Behind the Pakistan F-16 deal, a tale of many wheels

The sale was considered only ‘symbolically important' by the U.S., but had many strings attached

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:33 am IST

Published - May 30, 2011 01:42 am IST - NEW DELHI:

a US F16 jet fighter lands at the Aviano air base in northern Italy on March 22, 2011. The US Africa command said the same day that a US F-15 jet who flew out of Aviano air base crashed in Libya late the day before due to a technical fault during a raid against anti-aircraft defences and both its crew ejected safely. AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE

a US F16 jet fighter lands at the Aviano air base in northern Italy on March 22, 2011. The US Africa command said the same day that a US F-15 jet who flew out of Aviano air base crashed in Libya late the day before due to a technical fault during a raid against anti-aircraft defences and both its crew ejected safely. AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE

The sale by the United States of F-16 military aircraft to Pakistan, announced in 2005, was celebrated as a sign of deepening strategic ties between Islamabad and the Bush administration in Washington. Described by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an attempt to “break out of the notion that [India and Pakistan are in] a hyphenated relationship,” the decision was met with anguish in New Delhi. But leaked U.S. diplomatic cables suggest that the sale was used only to further America's broad strategic interests, with Pakistan standing to gain little from the deal.

The despatches, from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, indicated that the deal was, among other things, meant to assuage Pakistan's fears of an “existential threat it perceived from India.” The diplomatic cables, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, suggested that the purpose of the sale was to divert Pakistan's attention from “the nuclear option,” and give it “time and space to employ a conventional reaction” in the event of a conflict with India ( > 151227: confidential ). Privately, however, the U.S. acknowledged the “reality” that the F-16 programme would not change India's “overwhelming air superiority over Pakistan.” In fact, the cables bluntly assert that the F-16s would be “no match for India's proposed purchase of F-18 or equivalent aircraft.”

Given India's “substantial military advantage,” one cable ( > 197576: confidential ) even surmised that the F-16s would at the most offer “a few days” for the U.S. to “mediate and prevent nuclear conflict.”

Fully aware of such limitations, the U.S. continued to press ahead with the deal, and cables document hectic parleys to bring it to fruition. Before the agreement was signed in September 2006, the U.S. played hardball to make Pakistan sign the Letter of Acceptance (LoA). Islamabad had threatened to delay it further, raising additional demands. The U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad, Ryan Crocker, suggested that Washington “convene” the Pakistani Ambassador, Ali Durrani, to remind him that “missing the deadline [to sign the LoA] would have serious ramifications.”

“Do not think there is a better deal out there if this one expires,” was one of Ambassador Crocker's suggested bargain lines for Washington to use ( > 77877: confidential/noforn ). The agreement was inked two weeks after the cable was sent.

At the time of signing the LoA, Major General Tariq Malik, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Defence Production, had expressed reservations about the payment schedule as an “immense strain on Pakistan's fiscal and foreign exchange reserves…, jeopardising growth.” But Mr. Malik's memo was dismissed by Mr. Crocker as “separate from the valid, legal contract” ( > 80337: confidential/noforn ).

But when “a cash-strapped” Pakistan government approached the U.S. two years later for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to perform mid-life updates for the existing F-16 fleet, the succeeding Ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, was concerned that Washington would be “rewarding economic mismanagement.” The annual disbursement of FMF had “produced a culture of entitlement within the Pakistani military,” according to the diplomat ( > 151227: confidential ).

Why, then, did the U.S. push hard to realise the agreement, apart from the stated objective of “additional business for U.S. defense companies”?

If, according to American diplomats, the threat from India was the primary consideration for the Pakistan military, the F-16 sales would not tilt the strategic balance by their own admission. However, the cables suggested that the U.S. was confident that Pakistan would “still fully invest in its territorial defense, despite current economic challenges.” On the other hand, “our [U.S.] cancelling the sale would emphasize that we favor maintaining Indian superiority at Pakistan's expense and feed anti-Americanism throughout the military” ( > 197576: confidential ).

Another reason to sell F-16s, according to the same cable, was to “exorcise the bitter legacy of the Pressler Amendment” in the 1990s, when the U.S. refused to deliver F-16s that Pakistan had paid with “national money.” Pakistan was even made to undertake costs for storing the fighters in Arizona. For the Pakistan military, the new deal would be tangible proof of the “post-9/11 bilateral relationship.

Avoiding a blow-up

“The bottom line is that Pakistan cannot afford the $2 billion required to complete this F-16 program,” wrote Ambassador Patterson in 2009 ( > 189129: secret ). “At the same time, nothing is more important to good military-military (and overall U.S.-Pakistani) relations than avoiding a blow-up over the F-16 case.”

Even if the sale was considered only “symbolically important” by the U.S., the deal came with many strings attached.

The U.S. was more interested in the use of F-16s by Pakistan for counter-terrorism purposes along the Af-Pak border.

Although the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) had been disinclined to use F-16s “due to the risk of collateral damage in civilian areas,” Ms. Patterson suggested linking the FMF for mid-life updates to “explicit commitments by the PAF that accept Close Air-Support training” ( > 151227: confidential ).

A year after the agreement was concluded, Pakistan learnt that mid-life updates for the F-16s could only be performed in a third country. Since the LoA did not bear any references to “cryptokeys” for the aircraft, officials were also worried that the U.S. would withhold the capability of the F-16s. When these concerns were raised by President Pervez Musharraf and Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mehmood, the U.S. response was hardly comforting.

“We know many in Washington are dismayed by what they consider a juvenile reaction on Pakistan's part. The Pakistanis do not fully understand our requirements for sharing encrypted devices and need to be reassured that the aircraft will still fly without the cryptokeys.” ( > 122429: secret )

Eventually, it was agreed that Pakistan would pay $80 million to perform the updates in Turkey. The U.S. also expressed concerns about basing the F-16s in Pakistan due to “concerns about potential technology transfer to China.” The outcome? Pakistan was made to fork out another $125 million to “build and secure a separate F-16 base” ( > 197576: confidential ).

The purported aim of selling the F-16s to Pakistan was to “yield foreign policy benefits for the U.S.,” but the cables reveal that these benefits were gift-wrapped almost always at Pakistan's expense.

(The Pakistan Cables are being shared by The Hindu with NDTV in India and Dawn in Pakistan)

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