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    South Asia
     Feb 10, 2005
India makes a play for F-16 fighters
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - It is now official: India has indicated to the United States that it is interested in purchasing advanced F-16 fighter jets for its air force, a move that has sent frissons throughout the establishments in India, the US and inevitably Pakistan. Indian air force chief S K Tyagi said at the Aero India industry show at Bangalore this Monday that New Delhi is seeking to buy 125 fighter jets and has approached Lockheed Martin Corp, which makes F-16s, and is also considering Swedish Gripens made by Saab, French Mirages, and Russian MiG-29 fighters.

"Consideration of Lockheed Martin would have been unthinkable just four years ago, when the US maintained military sanctions against New Delhi following India's May 1998 nuclear tests. But sanctions were phased out starting in late 2001, and bilateral ties have since flourished," the forum F-16.net reported in response to Tyagi's remarks.

Lockheed Martin executives have already made an initial sales pitch in which India must cobble together US$25 million apiece, amounting to a healthy $3 billion over five years. The jets will also need to be in synch with the other cutting-edge Indian fighters: the Sukhois, Mirages, Jaguars and MiGs, besides the nascent Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Indian air force test pilots have had first-hand experience with the F-16s during their visits to the United States to check for LCA systems, as well as exercises with the air forces of Singapore and Israel, in the past couple of years.

Apart from the strategic defense consequences of relations between India and Pakistan, India's intent to purchase the F-16s marks another closure of a paradigm of defense relations that harked back to the Cold War era. In the past India relied heavily on French and Russian fighters but is now seeking to spread its wings further. The MiG fighters have also invited censure because of their numerous crashes as of late.

Speaking in Banglaore about the Indian request, US Ambassador David Mulford said his country has yet to decide on the matter: "We have been contacted with an RFI [request for information]. We are considering that matter at the moment. No decision has been made." Mulford said the United States had also not decided on whether to approve a longtime request by Pakistan to buy F-16s, and added that any talk of linking India's moves with the decision on Pakistan was "irrelevant". Mulford said Washington wants to be a very big supplier of military equipment to India.

India-Pakistan and F-16s
F-16s form part of Pakistan's key military arsenal, and 40 of them were supplied to Pakistan by the US from 1983 to 1987, when Pakistan supported the US in its efforts to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But in 1990, the US Congress passed legislation halting the delivery of the jets for fear that Pakistan was on the verge of building a nuclear bomb. Washington's fears were not unfounded, as in May 1998 Pakistan carried out nuclear-weapons tests in response to India turning into a fully nuclear-armed state. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan has re-emerged as a key US ally in the "war on terrorism", but further supplies of about 70 fighter jets are still held up by US sanctions because of congressional laws that Pakistan must not be nuclear to avail of US aid.

Though the US returned the advance money that Pakistan had already paid, the military establishment in Pakistan has remained very unhappy with the move and makes regular pleas to the US for the F-16s, the latest being a personal request by President General Pervez Musharraf when he met with US President George W Bush late last year, after the latter's November re-election.

The jets are clearly seen as the key to Pakistan balancing its military strength vis-a-vis India, which does not have any. The F-16 is also known as the Viper, and is acknowledged by some as the finest fighter jet in the world. It is believed that 32 of the fighters supplied initially to Pakistan are still in service. Although there is still a long way to go before India can acquire the F-16s, the mere proposal will raise the hackles of Pakistan, which will now likely push much harder for the lifting of the curbs.

In the past few months there have been concerted efforts by India to ensure that Pakistan does not procure the jets. Late last year, Washington pledged a $1.2 billion arms package to Islamabad, though there was no categorical mention of the F-16 jets. The Bush administration notified Congress of its intention to sell sophisticated weapons to Pakistan, including eight P-3C Orion planes to beef up surveillance of its coasts and borders.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who visited New Delhi around the same time, was strongly told that any sale of fighter jets to Pakistan might affect India-US relations. The US in turn tried to placate an incensed India over Washington's impending arms sale to Pakistan by offering to sell more weapons to New Delhi. India also sacked its high-profile US lobbying firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Field, in order to make a fresh start and inroads into the US establishment. Pakistan, at last count, has appointed no fewer than eight law firms to plead its case in various forums of the US legislature and executive.

In December, India claimed a partial victory in thwarting Pakistan's F-16 shopping spree by saying that Belgium had agreed to New Delhi's request not to sell the fighter jets to Islamabad. The issue of Pakistan's formal request to Belgium to procure F-16 jets was taken up with the Belgian authorities in September 2003, Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in parliament. "Given the sensitivity of the geopolitical situation in South Asia, the Belgian government took a conscious decision not to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan," Mukherjee announced amid desk-thumping by the lawmakers.

Islamabad in turn has accused Delhi of being paranoid about Pakistan's defense requirements. Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said recently that India's weapons acquisition and weaponization program is very ambitious. "They have been buying weapons and sophisticated technology from all over the world. Pakistan's program is modest compared to that of New Delhi, which it said spends billions of dollars on weapons. We do not want to match India gun-for-gun, missile-for-missile, aircraft-for-aircraft," he said.

Indeed, over the past couple of years the US has been at its wits' end to keep in good humor both India and Pakistan. The US needs Pakistan as a key ally in its "war against terror" while India is seen as a huge emerging market for weapons as well as other exports ranging from retail goods to passenger aircraft.

The Pentagon's argument that it is necessary to supply weapons to Pakistan to assist in operations against terrorists holed up in difficult terrain in the northwest reaches does not hold water with New Delhi, which feels that the same weapons could very easily be trained against India. In the 1980s Washington could afford to ignore India when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, and offered the F-16s exclusively to Pakistan, until the Pressler amendment of October 1990. Post-2000, as the Indian economy started to muster, Washington warmed up to New Delhi by offering a next-generation strategic partnership. But in the wake of September 11, Pakistan bounced back into the reckoning, with the US designating the country as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, taking India by surprise.

Last month, former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill questioned any US sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan when it had not ceased cross-border terrorism. "Why should Washington transfer these fighters to Pakistan when the country has not stopped sponsoring cross-border terrorism?" asked Blackwill in New Delhi. "Such a sale will compromise India's air-power superiority. The F-16 models that Pakistan is seeking are nuclear-capable models. Could these not be used against India? US military sales to Pakistan should be that of a strategic supplier taking into full consideration India's security concerns," he said.

Some experts have argued that the US is playing a dangerous game by agreeing to supply deadly weapons to both India and Pakistan, which could have a deleterious impact on the fragile peace process between the two countries that began in January last year. However, it should also be remembered that the US is driven by its own self-interest in the region, whether the business of arms supplies or its "war against terror". It is for India and Pakistan to set their own house in order by engagement as well as forward movement in the peace process. It is always a bit foolish to expect any third party to be driven by the principles of a higher good when the fault lies within two warring neighbors who refuse to budge from their intransigent positions.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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Pakistan lays down the agenda for the US (Dec 25, '04)

A US offer Delhi can't refuse
(Dec 3, '04)

 
 

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