USA, Pakistan and the F-16: What lies behind US's $125 mn military sales to Pakistan to monitor F-16s

As in 1979 and in 2001, once again, a crisis in Afghanistan has allowed Pakistan to reset its relations with the US.

 |  6-minute read |   30-07-2019
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Days after the July 22 meeting between US President Donald Trump and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, reports from the US Pentagon, State Department and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency informed of a “possible Foreign Military Sale to Pakistan for Technical Security Team (TST) in continued support of the F-16 program for an estimated cost of $125 million."

Reports added that Pakistan had requested a continuation of the US government’s and contractors’ technical and logistic support services; the Trump administration’s security assistance embargo on Pakistan since January 2018 was still in place — but, “as the President reiterated this week, we could consider the restoration of certain security assistance programmes consistent with the broader tenor of our relationship;" "… proposed sale will require the assignment of 60 contractor representatives to Pakistan to assist in the oversight of operations as part of the Peace Drive F-16 program" — and this support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.

imran-690_073019115144.jpgFriends again? The US approved military sales worth $125 million to Pakistan after Imran Khan met Donald Trump in DC. (Photo: Reuters)

On July 22, the Pakistani PM had visited Washington, along with the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the DG Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt General Faiz Hameed. Both nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Afghan peace process and President Trump, famously now, even offered his services to mediate in the J&K issue.

Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace the following day, Imran Khan noted that for the first time since 2001, Pakistan and the US are working together to advance peace efforts in Afghanistan — and he had plans to meet with the Taliban to persuade them to hold negotiations with the government in Afghanistan. On July 25, the Afghan Taliban expressed willingness to travel to Pakistan and meet PM Khan if he invites them for negotiations.

This support needs to be seen in the light of the US’ strategic interests — it needs Pakistan to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban.

And, if in the process, someone gets pushed under a bus, well, bad luck.

In sum: As in 1979 and in 2001, once again, a crisis in Afghanistan has allowed Pakistan to reset its relations with the US.

Why the F-16 is key to US-Pakistan ties

In December 1981, Pakistan and the US signed a letter of agreement for the sale of 28 F-16 A and 12 F-16 B (twin seat trainers) — it was just two years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an event which turned Pakistan into a frontline state in a Cold War theatre.

In 1990, the Pressler Amendment was invoked after Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. The US embargoed further deliveries of a fighter jet which had become the Pakistan Air Force’s (PFA) cutting-edge tool. 

jets-690_073019115331.jpgThe answer is blowing in the wind: The F-16 has been symbolic of both the US and Pakistan's strategic interests. (Photo: Reuters)

Post-9/11 attacks (in September 2001), the US had sought wide-ranging Pakistani assistance for conducting intelligence and military operations in landlocked Afghanistan. At that juncture, Pakistan was under US nuclear-related sanctions (linked to the Symington, Pressler and Glenn Amendments) as well as Commonwealth sanctions (after the October 1999 takeover by General Pervez Musharraf).

This had restricted the supply of western equipment to Pakistan and severely affected its military preparedness.

Sensing an opportunity, Pakistan quickly aligned with the US, and provided port facilities, overland access, airfields, transportation, etc. In turn, the US promptly lifted all sanctions and gave an Emergency Cash Transfer of $600 million to help Pakistan tide over the fiscal crisis, accelerated security cooperation and designated Pakistan as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ in 2004.

It also began economic, security and military aid to Pakistan.

Between 2002 and 2018, the US has given Pakistan about $34.2 billion ($11.3 bn as economic aid, $8.3 as security aid, including $4 billion as Foreign Military Financing (FMF), and about $14.6 billion as Coalition Support Fund (reimbursement for deployment of Pakistan military in aid of US objectives).

Since 2002, Pakistan has received 60 Mid-Life Update (MLU) kits for its 1980s vintage fleet of F-16A/B aircraft. The US partly subsidised these kits, paying $477 million from FMF. This MLU, carried out in Turkey, a NATO member, had upgraded the older F-16A/B aircraft to Block-52 standards. It received 18 new F-16 C/D Block-52 aircraft for $1.43 billion, including 500 x AMRAAMs, advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles — of the kind used to bring down Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 in the February 27 dogfight this year.

Another 14x F-16 A/B aircraft were given free by the US, after being deemed Excess Defense Articles. Additionally, Pakistan received six second-hand F-16s (Block-15 Air Defence Fighter (ADF) version) from Turkey.

Enter the US Technical Support Teams

The Pakistani military operates with a mix of western, Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment — and there are documented instances of Pakistan providing China access to western military technology — particularly that from the US — which Beijing then reverse-engineered.

army-690_073019115703.jpgMixed Up: The Pakistani military operates with a combination of western, Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment. (Photo: Reuters)

When the US commenced supplying F-16s to Pakistan in the early 1980s, China had expressed explicit interest in its avionics and associated technology. Later, in 2006, when the US agreed to upgrade the PAF’s existing fleet of F-16 A/B and also supply new F-16 C/D aircraft, it did not want China to get access to the advanced F-16 technologies in view of the changed geopolitical circumstances.

Hence, the US insisted that the MLU be carried out outside of Pakistan, and the upgraded and the new F-16s be segregated from PAF’s other air bases where Chinese technicians operate.

In 2011, Pakistan was forced to accept stationing of F-16s at just two locations — Shahbaz airbase at Jacobabad and Mushaf airbase, Sargodha. The older six F-16s ADF ex-Turkey were however allowed to be stationed at Bholari airbase, Thatta. Restrictions operated on the stocking and use of AMRAAMs at Mushaf Air Base. Placement of Technical Security Teams (TSTs) at both the F-16 bases began to physically control and verify the restrictions imposed.

As evident, the stationing of TSTs at PAF’s F-16 airbases that commenced around 2012 is not new — and these TSTs were one way or the other unable to prevent the PAF from using the AIM-120 AMRAAM against India during the February 27 dogfight. Hence, it is not clear what the additional 60 contractor representatives are for? Enforcing restrictions or for providing technical and logistic support services for the F-16s as stated?

Overall, this episode is thus reminiscent of the nature of the US-Pakistan relationship.

Over the past 70 years, US policy toward Pakistan has swung between two extremes — entrancement and reprimand, with the US turning aid to Pakistan on and off to correspond with its strategic objectives in the region.

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Writer

Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) @ksingh_pds

Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retd) is a former principal director (defence) in the National Security Council Secretariat.

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