To Sell Or Not To Sell? The United States, Pakistan, and the F-16

An F-16 from the 13th Fighter Squadron, Misawa AB Japan banks over Nellis AFB’s expansive range.

On October 22, the day before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, the New York Times published a well-timed piece on the United States government’s recent approval of a sale of F-16s to Pakistan.

For a quick tutorial, read an article in The Diplomat outlining the history and the issues surrounding the F-16 sale.

The sale comes at a time when the Pakistani military appears keen to convince everyone that F-16s are critical in the fight against militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

In April this year, Pakistan Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman discussed the importance of its four squadrons of F-16s in collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to fight militants in North Waziristan. According to numerous news reports citing Pakistani military sources, F-16s continue to kill militants.

Why would the Pakistani military be playing up its use of the F-16 in FATA?

The use of the fighter jet for counterterrorism objectives in FATA aligns with U.S. national security objectives in South Asia, making it easier for the United States to justify its much-criticized military assistance to Pakistan.

What the F-16 Critics Say

Critics of U.S. military assistance to Pakistan have long decried sales of F-16s, which they consider “the most important air platform in Pakistan’s air force and it was the most likely delivery vehicle of a nuclear weapon.”

A concerned Indian-American constituent of Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) summarized the position well in a letter to the Senator on April 5, 1994:

“Supply of nuclear capable F-16 fighters to Pakistan by the USA would be viewed as a very hostile act by India and Indian people. It would adversely affect the growing political and economic ties between the USA and India. It would also force India to commit additional resources to their military to match the threat posed by the nuclear capable hostile Pakistani leadership.”

It is estimated that Pakistan currently has 86 U.S.-supplied F-16s in its possession. It is feasible that Pakistan could both hit enemy installations and nuclear facilities with F-16s. The jets could also, with certain modifications made to them, hypothetically transport nuclear weapons.

Yet some experts continue to stress, “it is not clear what proportion of these aircraft could be used for nuclear delivery missions.” So we know that they could be used for this mission, but don’t know that they can or will be. The U.S. government has historically fallen within this camp.

American Views of the F-16 in South Asia

According to a declassified diplomatic reporting, in an April 1994 meeting with Indian Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot conveyed that:

“The U.S. does not/not believe a one-time waiver of the Pressler Amendment and a subsequent delivery of F-16s would alter the conventional forces balance between India and Pakistan.” (NEW DELHI 005514)

Eleven years later in April 2005, under a very different administration, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia John Gastright planned to brief the Senate Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations on F-16 sales to Pakistan. His declassified briefing stated:

“We anticipate that the aircraft will be equipped with current technology, including in the areas of air-to-air and air-to-ground capability. The F-16’s will not be equipped for the delivery of nuclear weapons. (It is also well-known that Pakistan has a number of delivery platforms already available to it, some far more potent than fighter aircraft, to deliver a variety of weapons, including nuclear ones.)”

“Our steps will also not alter the existing Indo-Pak military balance. India holds a large conventional military advantage over Pakistan — and will retain that advantage even with an F-16 sale to Pakistan. According to Jane’s, India at present has more than twice as many combat aircraft as Pakistan (911 vs. 417), almost twice as many armored vehicles (6860 vs. 3727), and more than double the military personnel (1.3 million vs 620,000). For 2004-05, India’s defense budget exceeds Pakistan’s several times over ($16.5 billion vs. $3.4 billion).” (UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2006-00476 Doc No. C18598601 Date: 01/24/2014)

Are We Asking the Right Question?

The Americans have a point about India and Pakistan never achieving military parity. But, with four wars with Pakistan under their belt, a host of ongoing border and security conflicts, and a bevy of anti-India militants frothing at the mouth on the India-Pakistan border, the Indians have a point too.

Thus, asking if Pakistan could use F-16s to deliver a nuclear weapon against India remains an important question. But everyone already seems to know its answer. A lot of people just don’t like the answer, so they keep pushing the question.

But in our focus on the nuclear question, we’ve neglected another: are the F-16s currently in use against FATA-based militants advancing U.S. national security interests?

The Pakistani military is using F-16s in North Waziristan to target a hornet’s nest of anti-state Pakistani Taliban, anti-NATO Haqqani Network fighters, and al Qaeda foreign militants.

But which militants are the jets targeting – the ones that target Pakistan or the ones that target Americans?

Just as I am skeptical that Pakistan is not purchasing F-16s to pressure India, I am equally skeptical about it using them to target everyone equally in FATA.

For example, is Pakistan using F-16s to target the Haqqani Network, a grouping of Afghan Pashtun militants who yield enormous influence on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Probably not, given Pakistan’s interest in using Pashtun groups in Afghanistan to perpetuate its influence there.

To sell, or not to sell? That remains the question, especially if Pakistan is not using F-16s against the terrorists the United States want them to target.

At its core, the logic of the sale is based on the notion that giving Pakistan F-16s maintains a strategic relationship that can be of diverse value to the United States.

In the 1980s, that relationship was useful in fighting the Soviets. After the 9/11 attacks, that same relationship was useful in capturing scores of al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For better or for worse, it continues to be worth maintaining that kind of relationship for the United States, so it’s probably worth selling a few jets now and again.

We should do that, however, with full knowledge that, like many other issues in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the policy on F-16s is a compromise that comes with tradeoffs on national security. And while that is not an ideal answer, it’s a reality that is unlikely to go away.

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