US Arms Sales to Pakistan India must Caution its Strategic Partner

On October 13, 2009, Air Chief Marshal Rao Quamar Suleman, Chief of the Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force (PAF), accepted the first F-16 Block 52 aircraft on behalf of his nation at the Lockheed Martin facility at Fort Worth, Texas. The remaining aircraft will be delivered in 2010. The total order, worth US$ 5.1 billion, is for 12 F-16Cs and six F-16Ds. When completed, it will raise the total number of F-16s in service with the PAF to 54. The Pakistan Air Force received its first F-16, in the Block 15 F-16A/B configuration, in 1982. 

Earlier, the United States (US) Defense Security Cooperation Agency had notified Congress of a Foreign Military Sale to Pakistan of 115 M109A5 155mm self-propelled howitzers as well as associated equipment and services. The total value, if all options are exercised by Pakistan, could be as high as $56 million. 

This is not the first time that the US has offered major arms packages to Pakistan – nor will it be the last. The US had co-opted Pakistan as a frontline state in its fight against communism during the Cold War and armed it with Patton tanks, F-86 Sabre Jets and F-104 Starfighters, among other weapons and equipment. Despite strong US assurances, all of these were used against India. US-Pak cooperation was expanded further when the erstwhile Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the CIA gave Pakistan huge quantities of weapons for the Afghan mujahideen. These included shoulder-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles, some of which were recovered by the Indian army from Pakistan’s terrorist mercenaries in Kashmir. However, as soon as the last Soviet tank left Afghan soil, the US dropped Pakistan like a hot potato and slapped sanctions on it. 

Post-September 11, 2001, the US not only ignored Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, but also its emergence as the new hub of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. It also tolerated General Musharraf’s dictatorial regime because it suited US national interests in the war against terrorism. US designation of Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) in March 2004 had irritated Indian policy planners because Indo-US relations had just begun to improve. The “next steps in strategic partnership” (NSSP) had been announced only in January 2004 and India was looking forward to a comprehensive engagement with the US. The Indo-US strategic partnership is now on a firm footing, but aberrations such as the sale of major conventional arms run the risk of damaging the growing relationship. 

The sale of conventional arms to Pakistan ostensibly to fight terrorism has been criticised even in the US. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report has questioned the sale: "It (the F-16 Block 52) incorporates advanced weapons and avionics for air-to-air combat that appear unnecessary for counterinsurgency operations. Less expensive and less sophisticated aircraft such as attack helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and combat search and rescue aircraft would appear to have greater utility in combating insurgents and other non-state actors than supersonic fighter aircraft." It is another matter that Pakistan has been actually using fighter aircraft to strike targets on ground in Swat and South Waziristan. These are tactics that are bound to generate a severe backlash against its armed forces, as has been witnessed in a spate of attacks against senior army personnel in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

The US justifies arms sales to Pakistan on several grounds. Besides the need to continue to retain Pakistan’s support in the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, the US realises the fragility of the civilian regime in the face of Islamist hardliners in the army, the ISI and the country. It sees the Pakistan army as a stabilising force in a country that is being gradually Islamised beyond redemption. The US feels that it must do all that it can to keep the civilian regime in power. The US is also deeply concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into Jihadi hands if there is an Islamist coup. Hence, the US feels inclined to offer some sops to satisfy Pakistan’s corps commanders at regular intervals. The sale of eight Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, the Phalanx gun systems and the 2,000 TOW anti-tank-cum-bunker busting missiles falls in this category. Also, India and Pakistan are among the largest arms buyers in the world today and no US administration can neglect the military-industrial complex. 

Though the sale of the Orion reconnaissance aircraft will make things relatively more difficult for the Indian Navy, they do not pose a direct new threat to India. The proposed sale indicates a US design to engage the Pakistan Navy in joint reconnaissance and patrolling of the sea lanes in the Gulf region by bolstering its capability while a similar exercise is being undertaken with the Indian Navy in the southern Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Straits. Clearly, the US is planning to cooperate with the Indian Navy through its Honolulu-based Pacific Command and with the Pakistan Navy through its Central Command. Such an arrangement will also keep the Indian and Pakistan navies from having to launch joint operations and undertake search, seizure and rescue operations together.

If India wishes to influence US arms sales decisions, it must develop adequate leverages to make the US reconsider the pros and cons very carefully. The supply of a new batch of F-16 aircraft will certainly enhance the strike capabilities of the PAF even though the Indian Air Force will still continue to enjoy both qualitative and quantitative superiority. India is justified in seeing the move to go ahead with the sale of the F-16s as an US attempt to balance its strategic partnership with India by once again propping up Pakistan as a regional challenger. 

As far the Indian armed forces are concerned, the new F-16s and Orion aircraft must be seen as nothing more than additional targets in the air and on the tarmac of Karachi airbase for the IAF and the army’s Special Forces commandos – to be dealt with militarily.

(The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)