By Syeda Mamoona Rubab
There are no new F-16 sales to Pakistan. But a maintenance project for the existing fleet may be in the offing, writes Syeda Mamoona Rubab
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to the United States has led to the US State Department notifying the Congress its intention to continue technical support for Pakistan’s F-16 program.
According to the publicly known – yet sketchy – details of the deal, which is pending Congressional approval, this is a $125 million project for technical and logistical support for the F-16 program and its oversight for which 60 American contractors will be assigned to Pakistan.
F-16 jets are the prized assets of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and play a frontline role in the country’s defence. Any cooperation with regards to the F-16 program will be more than welcome. The Pakistani government, according to a statement issued by US Defence Security Cooperation Agency, had requested continuation of technical and logistical support services and assistance in “oversight of operations in support of the Pakistan Peace Drive advanced F-16 program.” Islamabad has so far not said anything officially about the project or its request for the services.
Peace Drive was a project originally initiated in 2005-6 for modernisation of the PAF through acquisition of new F-16 jets from US and upgrading the existing planes in PAF’s inventory. It was named Peace Drive in continuation of a long US tradition of linking F-16 international sales to peace.
From the statement, it is clear that under the new deal there are no new sales to Pakistan, rather it is a sort of a maintenance project for the existing F-16 fleet which would be paid for by US. Since any military cooperation between Pakistan and US, more specifically with regards to F-16, is likely to upset Washington’s regional ally and Pakistan’s arch rival India, specific provisions have been inserted in the notification to pacify Delhi and its lobby in Congress.
These special provisions, seen by defence experts as “significant,” include 24/7 end-use monitoring and assurance that the support arrangement would not alter the basic military balance in the region. The monitoring clause is being seen as important because of the general perception that there is an understanding between Pakistan and US that the advanced F-16s in PAF inventory would only be used for counter-terrorism operations and not against India. It was this perception that was hyped by India amidst post-Pulwama stand-off, during which PAF was said to have deployed F-16 jets.
Although Pakistan claimed that F-16s were not used in downing the Indian jets in an aerial skirmish on February 27, when IAF fighters intruded into Pakistani airspace, ISPR in a subsequent statement on April 1 insisted that it “retains the right to use anything and everything in its legitimate self-defence.” It had further said: “Whether it was F-16 or JF-17 which shot down two Indian aircrafts is immaterial…the fact remains that Pakistan Air Force shot down two Indian jets in self-defence. India can assume any type of their choice even F-16.”
The impression that many are getting from the assertion about 24/7 monitoring is that US will be able to keep an eye on how Pakistan uses its F-16s. The assumption is that the so-called understanding on not using F-16s against India would be effectively implemented. It is advisable that the government may fully explain if the 24/7 monitoring agreed with US will in any way affect the deployment of F-16s in any confrontation with India.
There is hardly any doubt that a mere maintenance project would affect the military balance in the region.
The notification of the deal, furthermore, contains declarations aimed at satisfying domestic US legislation concerns that the deal would further US national security and foreign policy interests and not affect US defence readiness.
Notwithstanding the limitations of the deal and its conditions, it is significant for couple of reasons. Firstly, it marks the resumption of US security aid for Pakistan that was completely ended in January 2018 after President Trump’s New Year tweet accusing Islamabad of “lies and deceit” in the fight against terrorism. The window for security cooperation, therefore, stands opened even though the geopolitical situation would determine how long it remains open. Though there is lot of scepticism about the sustainability of this bonhomie, still Pakistan will see an incentive for continuing better ties by delivering on US expectations with regards to Afghanistan.
It may recalled that President Trump had told media during PM Imran Khan’s visit that military assistance “can come back, depending on what we work out.”
Second, resuming defence cooperation has political and strategic implications that are more important than military goals and that is what would be bothering India now. This would definitely add to the current stress in Indo-US ties because of India’s procurement of S-400 missile system from Russia and rethinking in Delhi over purchase of US drones.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]