In the latest twist in ever shaky Pak-US relations, the US has told Pakistan to arrange the full US$699 million to get 8 F-16s Block 52s instead of spending just US$276 million for the same after Senate Committee on Foreign Relations members and head barred the Obama administration from using the American taxpayers money to subsidies the deal. According to original deal, the US was to arrange US$430 million through Foreign Military Financing (FMF).
Pakistan still can get the deal within almost a month time as the deal to sell 8 F-16s to Pakistan still stands but with new US demand of full payment, the price of single jet has increased from US$34.5 million under FMF to US$87 million and this is on the higher side for a medium weight fighter like F-16.
Pakistan has told the US that now Pakistan will look for alternatives if US failed to fulfill its commitment regarding FMF. In a response, the US has made it clear that Pakistan is sovereign state and can choose whatever option it deems suitable but in order to get these eight F-16s Pakistan will have to pay US$ 699 million.
How significant this deal is and how the US decision to block the subsidy on these aircraft is going to impact on PAF’s capabilities against ongoing war against terrorism? This is the question being asked in Pakistani intelligentsia but a more important question is how and why all of the sudden the US congress denied previously agreed FMF deal to Pakistan? Why Pakistani foreign office failed to present Pakistan’s case? Is the US a reliable supplier of advanced military hardware to meet our national security needs? All of these and more related questions will be examined in this article. But prior to that it would be prudent to examine the historic baggage of Pak-US relations due to which this partnership often gives impression of being transactional in nature rather than being a strategic partnership.
Heavy Baggage of History:
Pakistan came into being at a juncture of history when the world had just divided into two opposing political camps after the culmination of World War II. Pakistan choose to become part of the US camp and one of the major reason for this positioning was to ensure national security against an overwhelmingly large enemy i.e. India. Cold War intensified during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Pakistan joined CETO and CENTO treaties and received the US military hardware and aid against communist threat. Taking this partnership further, Pakistan allowed the Americans to use Pakistani bases to fly spy missions against former Soviet Union from Pakistan during this time.
1965 war was the first incident when Pakistan was put under sanctions for using American supplied weapons against India which were meant to be used only against a communist threat. Lesson was obvious that the US actually wanted to secure her own interests using Pakistan as pawn on global political chessboard. Unfortunately, that lesson was never learned by Pakistani governments.
By late 1960’s Pakistan’s foreign policy had developed a dangerous polarization. Pakistan’s decision to allow military bases to the Americans led to retaliatory foreign policy by Soviets who signed strategic pact with India which played critical role in the outcome of 1971 war. 8 years later, Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Against all common myths, fact is Pakistan fought against Soviet invasion alone for more than 2 years and the Americans entered in the conflict when they sensed that Pakistan along with Afghan resistance has managed to stall the southward movement of the Red Bear.
This was the time when Pakistan was supplied with F-16s for the first time. But just like F-86 Sabre, these were only meant to be used against communist threat. Though this was never stated by the US during that time but the way US left the region as soon as Soviet were defeated and the way US passed Pakistan specific amendment denying Pakistan the supplies of F-16s for which Pakistan had paid in advance, speaks volumes about true nature of the US foreign policy in context of Indo-Pakistan geopolitics. Post-1965 war lesson was repeated once again in late 1980’s.
This time, Pakistan did learn some part of this lesson. American sanctions triggered Pakistan’s ballistic missile program which was considered the preferred delivery system for strategic weapons and Pakistan began to look towards France and China as technology suppliers in order to keep its fighter fleet airworthy.
Lack of Understanding of deal in Foreign Office:
From hindsight, it is obvious that the US wanted to use F-16s as leverage over Pakistan. Pakistan was constantly asked to roll back its nuclear program during the 1990’s in order to get embargoed F-16s but Pakistan refused to blink. Nuclear program continued, expanded along with missile program. In 1998, Pakistan became declared nuclear stat. But still Pakistani foreign policy remained imbalanced to a large extent. During the Kargil war and good part of 1990’s Pakistani fleet of F-16s suffered shortage of spare parts.
After 9/11 Pakistan became the American ally again as the US had new objectives in the region under the façade of fighting against international terrorism. The war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda began in 2001 and by 2003 it had expanded to Iraq. Both of these wars turned into protracted military conflicts due to many contradictions in US foreign policy and its military strategy. During this time, in 2006, Pakistan once again opted to buy the F-16s to modernize its air force which had lost its technical edge over numerically superior adversary in the region. Billions were spent to purchase new F-16, spares, armaments, and upgrading the earlier fleet of Block 15 A/B models.
Pakistan got 18 F-16s along with spares, armament while the entire fleet of 32 older F-16s was upgraded in Turkey.
A group of Pakistani experts believes that the current deal of subsidy for 8 F-16 was killed by certain lobby in the US congress as Pakistani Foreign Office failed to bring up the fact that the 2006 deal for new block 52 was for 36 aircraft and was approved by US Congress back then when Pakistan Air Force got its 18 new F-16s block 52’s (C/D). During that agreement it was decided that PAF will be entitled to purchase remaining 18 Block 52s at some later time. So, the current deal was not supposed to go through congress notification and approval process. This split was made to provide maximum funding for rehabilitation efforts after October 2005 deadly earthquake. It must also be noticed here that it was the US who invited Pakistan in 2013 for this new deal of 8 jets through FMF arrangement. But this can only be authenticated after reading the terms and conditions of earlier deal. But if it is true, it certainly is a diplomatic failure of Islamabad.
Politics of F-16:
This history of the US exploitation of Pakistan through military aid tells us that even if PAF pays the entire cost of these 8 aircraft now, there is no guarantee that these aircraft will ever reach Pakistan. Current episode of this F-16 saga has striking resemblance to what transpired in late 1980’s when Pakistan was denied those 28 jets for which Pakistan had paid in advance. Here too, US congress has barred the US funding for F-16s which was agreed upon earlier. Back then, Pressler Amendment was a tool to punish Pakistan for pursuing its nuclear program and insisting on giving political share in Kabul’s politics to those elements that had fought against the Soviets. Here too, the real reasons behind blocking the funding are political. The congressmen, who blocked the foreign funding for F-16s, have sighted Pakistan’s poor performance against Haqqani network as a reason for this move. Their reasoning is principally devoid of any logic. How come Pakistan’s performance against terrorists suddenly becomes fine for them if Pakistan opts to pay the full payment? Evidently, the game, this time around too, is political. Actually the US wants to rescue Dr. Shakeel Afridi using this deal. Pakistan has informed the US that the fate of their agent will be decided by Pakistani court according to law of the land.
As far as Afghanistan and Haqqani network are concerned, the US demands are the biggest testimony about intrinsic contradictions, confusion and conflict within the US foreign policy. On one hand, the US wants Pakistan to eliminate Haqqani network which happens to be part of Afghan Taliban while on the other hand, the US also wants us to arrange peace negotiations between same Afghan Taliban and Kabul regime. Even the Americans are not sure what actually they are prescribing here for Pakistan to address the single problem; a political discourse or a military approach?
Strategic Value of F-16s:
Pakistan’s foreign reserves allow us to purchase these jets using money from our national fund and this is perhaps what Pakistan is going to ultimately choose to do in the end as the platform is already well integrated into airpower doctrine. But how much the entire fleet of F-16s will cost us in the strategic terms in the long run? What if in future the US congress decides to prevent supply of spare parts and upgrade kits to PAF like it happened after Pressler Amendment? This is no longer a hypothetical scenario but is a very realistic possibility considering the fluid nature of regional dynamics of the US foreign policy which, now, is showing a clear tilt towards India.
Unfortunately, Americans are not the only party who can be blamed for this predicament of PAF. Pakistan’s own foreign policy after the culmination of Cold War is part of the problem. Pakistan could have good relations with Moscow and Washington both at the same but that was not realized until very recently.
PAF operates around 70 F-16s which includes new, old and second hand F-16s (This makes almost 1/5th of the entire PAF inventory). So one thing is obvious, Pakistan just cannot say good bye to F-16s right now not even in foreseeable future. This aircraft, without a doubt, is the most sophisticated multirole aircraft in PAF’s inventory.
But a major consideration remains that how effective PAF’s F-16 fleet will be in mid-to-late 2020’s without major upgrades (F-16V) which includes AESA (Advanced Electronically Scanned Array) radar and new generation of avionics, munitions or stand-off weapons? In future, even if the US agrees to provide such updates to PAF’s F-16s, the cost that would be demanded will be political once again not financial like it always has been in case of Pakistani F-16s.
In the light of above analysis, it is obvious to ask if Pakistan should pay US$699 million for 8 F-16s or should this money be spent on some other long term projects with more strategic return on investment?
