With the F-16 Deal Stalled, Are Days of US-Pakistan Bonhomie Over?

By stalling the F-16 deal, is US trying to coax Pakistan to take action against terror groups.

4 min read
With the F-16 Deal Stalled, Are Days of US-Pakistan Bonhomie Over?

According to Sartaj Aziz, Adviser on Foreign Affairs to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, their relations with the United States have hit a nadir. There are two reasons for such dire assessment. One, Islamabad has failed to secure appropriate assurance from Washington that it wouldn’t wilfully breach Pakistan’s sovereign air space. On May 22, an armed American Predator drone killed Mullah Mansoor, alleged leader of the Haqqani faction of the Pakistan Taliban in North Waziristan.

America had held Mansoor responsible for the relentless attacks by his outfit on the US forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s response was a muted one, owing to the fact that the drone was, perhaps, launched from Jacobabad air force base, part of which has been occupied for many years now by the US military (which is permitted by a logistics support agreement of the sort that India is preparing to sign with the US).


How the Deal Went Sour?

The deal for the F-16 fighter planes that were on the verge of being delivered by the US supplier, Lockheed Martin, to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was suddenly pulled up short. This development happened because of the last minute US Congressional intervention that required Pakistan to pay up in full the total cost of some $700 million for eight of these aircraft.

A punitive action by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, specifically by one of its members, Senator Bob Corker, who at a stroke of his legislative pen, led to the removal of the US government subsidy of $270 million underpinning this contract. With the subsidy provision gone, Pakistan deemed the aircraft just too expensive for it to buy. Islamabad has indicated it will manage by purchasing used F-16s from Jordan.


Reason Behind the Corker Initiative

The background for the Corker initiative was that Washington wanted to impress the visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and assure that the US meant business and was willing to tamp down Pakistan’s role in nursing terrorist groups and deploying them in neighbouring countries, namely India and Afghanistan.

This display of American anger may also have been a means to pressure Islamabad into releasing Dr. Shakil Afridi incarcerated in a Pakistani jail. It was Afridi who had informed American intelligence agents about the presence of the Al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden in a fortified building outside the gates of the Pakistan Military Academy in Abottabad, leading to his elimination (‘Operation Geronimo’) by the US Special Forces in May 2011.

It is, however, important for Washington that Pakistan augments its fleet of F-16s, because doing so reassures Islamabad that the US will continue to ensure maintaining a certain “strategic balance” across the subcontinent – the historical geopolitical game the US has been engaged in since 1947. It is this equation being upset and the supposed “balance” that Aziz is bitterly complaining about.


Denial of F-16s to Pakistan

  • Pakistan fails to seal a deal on the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets, as the two countries fail to reach a consensus over financing,
  • The $700 million deal was supposed to be financed partially by the US, an offer that was turned down by the US Congress.
  • Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee objected to the subsidised sale.
  • The U-turn by US is meant to impress India and put pressure on Pakistan in order to release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who had helped CIA track Laden.
  • What worries India is incessant supply of arms by the US to Pakistan, which the latter justifies in the name of war against terror.
F-16 fighter jet. (Photo: iStockphoto)

US Assistance Will Continue

The US has been munificent in its aid and assistance package that in the period 2002-2015 fetched Pakistan $5.4 billion in arms transfers and other military aid and an additional $30 billion in economic assistance (inclusive of reimbursements for the support and services provided by the Pakistani military for the US’ armed presence in that country and for the staging of US military operations in Afghanistan).

The US will ensure that as part of such aid in the next few years, the special equipment for all-weather and night operations and radar/area suppression weapons that the new F-16s were to have on-board will be available for fitment on the ex-Jordanian F-16s once they join PAF.

F-16s by themselves pose no great threat to India. Except, and this is the insidious part of the US game, the Pakistani F-16s have been technically enabled by the US to fire the anti-ship Harpoon missile against ground targets. Meaning that both the F-16s and the maritime use Harpoon missiles on board can be used in any conflict across land borders with India. This is why the Indian government protested vehemently to the US against the sale of this lot of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan.

(The writer is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet’). He can be reached at @BharatKarnad)

Also read:

Can the Shangri-La Dialogue Fill India’s Defence Diplomacy Void?

India Can Get into NSG, No Problem, but by Endorsing Pak’s Bid

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