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Deal allows Pakistan to use F-16s as ‘deterrence against India’

Updated March 08, 2019

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A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies a mission in the skies near Iraq. ─ Wikimedia Commons
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies a mission in the skies near Iraq. ─ Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON: The United States, while providing F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad, not only acknowledged the aircraft’s “deterrence value” to Pakistan in a future conflict with India but also noted that it could prevent a nuclear clash between the two neighbours.

Both points are specifically mentioned in a message the then US ambassador in Islamabad Anne Patterson sent to the State Department on April 24, 2008.

Also read: Foreign journalists find holes in Indian narrative on F-16 usage, Balakot strike

“An enhanced F-16 programme also has deterrence value by giving Pakistan time and space to employ a conventional, rather than nuclear, reaction in the event of a future conflict with India,” she wrote.

The quote is from a 20-paragraph communique that Ambassador Patterson sent to Washington in April 2008 and was disclosed by WikiLeaks.

The package she was referring to included 500 AIM-120-C5 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs), which India claims Pakistan used against the Indian Air Force in last week’s combats over Kashmir.

On March 18, 2009, Ambassador Patterson sent another long message to Washington, which deals with Pakistan’s requests for more F-16s and India’s objections to the proposed sale.

“If our goal is to press the Army to change strategy and redeploy forces from the Indian border, punishing the Air Force by cancelling this sale will not help us,” wrote the ambassador while responding to India’s request to cancel the sale.

“It will emphasise that we favour maintaining Indian superiority at Pakistan’s expense and feed anti-Americanism throughout the military.”

In the same message she also explained why she believed the F-16s could avert a nuclear conflict in South Asia.

“To overcome overwhelming Indian military superiority, Pakistan developed both its nuclear/missile programme and its air power. F-16 aircraft, armed with AMRAAMS, essentially buy time to delay Pakistan considering the nuclear option in a conflict with India.” she wrote.

“Given India’s overwhelming military superiority, this would only be a few days, but these days would allow critical time to mediate and prevent nuclear conflict.”

Ambassador Patterson reminded policy makers in Washington that in 2008 India already enjoyed “an almost 2-1 advantage” over Pakistan in advanced multi-purpose fighters, when New Delhi had 736 aircraft while Pakistan had 370 only.

“Pakistan’s shortfalls in training and tactics multiply India’s edge,” she added.

Ambassador Patterson noted that Pakistan was also buying/jointly producing 150 JF-17 fighters from China, but it is unclear how they will pay for them.

“India plans to acquire 126 multi-purpose fighters (F-18 or equivalent) that will give (New Delhi) significant new technologies and further expand its air superiority over Pakistan,” she wrote.

Ambassador Patterson explained the new aircraft and 500 AMRAAM missiles would give Pakistan beyond visual range capability, but Pakistan will acquire the ability to employ this capability with either the new buy or MLU aircraft.

She argued that cancelling the proposed buy would only delay the process by 18 months while successful employment of this capability by the PAF would take 2-3 years and a significant revision of doctrine and tactics.

“The Indian Air Force already routinely trains on existing beyond visual range tactics. (If) we do deny Pakistan requests for arms sales that could upset the regional balance of power.”

In a scene-setter for the former army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s Feb 19, 2009, visit to Washington, the US Embassy in Islamabad informed Washington that he would raise the issue in his meetings with US officials.

“We are responding to Pakistan Air Force requests for Close Air Support training to improve the precision of F-16s they are using in Fata,” the embassy wrote.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019