But apart from this question, there are other considerations as well which need to be addressed in order to calculate the actual strategic value of these jets in the long run and the kind of price Pakistan has been paying for these since their induction into the PAF since 1983. This calculation is also critical to evaluate the future discourse for our airpower which is the most critical component of national defense doctrine of maintaining minimum credible deterrence.
For this calculation, let’s see how F-16s fit within PAF’s war against terrorism and other threats.
PAF’s F-16, COIN and CAS:
As far as COIN operations are concerned, F-16s are indeed playing a critical role there due to their ability to carry advanced pods for precision targeting and ground surveillance along with tremendous capability to carry GPS guided heavy munitions like 2000 pounds GBU-24 or BLU-109. Apart from that, PAF bought F-16s Block 52 with APG-68(v9) radar with SAR which gives it superior capability to monitor movements on ground. This is the main reason why Pakistan is so interested in acquiring these jets. Despite all these superior capabilities it is also true that from an economic point of view, per sortie cost of single F-16 mission is much more than that of an armed drone (which Pakistan is now making in-house). CH-3 or Burraq carry smaller payload compared to F-16s but they can remain in the air, keeping a close eye on ground, far longer than F-16 which has to touch down to refuel and rearm after every 3 to 4 hours.
F-16 is also a formidable Close Air Support (CAS) platform. Apart from precision strikes, it can also perform carpet bombardment carrying multiple 250 kg bombs. During the Pakistan’s war against terrorism, these jets have played a formidable role as CAS platform destroying many terrorists hideouts in difficult to traverse terrain across the entire region of FATA. These air missions allowed Pakistan Army to swiftly move into these areas and flush out remaining terrorists. But once the areas are captured, using F-16s in that role is an expensive strategy economically. Even the US does use specialized CAS platforms like A-10s. / Apache gunships.
Gunship helicopters are preferred option across the world when it comes to CAS against asymmetric enemy like TTP, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Pakistan has signed a deal for gunship with the US (Bell AH-1Z) and apart from it, is also studying Russian and Chinese options to replace its aging fleet of AH-1F Cobras.
F-16 fleet of PAF has been used extensively in this war for years. PAF’s interest in these 8 F-16s, six of which are D model trainer/bomber, is to lessen the operational burden on the existing inventory. A refusal by the US to subsidies these planes is certainly going to disturb these plans of PAF but it will not affect the outcome of this war where the job of F-16 is almost over and now Pakistan armed forces are in need of specialized platforms like armed drones and gunship helicopters.
Keeping Eye on the Future:
PAF is a force of around 350-400 aircraft which includes all types of planes i.e. fighters, multi-role, cargo, AWACS etc.
PAF has ambitious plan to replace more than 190 fighters in next few years. Bulk of replacement job will be done by Thunders. Out of planned 150 JF-17s, 65 are already part of PAF. (3 Squadrons) This year for the first time, Combat Commander School (CCS) of PAF completed a graduation course with JF-17s which means that this platform is now part of PAF’s airpower doctrine. But despite its tremendous potential for upgrades, Thunder alone cannot fill the gap not until PAF decides to make it evolve beyond planned Block-III standards. But even with these upgrades, this plane will remain in the category of light combat aircraft.
Here it must be cleared that terrorism is not the only threat PAF is fighting against. Pakistan Air Force is up against tremendous odds when we add in context Indian Air Force (IAF). Right now, IAF is superior force both in quality and quantity. In order to being able to establish minimum credible deterrence in airpower against any future air combat, PAF would need at least one heavy multi-role fighter.
This Indian factor has compounded the challenge of Pakistan armed forces and PAF is no exception to that. Pakistan is faced with two front threats. In fact, former Air Chief of PAF ACM Ahmad Rafique Butt, categorically identified this problem of facing two-front scenario while giving an interview to Defense Jane’s Weekly back in 2013.
Present fleet of PAF F-16s along with other assets will be more than adequate to meet the internal challenge but it is the external threat which is more worrying aspect in the long term. Exponential growth of disparity between Indian and Pakistani defense spending during the last decade has created a scenario for PAF where it will have to redefine the balance between quality and quantity to ensure the minimum credible deterrence.
