India must ensure conventional superiority

WHILE in Washington DC for the Nuclear Security Summit in mid-April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remonstrated with President Barack Obama about the adverse implications of the proposed conventional arms sales by the United States to Pakistan. 
In February, the American Ambassador in Islamabad had said that the US Defense Department was considering the sale of 12 unarmed drones to Pakistan to encourage it to cooperate in the war on terror. It is not beyond Pakistan’s technological capability to arm these UAVs with air-to-ground missiles for use in conventional conflict. The US has also offered 1,000 Laser-guided bombs to Pakistan to attack Taliban terrorists from the air in the NWFP and FATA areas on Pakistan’s western borders — the epicentre of international terrorism. 
In October 2009, Air Chief Marshal Rao Quamar Suleman, Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), had 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 are to be delivered in 2010. The total order, worth $5.1 billion, is for 12 F-16Cs and six F-16Ds. When this transfer is 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 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-Pakistan cooperation was expanded further when the former 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 had 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. 
The US designation of Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally 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 developments such as the sale of major conventional arms to Pakistan run the risk of damaging the growing relationship. 
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 Pakistan 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. It is also deeply concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands if there is an Islamist coup. Therefore, 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 2000 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, the aircraft 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. 
The supply of a new batch of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan will certainly enhance the strike capabilities of the Pakistan Air Force even though the Indian Air Force will continue to enjoy both qualitative and quantitative superiority. 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. It was reported recently that India had “prevailed” on France to abstain from selling Mirage aircraft to Pakistan in return for a deal to upgrade Mirage 2000 aircraft in service with the IAF. 
India is justified in seeing the move to go ahead with the sale of F-16s as a US attempt to balance its strategic partnership with India by once again propping up Pakistan as a regional challenger. India must do what is necessary to maintain its conventional superiority. The new F-16s must not be allowed to achieve anything more than to provide fresh targets to the IAF in a future India-Pakistan conflict.n 
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi