Islamabad’s long-stymied and contentious quest of more than 30 years for the American F-16 Fighting Falcon, offers interesting insights into more profound Pak-American relations. More importantly, Pakistan’s continual pursuit of F-16s reveals American fears concerning Pakistan’s nuclear projects, since the F-16 is a potent nuclear-warhead delivery vehicle with a range of 1600 km and a payload of around 4500 kg. From the American point of view, imagine the embarrassment and repercussions from a Pakistan nuclear strike through an American-manufactured delivery vehicle. Therefore, both sides have forwarded redacted versions of these sordid proceedings for a variety of different agendas.
Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Falcon is a single engine multi-role aircraft. Boasting relatively low costs and high versatility, the F-16 is one of the most exported fighter aircraft around the globe. Critical is the fact that as with the F-18 Super Hornet, an upgrade or modification can significantly vary the F-16’s capabilities as an around-the-clock ‘workhorse’. The most modern F-16 flown by the US is the Block 50/52. A successful sale of 28 F-16A (single-seat) and 12 F-16B (two-seat) trainers to Pakistan between 1983 and 1987 promised a glowing Pak-US relationship. On the contrary, however, the F-16 was to be the bone of contention between the two allies. The introduction of Section 620E (e) to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1985, also known as the Pressler amendment (after former US Senator Larry Pressler, R-S.D.), further invigorated by H.R. 1553 and S. 12 (Sec. 232) in the 109th Congress, required the US President to certify to Congress that Pakistan did not possess a “nuclear explosive device” during each fiscal year or proscribe military assistance to Pakistan. This time period was a precarious one, with the withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s nuclear developments came under intense American scrutiny, resulting in a break-down of the Pak-American defense relationship in 1990 as President George H. W. Bush suspended U.S. military assistance to Pakistan. Most importantly for Pakistan, these upheavals blocked the delivery of 28 F-16 fighter aircraft that Pakistan had already purchased in 1989. This was to begin a period of more than a decade where Pakistan was isolated from purchasing advanced American military equipment and technology. However, the same F-16 issue thawed out American defense relations with its “major non-NATO ally” in June 2006 as President George W. Bush signed a monumental contract for the sale of 36 new American F- 16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft and associated equipment to Pakistan. Earlier in 2003, when President Bush had awarded Pakistan a $3 billion aid and military package but without the aircraft, the headlines underlined this fact rather than the $3 billion. An Arms Control Association article had screamed, “Bush Okays $3 Billion Aid Package to Pakistan, but No F-16s”. Furthermore, despite acquiring the American Orion surveillance aircraft and Phalanx rapid-fire guns in a 2005 deal, Pakistan continued to lament the absence of F-16s. Interestingly, the 2016 F-16 story concerning the US and Pakistan has major reflections of the 2005/06 episode, especially with respect to India. Just days before the US State Department’s proclamation to resume F-16 sales to Pakistan in 2006, twenty Members of the House urged President Bush in writing to not license the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. Capitol Hill continues to fear that such a sale would “undermine our long-term strategic interests in South Asia” and “squander an opportunity” to continue building positive relations with India1. Indian response was a replica to their 2006 response as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too expressed “great disappointment” at the U.S. decision, labeling the move to “have negative consequences for India’s security environment”. Later, the Indian External Affairs Ministry expanded upon this “disappointment”, stating the F-16 sale “is not conducive to improving ties between India and Pakistan”2.
Besides the global war on terror (GWOT), the current U.S. engagement with Pakistan also addresses several other issues of concern to the US, particularly nuclear proliferation and Indo-Pakistan ties. US Congressional Service Reports (CSR) on ‘Nuclear Pakistan’ have repeatedly underscored or at the least, mentioned the role and capacity of F-16s with regard to nuclear weapons. After the F-16 deal in 2005, former Senator Pressler displayed this fear when he accused President Bush of “selling out his own rhetoric on democracy and playing a risky game that could renew conflict in the region and even push India closer to China”. Senator Pressler vehemently opposed the F-16 transaction: “It has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. It gives Pakistan a delivery vehicle for its nuclear weapons.”
