India maintained a studied silence a day after the United States announced a $450 million package to refit Pakistan’s large F-16 aircraft fleet with the latest technological advances. The announcement from the US State Department came in the backdrop of intersessional talks that the Indian and American senior officials including Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu held on September 7, 2022.
The Ministry of External Affairs is yet to clarify if Mr Lu and his team had informed the Indian side about the announcement from the Biden administration that will add considerable lethality to Pakistan Air Force which poses the biggest challenge for India from west and northwest.
“The proposed sale will continue the sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, which greatly improves Pakistan’s ability to support counterterrorism operations through its robust air-to-ground capability. Pakistan will have no difficulty absorbing these articles and services into its armed forces,” stated the announcement from the State Department about the package to Pakistan. The F16 fleet of Pakistan was last seen in action against Indian fighter aircraft that indulged in dogfights over Kashmir in the aftermath of February 27 2019 Balakote strike by India.
Pakistan first received the F-16 aircraft package from the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s despite heavy objection from the Government of India which cautioned that the aircraft would be used against Indian targets. Indian objection was based on the findings that Pakistan would arm the F-16s with nuclear weapons that it had procured in a clandestine manner. President Reagan however cleared the sale despite opposition from certain members of the US Congress and CIA’s counter proliferation wing.
In 1990, U.S. cancelled the delivery of nearly 30 F-16 aircraft to Pakistan after the Pressler Amendment came into effect. The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, further confirmed the Indian concerns about the danger posed by nuclear-armed F-16 aircraft in Pakistan’s air force.
The U.S. has repeatedly used the strategic aircraft as a tool in its diplomatic relation with Pakistan. In 2001, following the al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the US had released a package of $3 billion to refit and supply new F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. With nearly 2000 miles as its range of operation, the F-16 has obvious usage against Pakistan’s primary military rival - India. The subsequent findings of widespread terrorist network inside Pakistan and the attacks against US citizens like Daniel Pearl could not dent the decision taken by the George W. Bush administration.
A similar decision to supply F-16 aircraft was taken in late 2015, when the Obama administration was in negotiation with the Pakistan-backed Taliban leaders in exile for an exit strategy for the U.S. forces from Afghanistan. India had vehemently protested against the sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan and the then Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar had summoned US Ambassador Richard Verma and lodged a strong protest against the Obama administration’s decision.
The Biden administration’s decision to refit Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft fleet with the latest weapons and electronic systems indicates that despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States will continue to maintain strong strategic commitment to the armed forces of Pakistan.
The supply of F-16 multi role aircraft began in the Cold war scenario and continued throughout the post-9/11 era till the Biden administration and the latest package shows the consistent nature of partnership between US and Pakistan. The US assistance will improve the precision-ability of the F-16 aircraft and allow Pakistan to access the latest air attack software from the United States.