is highly tense. NEO magazine has previously published a discussion about the aggravation of the situation in the Taiwan Strait after the US decision to sell Taipei a new shipment of American arms, the main component of which will be the F-16.
The report about the plans for the sale of these fighters to the Pakistani air forces produced the same effect in Indian-Pakistani relations. India will hardly be satisfied with the explanations of both parties to this transaction about the necessity to increase the capacity of the Pakistani army, which is fighting against the so-called “Haqqani network”, one of the most radical Islamist movements. For the possession of a squadron of F-16s with the latest modifications would undoubtedly increase the potential of the Pakistani air forces in a military confrontation with India.
So why is the U.S. testing the limits of its successful process of forming a close relationship with one of the two Asian giants (India), which more or less explicitly presents itself as a strategic opponent to another giant – the PRC?
At first sight this question seems quite natural, since China is already becoming one of the main source of challenges to American positions not only in East Asia but also in Africa, Latin America and even in Europe.
However, actually, in this case it does not make sense to ask “why?” because India’s inevitable discontent with Washington’s aforementioned step (apparently subjected to a preliminary estimate on the severity) was only a side effect of U.S. attempts to solve the accumulated problems in relations with Pakistan.
Playing a vital role in the Afghan conflict and in the efforts resolve it in a way that more or less suits the USA, Islamabad is becoming increasingly involved in China’s “gravitational field”.
The latest evidence of this trend, that is so unfavorable for Washington, was a giant construction project (of a total value of over $40 billion) of a transport corridor that would link the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the PRC and the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast. The agreement was signed during the visit of President XI Jinping to Pakistan, held in April 2015.
It was mainly the Senate that opposed the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. But not only them. During the discussion, there was mention of Pakistan’s ambiguous behavior towards the Afghan Taliban. Thus, in response to the proponents of the development of cooperation with Pakistan in the “war against terror”, Senator Rand Paul (who previously participated in the presidential race as a Republican candidate) said: “They take our money, weapons and laugh in our face. Pakistan is a prime example of a frenemy”.
But still, the proponents of accepting Pakistani request turned out to be stronger, winning the vote 71 to 24. On the eve of the vote and thereafter there have been measures taken on “charming away (India’s) toothache”. This kind of therapy was carried out during visits of the head of U.S. Pacific command Admiral Harry Harris (in early March) and Minister of Defense Ashton Carter to New Delhi (11-13 April). Both high-profile guests gave generous compliments to India and painted a vivid picture for their hosts of the further development of US-Indian cooperation in the defense sphere.
In reply to the bewilderment of the Indian interlocutors about the supply of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, E. Carter presented several arguments. First, once again mention was made of the need to strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to “fight terrorism”. Second, there followed assurances about the future Pakistani squadron not targeting India. But the most important thing was conveyed in the maxim along the lines of: “We do not condemn you, when you purchase weapons from the Russians”.
In connection with the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, New Delhi will almost certainly demonstrate “understanding” of its key ally’s problems, de facto both in its relations with Pakistan and in terms of its internal issues. There is no other option.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”