American defense analysts have rehearsed variants of the F-16 story while the majority believes that F-16 sales are an effort to reward and encourage Pakistan for its support of American anti-terrorism strategies, others consider the same F-16 sales as disruptive of regional stability in South Asia. Since combat aircraft such as the F-16 are considered “essential for conducting surprise attacks or initiating large-scale offensive operations”, the transfer of F-16s can be a significant policy decision, especially to a region with known territorial tensions. A June 2005 US House hearing on U.S. South Asia policy echoed similar sentiments as one lawmaker stated: “F-16s is how you fight India. It’s not how you fight terrorists. This is outrageous.” While such statements do little to allay diplomatic tensions in South Asia and F-16s are likely to be the most lethal artillery in Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations, they may also be considered as “over-designed” for such fights. The F-16 Block 50/52 variant is the most advanced F-16 flown by the US, with state-of-the-art weapons and the most progressive avionics for mainly air-to-air combat that appear superfluous for anti-terrorism operations. Perhaps less expensive and reasonably similar aircraft, particularly the JF-17, or even
non-supersonic aircraft (such as military helicopters) appear to have greater utility in conducting counter-insurgency operations4.
Such fears further accentuate the fact that the US tends to consider global dynamics in its defense ties with Pakistan while the latter has traditionally responded to regional impulses and considers its US defense relationship to be bilateral. However, the US needs to eliminate the notion of Pak-US ties being a hyphenated relationship and that anything good that happens for Pakistan is bad for India. As Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution summed it up, ‘Pakistan is a top priority for Washington. It’s got nuclear weapons, it’s in a critical part of the world, and we can’t afford to let it go down the drain.”
Cohen’s reservations seem well grounded with Pakistan’s deep and robust defense relations with China, particularly with regard to the J-10 and JF-17 fighter aircrafts.
Moreover, Sweden remains a slim but possible aircraft market for Pakistan with the JAS Gripen multi-role fighter an interesting prospect for the latter.
Therefore, US sanctions toward Pakistan are not a viable policy option, especially concerning military aircraft and defense equipment. Gone are the times when the US was the only superpower ally of Pakistan. With the increasing development of the JF-17 and the ever-strengthening Sino-Pak defense collaboration, besides promising Russian advances towards the Pakistani defense market (such as with the MI-35 attack helicopter and possible SU-35 fighter jet), American isolation of its South Asian ally isn’t the key to inducing it to act as a ‘responsible nuclear power’. Much of the rather precarious US-Pakistan relationship, particularly during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the GWOT era post 9/11, has been defined by the US competing with Pakistan to underscore who needs the other more. According to the US, an interesting case arose around 2011 when the Pakistani government was hesitant to allow U.S. officials including military 
officers into the country but accepted visitors dealing with F-16 supply or maintenance.
Proponents of the F-16 sale to Pakistan raise an intriguing case when opponents link F- 16s to Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. Despite much thought-provoking arguments, American thinking continues to be guided by the ‘potential’ impact of F-16s on nuclear stability in South Asia, for there has not been an actual demonstrated stride in Pakistan’s nuclear program directly due to the possession of F-16s. Furthermore, the Pakistani F- 16s are already understood to be nuclear capable, therefore an additional F-16 squadron isn’t likely to introduce new capabilities but merely expand existing ones.
Like-minded factions further pinpoint to Pakistan’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Some defense experts fault these nuclear missiles to be adding instability to the security equation, for they are high priority targets. Fear of being eliminated in the primary stage of an enemy attack means the opportunity to deploy such missiles early in a conflict can be particularly attractive. Therefore, according to some nuclear analysts, nuclear-capable F-16s replacing ballistic missiles could actually mitigate and reduce nuclear instability in South Asia5.
The question remains whether the F-16 is the most significant air platform in Pakistan’s air force. Undoubtedly, it remains one of the most, if not the most, potent delivery vehicle of a nuclear weapon for Pakistan. With the ever-growing American concerns regarding Pakistan’s nuclear program, the F-16 issue is bound to bedevil the already strained US defense relations with Pakistan, often cited by Pakistan as reflective of Washington’s perfidy against a trustworthy ally. Better Pak-American ties demand Pakistan to mitigate American nuclear fears while Washington needs to understand “the Pakistan that is, rather than working towards the Pakistan it might want to be.”
