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    South Asia
     Mar 29, 2005
The US comes out fighting with F-16s
By Kaushik Kapisthalam

Islamabad is elated, India is miffed: the decision by the United States to sell F-16 strike fighters to Pakistan involves much more than a simple sale of arms - important geostrategic undercurrents are at play involving not only the Indian sub-continent, but also China.

Last Friday, Sanjaya Baru, spokesman for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, announced that US President George W Bush had informed Singh of the American decision to go ahead with the sale of nuclear-capable Lockheed-Martin F-16 strike fighter aircraft to Pakistan. The spokesman also noted that the Indian leader conveyed to Bush India's "great disappointment" and a message that this move could have "negative consequences for India's security environment".

A few hours later, Bush administration officials in Washington and elsewhere added more details to the report, confirming that the mandatory notification to Congress had been sent. Washington sources say that Congress is unlikely to object to this deal. Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed announced in Islamabad that the US had essentially offered an unlimited number of F-16s, and that the aircraft would be the newer C and D versions (Block 50/52) which are more than a generation ahead of Pakistan's current F-16 fleet. Ahmed also noted that the Pakistan Air Force leadership would soon decide on the quantity to request. Industry sources say that Pakistan may initially order about 24 planes, with an option to buy a significantly larger number in a few years. Pakistan's current fleet of about 32 F-16s is also likely to be upgraded.

To most South Asia observers, this decision was not a surprise. Getting advanced F-16s and a package to upgrade its existing old F-16 fleet has always been on the Pakistani wish list since President General Pervez Musharraf joined the US-led coalition against terrorism in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. With intense media speculation in the preceding weeks, most news watchers felt a sense of inevitability about the F-16 sale.

India 'disappointed'
As noted above, India's official reaction has been one of disappointment. However, the Indian Foreign Ministry convened a  midnight press conference on Friday night to spin the F-16 story. Spokesman Navtej Sarna noted that during his conversation with Singh, Bush offered a significant upgrade of India-US strategic ties. Reports indicate that the US has offered F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes to India, which are considered to be more advanced than F-16s.

But many Indian strategists and former senior officials are not so sanguine. Some note that the US has essentially offered a tangible weapons system to Pakistan, while offering some nice-sounding promises to India, which may or may not develop into real gains. Noting that one of the items seemingly on offer was the sale of American nuclear power plants to India, one observer asked - "Will Ms [Condoleezza] Rice and her staff be willing to do the heavy lifting in Congress and within the numerous non-proliferation agencies within the American bureaucracy to get approval for this? I don't think so." India has energy needs now that cannot be fulfilled by mere talks, he added.

Some reports also suggest similar feelings in private in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The Hindu newspaper quoted unnamed MEA officials as saying, "It is possible that some of the promises may be transformed into reality. But at this point, one cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. Only tangible outcomes count, and that is the transfer of the [F-16] planes to Islamabad."

Interestingly, wire reports mention that the US had offered the F-16 fighters to India as well, though a State Department official speaking on the background said that it was up to India to decide if they wanted to buy the F-16s, F/A-18s or aircraft from other countries. Few Indian defense specialists believe that there is any chance of India buying fighter aircraft from the US, however. A report in the Times of India earlier in March quoted Indian Air Force officials as saying that there were too many logistical and political barriers for the F-16s to be considered seriously, even though they are officially on the list of choices for the purpose of a transparent tender process.

There are others in the Indian strategic community, however, who reject this type of reaction. G Parthasarathy, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, was quoted as saying, "India cannot ignore the first-ever US offer of co-production of a major weapons system and platform and expanding cooperation in nuclear energy and space." Dr Anupam Srivastava, executive director of the South Asia Program of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia and an expert on India-US relations, concurs with this view, noting that the very fact that an American administration had offered to discuss the sale of nuclear energy technology was significant, and that such a move would have been nearly impossible in recent years.

Strategic signaling
Some Indian and American observers feel that announcing the approval of F-16s to Pakistan sends ambiguous signals to the Pakistani leadership. They note that given the track record of Musharraf, it is likely that he will harden his stance in the ongoing peace negotiations with India.

Dr Peter Lavoy, director of the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, cautioned against reading too much into the F-16 sale announcement. He commented that there was an increasing sense within the US administration that the Pakistan Air Force was far behind India in terms of military capability, and bolstering it with a small number of F-16s could create more stability in South Asia. It can be argued that a Pakistani military that feels more secure with conventional weapons is less likely to resort to using nuclear weapons, he maintained. Lavoy also noted that at a political level, the sale of F-16s brought closure to a long chapter of mistrust and disappointment in Pakistan, referring to the American move to block a contracted transfer of F-16s in 1991 over suspicions of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

Indian and some Western strategic analysts have a different take on this point. One former senior Indian official noted to this correspondent that he did not agree with the American position that 30 to 40 F-16s were unlikely to upset India's military position vis-a-vis Pakistan. He said that such an argument missed the point: "When it comes to provoking a war with India, Pakistan has depended more on what it perceives it can get away with rather than what its war-fighting abilities really are." The argument here is that the F-16s need not arrive in Pakistan for Musharraf and other Pakistani military leaders to consider taking aggressive military actions in the disputed Kashmir region. Observers caution that Pakistani leaders are unlikely to interpret the F-16 deal in any manner other than as a reiteration of Pakistan's indispensability to Washington.