It is obvious that Pakistan once again has reached the moment of truth as far as the nature of its relations with the US is concerned. The US wants to give India a greater role in the region in order to deter growing Chinese influence. It is indeed intriguing that this latest episode of F-16 sage has been unfolded following a logistic support agreement between India and the US which potentially would allow India to use US military bases in Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The US is also trying to enter into very lucrative Indian market to sell its top of the line military hardware including F-16s. Lockheed Martin has even offered India to establish manufacturing facilities there.
Alternatives – The Inevitable:
With aforementioned analysis of regional geopolitics and its future dynamics in mind, it is obvious that Pakistan will have to look for alternatives of F-16s as the hi-tech tier of its fighting fleet ultimately in the future. It is no longer a matter of if; it’s just about when. Now is the right time to contemplate plans for the future when PAF’ will be saying good-bye to F-16s as its leading fighter.
Considering the fact that F-16 fleet is the cutting edge of PAF right now, this statement might sound wishful thinking or emotional outburst driven by nationalistic fervor but ultimately PAF will have to evolve with rest of the world. Technical evolution of modern fighter jets is not the only reason for looking for alternatives instead we are more compelled in political sense to keep our options open. This is exactly what was reflected from the statement issued by adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, who made it clear if the US is not going to provide assistance in funding these aircraft; Pakistan will get some other aircraft from elsewhere though he never disclosed which platform he was referring to. But it is obvious that PAF has multiple options available as far as seeking an alternative/supplement fighter to F-16s is concerned.
Pakistan can opt for Russian or European plane or can collaborate with China in J-10 program which has grown from a basic platform (J-10A) into a modern and sophisticated J-10C version which is equipped with AESA radar and other advanced avionics. It is an excellent option to full in the gap of F-16s.
For heavy fighters Russian SU-35 is the most attractive option for the PAF but Indian influence in Moscow may create some troubles in its acquisition. Biggest advantage of SU-35 over Chinese option is its ability to carry massive payload and impressive range of 3500 kilometer which can be enhanced by air tankers to 4500 kilometer. Such a platform will enable PAF to gain capability to strike deep into enemy territory. Eurofighter Typhoon is also available but it is the most expensive option and it’s less likely if PAF will opt for this. Chinese also produce their own versions of Russian flankers like J-11 and J-16 which PAF can look into.
Sophistication vs. Control:
The debate on choosing between acquisitions of new platforms and enhancing JF-17 Thunders is intriguing and delicate subject. F-16s are still one of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world in its class while JF-17 is still work in progress where the world is yet to witness the Block-III which will be the most advanced version of the fighter.
F-16s bring sophistication while Thunder offers PAF complete control over the entire development and operational lifecycle. PAF can evaluate and change any hardware or software onboard, this is something PAF cannot do to F-16s. For example, the US supplied PAF Block-52’s without Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) a critical radar signal jamming capability. Similarly there is no Stand-Off Weapon (SOW) integrated with these aircraft. Advanced AIM-9X short-range AAM was not clear which brings all critical High Off-Bore Sigh (HOBS) capability in air combat. On the other hand, JF-17 Thunder has already surpassed F-16 in terms of weapons integration. Not only it can carry air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, it also carries anti-ship and anti-radiation missiles making it true multi-role fighter. Apart from that, PAF enjoys the luxury of updating its hardware and software whenever there is a requirement. Block-III will incorporate AESA radar, IRST, New Jamming Pod (KG-600?) and more advanced weapons. PAF has plans to upgrade the entire fleet of JF-17s to Block-III standards once it’s inducted.
JF-17 Thunder or any future joint venture with China would be sanction proof while F-16s or any other European or American platform will always be sanction prone.
Pakistan needs to find a balance between spending financial economy and political economy when it comes with its relations with the US in general and acquisition of military hardware from Washington in particular. Pakistan, throughout history, has gotten the US military hardware at paying very little in financial terms but has to compromise on political side due to strings which the Americans always attached with such military deals. This balance cannot be achieved through conducting foreign policy with a Cold War era mindset.
Pakistan needs to revamp its entire foreign policy. Pakistan will have to tell the Americans loud and clear that Pakistan will safeguard its own strategic interests first and if they are in collision with the US interests, Washington must seek Islamabad’s cooperation in those areas so that collision of interests can be addressed via constructive engagements like real strategic partners. In order to make Washington understand this, Pakistan will have to focus on its economy and foreign policy so that we can stop looking for political gimmickry like Foreign Military Financing (FMF) which the US has used for too long now to get her strategic interests served at the cost of ours.