Finally, in the politically precarious contemporary South Asia, it is hard to imagine the US merely engaging with the upstairs wife only. Should the Pakistan F-16 deal go through, there is a strong possibility that the US will offer India not only F-16s or the F- 18s, but will want to placate the downstairs wife with aircraft co-production or co-assembly options as well. Besides appeasing India, such a move promises a much larger prize, with the consequent opening of the Indian defense market to US exports. With a much larger inventory of combat aircraft, India has embarked on a long-term haul to upgrade its air force. Therefore, India offers aircraft transactions that could prove to be a tip of the iceberg for other significant US military exports to India. With a recent Lockheed Martin statement hinting at such a contingency and given India’s aggressive ambitions to create a major aerospace production capability and its aerospace acquisitions from Russia, France and Israel, such a prospect may no longer be a myth6.
- Anwar, M. F. (2013). Sanctions as a Tool in US Foreign Policy: A Case Study of
Pakistan (1990-2001). Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies, 5(2), 22-45.
- Baker, P. & Kessler, G. (2005). Bush: U.S. to Sell F-16s to Pakistan – Reversal, Decried by India, Is Coupled With Fighter-Jet Promise to New Delhi, Washington Post, Page A01.
- Boese, W. (2006). US, Pakistan Seal Combat Aircraft Deal. Arms Control Today, 36(9), 33-33.
- Bolkcom, C., Grimmett, R. F., & Kronstadt, K. A. (2006). Combat Aircraft Sales to South Asia: Potential Implications. Library of Congress. Washington D.C. July Congressional Research Service
- Fair, C. C. (2011). The US-Pakistan F-16 Fiasco. Foreign Policy, 3.
- Hussain, T. (2005). US-Pakistan Engagement: The War on Terrorism and Beyond. United States Institute of Peace, Washington D.C.
- Gordon, R. (2003). Bush Okays $3 Billion Aid Package to Pakistan, but no F16s. Arms Control Today, 33(6).
- Grimmett, R. F. (2008). US Arms Sales to Pakistan, Library of Congress. Washington D.C. January Congressional Research Service
- Schaffer, T. C. & Schaffer, H. (2012). Resetting the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship. Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute.
- Schóber, T., Necas, P., & Pulis, P. (2013). New light fighters from Asia on the global markets, INCAS Bulletin, 5(1), 151.
- Sevastopulo, D. Marcelo, R. & Bokhari, F. (2005). India bridles at sale of US F16 jets to Pakistan. The Financial Times Limited. London, UK.
- Treaty, S.O.R., & Treaty, S.A.R. (2007). Nuclear Notebook. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
2 Diptosh Majumdar, “PM is Cautious But Positive on US Offer,” Indian Express (Bombay), Mar. 30, 2005, Indian Ministry of External Affairs Press Briefing, July 3, 2006.
 “In House International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Holds Hearing on United States and South Asia.” (June 14, 2005). Please see also Selig Harrison, “US Should Scrap Plane Deal with Pakistan,”
2 Boston Globe (Nov. 27, 2005); C. Raja Mohan, “Quake Diplomacy and F-16s,” Indian Express (Delhi), (Oct. 18, 2005); Ashley Tellis, “Arming Pakistan,” Force (Delhi), (June 2005).
 4 For more reference, please see CRS Report RL32737, Military Aviation: Issues and Options for Combating Terrorism and Counter Insurgency.
5 That being said, Pakistan has hardly disappeared from the American strategic radar screen, although its relationship status continues to fluctuate between staunch allies during single-issue engagements of uncertain duration, a troublesome friend with qualified American support, or even a threat. The situation peaks when Pakistan becomes all three in the eyes of the US.
5 For more reference, please see CRS Report RL32115, Missile Proliferation and the Strategic Balance in South Asia.
 6 “US Clears Sales of F-16s to Pakistan, Fighters for India,” op. cit.; Foreign Military Markets: Asia, Australia & Pacific Rim, Forecast International, Alon Ben-David.
7 “Equipment Deals Strengthen Israel, India Ties” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jan. 14, 2005, and Rahul Bedi, “India Approves AEWS Development.” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 22, 2004.
is Senior Non-Resident Fellow of CSCR. A Graduate from Grinnell College and Pursuing his masters from Brown University through Harvard Brown Program in Public Affairs. His area of expertise is Nuclear non-Proliferation, International Security and Civil-Military Diplomacy.