Another Western analyst, who has visited Pakistan many times, noted to this author that soon after Indian troops backed off war threats in 2002, Pakistani officials were thankful for the American role in diffusing the crisis without Pakistani loss of face. However, he was shocked that during a later meeting with senior Pakistani army officers he found that they had coaxed themselves into believing that it was India's "cowardice" that led to their pull-back. The analyst also noted with alarm that many senior Pakistani military strategists still subscribe to the theory that Pakistanis are a "superior martial race" as opposed to the largely Hindu Indian army, which they perceive to be innately weak in resolve. The expert noted that with such attitudes, all the Pakistanis need is a small fillip to their morale and a perception of their being indispensable to American interests in order to start another military adventure with India. "At the very least, major weapons sales could spur the Pakistanis to be more aggressive with the use of jihadi groups in Kashmir," the expert maintained.

There are already signs of this hardening of Pakistani stance. Speaking to Pakistani Air Force cadets within hours of the F-16 announcement, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz stated that while Pakistan wanted peace with its neighbors, "peace can be achieved through force". On Sunday there were reports that Musharraf had noted in response to an email query to his website that India had to resolve the Kashmir dispute "if it wants to avoid more Kargils", referring to the 1999 Pakistani intrusion into Indian-controlled Kashmir that brought the region to the brink of full-scale war.

Some Indian observers expressed their anger that the American government displayed poor timing, either inadvertently or by design, in announcing the F-16 sale at this juncture. "We have Musharraf visiting New Delhi for talks and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on a planned state visit that is set to herald a new era in Indo-Chinese ties. Couldn't the Americans have waited a few more days, especially given that they had seemingly made up their mind a good while ago regarding the [F-16] sale?," fumed a former Indian diplomat.

The China angle
Interestingly, there are indications that the US decision to offer F-16s to Pakistan may affect that country's close ties with China. Pakistan watchers have long pointed out the existence of "pro-US" and "pro-China" lobbies within the Pakistani military establishment. "For decades, Pakistani military leaders, especially in the air force, have considered American weapons as the only ones good enough to be the spear-tip of Pakistani military capability," a Pakistan-watcher asserted, and added further, "Since the American sanctions, the pro-American officers had been losing the argument with the China-friendly ones within the Pakistani Air Force. This [F-16] gift turns the situation on its head."

As if to confirm this, in a radio program on Friday, Pakistan's Information Minister Ahmed noted that the JF-17 fighter that China was developing in cooperation with Pakistan had recently faced uncertainties regarding its engine and other components. Officially, the JF-17, or the FC-1 as it is known in China, is equipped with an engine from Russia's Klimov Corporation. But reports from authoritative sources like Jane's Defence Weekly note that Russia has not granted permission for China to equip export versions of the FC-1 with Klimov engines. Other reports have noted that Pakistan Air Force officials expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of Chinese avionics and radar systems, preferring European-made systems. However, given the uncertainty in the lifting of the European Union's weapons embargo on China, it is not clear if China will be able to obtain source codes for European sub-systems to be able to integrate them with a Chinese plane.

On India's part, the F-16 deal could lead to a sidelining of those who are favorable to the idea that India could be part of an American-led alliance in Asia to contain China's rapid rise to superpower status. There are reports that India will sign a "friendship treaty" with China where premier Wen makes his four-day visit to the country, with verbiage "to ensure that New Delhi does not become part of any anti-China alliance". Wen's visit is also expected to result in a treaty to set the framework for resolving the lingering India-China border dispute, and also some significant trade-related agreements, including a free trade agreement, which would be unprecedented in terms of the sheer commercial volume between the two Asian giants.

This is bound to displease the conservative elements in the Bush administration, who are slowly coming around to the idea to treat China as a strategic competitor, and who have embarked on efforts with the European Union and Japan to contain China's military expansion. "India has nothing to gain by ganging up against China, when the US is insensitive to India's security interests," an Indian analyst said. The analyst added that India would be under no illusion that Pakistan's "evergreen friendship" with China would weaken, but pointed out that the Chinese were not going to miss the significance of closer Pakistan-US ties and the potential negative implications for China. "Beijing is not going to like the idea of permanent American bases in Pakistan, maybe even near Chinese territory. Also, China is bound to be suspicious of a permanent American naval presence at a time when it is trying to get a foothold in that region with its participation in the construction of Gwadar port in Pakistan."

By this dramatic offering of weapons to Pakistan and increased strategic ties with India, the US may have displayed its "high card" in terms of the geopolitical poker game in the region. But it appears that India can still one-up this move if it plays its cards right.

Kaushik Kapisthalam is a freelance defense and strategic affairs analyst based in the United States. He can be reached at contact@kapisthalam.com

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