by Sashank Rajaram
In a move that was earlier blocked, the Biden Administration approved a $450 million upgrade to Pakistan’s existing fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft. In the aftermath of Trump’s decision to stop selling new F-16s to Pakistan, the deal has raised questions about the possibility of a renewal of the US-Pak relationship and what it means for India. This article explores the history of F-16 in the Pakistani Air Force and discusses how the deal is a result of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region.
The F-16 fighter aircraft is a warplane that has been on India’s tactical and strategic radar system for over 40 years. While the radar seemed quiet for a while, it suddenly began reporting to New Delhi on the 8th of September, when the Biden Administration approved a $450 million upgrade of Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets. Later, the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency reported that the upgrade was necessary to maintain Pakistan’s ageing fleet of aircraft. It also assured that it would not alter the military balance in the region. Despite the fact that the deal implies no new purchases, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s remarks “you aren’t trying to fool anybody” encapsulated the Indian perspective concisely.
Balance of Power
The F-16 aircraft has been a very provocative subject in India. During the early 80s when Pakistan was receiving its first squadron of fighter aircraft from the US, India did not possess an aircraft that could match its capabilities. This was partly exacerbated further as the Soviets, who were the primary arms suppliers to the country, themselves did not have a comparable aircraft system either. In response to the changing balance of power and escalating security concerns, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi zeroed in on the Dassault Mirage 2000—a single-engine, fourth-generation jet fighter from the French. As the deal was finalised and the first batch was delivered in 1987, India also reached out to the Soviets again and purchased the iconic MiG 29s as a counter to the F-16s.
Although the MiG 29s lacked some of the cutting-edge technology that the F-16 possessed at that time, such as Fly-by-wire (FBW) – a system in which an aircraft replaces its conventional manual flight controls with a computer-based one – the Mig29 had the R-27 air-to-air medium-range missiles and the R-73 air-to-air short-range missiles, making it comparable to the F-16s at least visually. Power dynamics oscillated between the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) whenever new purchases and upgrades were made. When Pakistan acquired 500 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) along with F-16 Block 52 aircraft – a more sophisticated version – it tilted the tides in favour of the PAF, especially in beyond visual range (BVR) situations.
This was evidenced during the 2019 Indo-Pak skirmishes when the PAF shot down an Indian aircraft and took Wing Commander Abhinandan as a prisoner. It was a reminder to the IAF that the F-16s Block 52 outranged them in radar as well as in missiles. Since then, a lot of research has gone into developing a more advanced air-to-air missile that operates in BVR. The DRDO is currently designing Astra missiles, which are intended to be deployed on Sukhoi-30 MKI and Tejas aircraft of the IAF.
But what is the hullabaloo about F-16? After all, it is not surprising that an adversary acquires advanced aircraft to boost its security. However, it began partly during the 1965 war when the Pakistani Air Force became a talking point. Though F-16s weren’t developed yet, Pakistan fielded its predecessors such as the F-86 Sabre and F-104 Starfighter against India’s Gnats and Hunters. Though contradictory stories emerged from both sides of the war, one couldn’t deny that the American-made fighter aircraft captured the imagination of all. And even during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, the F-16s proved extremely versatile in providing cover for the Mujahideen campus. And according to some sources, they even managed to shoot down 8 (mostly Afghan fleet) Soviet-built aircraft.
Nonetheless, the purchase, deployment, and maintenance of F-16s have not always been straightforward. After they had purchased their first batch of aircraft, there was widespread fear that Pakistan was extremely close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. After the rumour spread that they had already purchased a trigger mechanism from the Chinese, the Pressler Amendment was passed, prohibiting Pakistan from obtaining more F-16s. Funnily enough, by the time the amendment was passed, Pakistan had already placed an order for 28 F-16s and even paid a large sum of $658 million for them. But with the amendment in place, the US was unable to honour its delivery commitment. To give Pakistan its refund, the US had reportedly tried to sell its aircraft to Indonesia and New Zealand both of whom backed out in the end. Finally, unable to find any suitable potential buyers, the US government decided to use the aircraft in their aggressor squadron. Meanwhile, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, Pakistan went through a freeze with America. With Pakistan providing refuge for Osama Bin Laden, the F-16 diplomacy had ceased, and it was only in 2013, that America renewed its sale of F-16s to Pakistan. Hence, in a way, one could summarise that the F-16s defined the mercurial US-Pak relationship for nearly 40 years. Whenever Pakistan was seen as an ally for the US to reach its own strategic objectives in South Asia, F-16s were delivered. However, the sale of these aircraft was suspended whenever goodwill was affected.
Even so, despite periodic acquisitions, the PAF possesses only about 75 F-16s, many of which are extremely old or even second-hand Jordanian F-16s that were resold to Pakistan. Although the recent American offer won’t significantly improve Pakistan’s capabilities, it is essential to highlight the fact that Washington is still in some way connected to Pakistan. This becomes even more critical when PAF is increasingly turning to the J17 Thunder which was built in collaboration with the Chinese. Unfortunately, a major bulk of the aircraft has been grounded due to a severe engine fault along with some other technical snags. The aircraft, which was reverse-engineered by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation of China, has now been referred to Russia for some spare parts and services. With 134 aircraft in its inventory, this is a major setback for Pakistan which was eying for expanding its air force clout.
For the US, the ability to retain Pakistan helps it to pursue its Asia-Pacific strategy—why incur the additional burden of allowing a former political ally to join the Chinese? All regions that Beijing is focused on already have an American presence. It would be an ignorant argument to frame the relationship as binary and imply that Islamabad will not be faithful to Washington’s interests. Therefore, if not for Pakistan, US’s sudden shift in policy could be seen to counter the increasing influence of China and thereby, retain a long-standing buyer.
Unsatisfactory, but not Alarming
Though the recent development is not something to be particularly happy about from an Indian perspective, it is not something alarming either. It doesn’t suggest that American policy toward South Asia is changing direction or departing from where it had centred around 2012. The key country in the US Indo-Pacific strategy is still India.
Moreover, any purchase contract will involve service and upgrade proposals which cannot be avoided. Moreover, if the US had declined, the Turks would have moved in and offered to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16s. Moreover, the Indo-US relationship is on a different scale altogether with India leveraging a higher degree of authority. At this moment, the IAF should just take note that if one does not include the Rafales, the radar and technology that the Pakistanis have is superior to India’s top-of-the-line Sukhoi-Su 30s. And hence, should focus on working on its own aircraft acquisition and upgradation to not lag too far behind.
Author’s Bio: – Sashank Rajaram is a second-year student at Ashoka University, pursuing an Economics Major and Political Science Minor.