India’s Objection as well as Obsession with Pakistan’s F-16

In September, the US State Department released a statement that it was offering Pakistan a $450 million contract for the sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet. At the time when Congress approved this deal, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was in the US, and he gave a robust response to the news of the sustainment deal approval. Mr Jaishankar went as far as saying to the US, “You’re not fooling anybody” with respect to the package for Pakistan, as the US stated that the deal would help fight terrorism. Similarly, the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also made his concerns regarding the sustainment deal to the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, which prompted a reply that the sustainment package was not a message to India.

On the one hand, India underplays the capabilities of Pakistan’s Air Force, claiming that they can counter anything that Pakistan throws at them as they have similar or better aircraft power in much larger numbers. While on the other hand, they state that this sustainment deal, like others before it and the deal which resulted in the F-16 sales, will threaten the balance of power in South Asia. Hence, rather than countering terrorism, Pakistan will end up using these planes against India. India has long maintained that since the Pakistan Air Force first inducted F-16s in the 1980s, they were meant to counter the growing threat from Soviet and Afghan incursions into Pakistan’s airspace, and since the purchase of the newer Block 52+ F-16s and the Mid-Life Upgrades for the older jets was meant to combat terrorism in the north of the country, these planes cannot be used against India. They even claimed that after the use of the F-16s in February 2019, Pakistan had gone against an end-user agreement with the US that it would not use its F-16 fleet against India. But this Indian claim was refuted by Foreign Policy in an article published in April 2019, which stated that there was no such agreement limiting the use of Pakistan’s F-16s and that India had not shot down any of the jets either as they had claimed. Rather than the loss of an F-16 to Pakistan, the only confirmed losses that day were a Mig-21 jet and a Mi-17 helicopter of the Indian Air Force, the latter of which was shot down by friendly fire, and a Su-30MKI which Pakistan claims to have also shot down.

On the one hand, India underplays the capabilities of Pakistan’s Air Force, claiming that they can counter anything that Pakistan throws at them as they have similar or better aircraft power in much larger numbers. While on the other hand, they state that this sustainment deal, like others before it and the deal which resulted in the F-16 sales, will threaten the balance of power in South Asia.

The F-16 is not the only fighter jet that the Indians downplay. The Sino-Pakistan JF-17 is also stated to be an inadequate plane or a “failure by the Indians frequently for many reasons, i.e., sighting a lack of export sales, a lack of air-to-air refuelling (which is a capability that the plane has and uses), lack of integration of certain types of weapons which are actually operational on the plane currently or will be integrated on newer versions of the plane, and their favourite thing of all that China downgrades all defence products before export. This, as stated before, fits the larger pattern of Indian downplaying Pakistan’s capabilities. They were forced to face the truth during the February 2019 engagement, when Pakistan’s F-16s engaged the premier Indian fighter, the Su-30MKI, at ranges where they could not lock and thus engage them back. At the same time, other Indian sources claimed that two Su-30s were able to deter no less than eight f-16s, not dodging one or two but four AIM-120c5 AMRAAMs fired by the F-16s. 

Coming back to the case of India showing displeasure of US support for Pakistan’s F-16s, this was not the first time; over the years, they have also objected to the sale of both new and surplus F-16s to Pakistan. In 2016, the then Minister of Defence of India, Manohar Parrikar, objected to the proposed sale of eight new F-16 Block 52s to Pakistan for $699M. The minister went as far as saying that if the deal were to go through, it would be a new ‘down’ in US-India relations. The deal did eventually fall through, but this was not due to Indian pressure but rather to the US government not offering any Foreign Military Fund (FMF) assistance to help Pakistan in financing the jets. Back then, the Indian Foreign Ministry had also summoned the then-US Ambassador to India and protested the proposed sale, especially the idea of the US subsidising the deal with US tax dollars. The Indians also undertook to lobby in Washington. Senator Rand Paul, at that time, introduced a resolution to stop the sale. His motion didn’t succeed, but it did lead to the dropping of the then-offered FMF. Then in 2019, when the Trump administration approved a $125 million sustainment deal for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, Indian media played it as paying the salaries of US contractors who monitor Pakistan’s F-16s constantly, calling it end-user monitoring

The F-16s have not been the only platform operated by the Pakistan Air Force that the Indians have, over time, downplayed. They first state that they lack capabilities compared to the Indian Air Force systems but then later protest the sale and the use of the same aircraft by Pakistan. Another example is the Saab 2000 Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS). When Pakistan first bought the system in the mid-2000s, the Indian media downplayed its induction into the Pakistan Air Force. However, after the skirmish in February 2019, India undertook a diplomatic protest against the Swedish government concerning the sale of the aircraft to Pakistan. 

Thus, one can see an emerging pattern, where at first, India downplays the abilities of weapon systems being bought, inducted or used by the Pakistan Air Force. Then later, if there is any indication that they could be used against them, the Indian government objects to their use and sale of spare parts or sustainment deals between Pakistan and the country providing the weapon system.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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