If US President Donald Trump offering to mediate on the Kashmir issue wasn’t enough, he went ahead and exonerated ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan – implying that under Khan, Pakistani perfidy has stopped. To cap it all, the State Department announced a resumption of military supplies – specifically F-16 spares – to Pakistan. In many ways, the F-16 is a microcosm of India-US ties: oversell, unable to understand the other, stringing your lover along in spite of not understanding what he/she is saying, and a final rejection leading to bitterness.
Let us be clear, however, that the F-16 never stood a chance. Lockheed Martin (LM) screwed up on several issues: its primary weapon the AMRAAM; its sales pitch peddling a point the Indian Air Force (IAF) did not understand; a sales campaign that bordered on outright lies; and finally, Balakot, which proved to be the last nail in the coffin.
Avoiding F-16 in a dogfight
The moment India is offered the same equipment as Pakistan, you pretty much know it’s going to be rejected. Although, India had no hesitation buying the same manufacturer’s C-130 transport aircraft, which Pakistan also operates. However, the IAF, instead of looking at how its aircraft perform in combat situations, seems to be obsessed about fitting them with one particular missile: the European Meteor. The Meteor missile’s long range outclasses the F-16’s primary long-range air-to air weapon, the AMRAAM.
It is in fact a tribute to the F-16’s potency that the IAF wants to avoid engaging it in a dogfight and would prefer to take it out at longer ranges. In effect, it wasn’t the F-16 that irritated the IAF so much as it was the AMRAAM – after all, no matter how advanced an F-16 India was being offered, if the missiles were going to be the same as Pakistan’s (AMRAAM), the electronics differential of the launch platform wasn’t going to be much use to India.
F-16, upgraded to F-21
To counter this perception, LM had a clear case that the F-16 being sold to India (the Block 70 variant, since renamed F-21) was a whole different beast from the Block 50 that Pakistan has. Beyond the superficial exterior resemblance, there’s about 40 per cent difference in terms of equipment; and the electronics derive much from the F-35’s heavily network centric architecture. As such, the F-21s are a generation ahead from anything on Pakistan’s F-16 that could be better in terms of being able to see further, ‘talk to’ other networked assets, and jam enemy frequencies better. So, even if the F-21 and F-16 use the same missile, the F-21 can detect its enemy faster and shoot first and more accurately.
Sadly, given the hodgepodge of equipment the IAF operates, almost none of which talk to each other, the IAF simply doesn’t understand networked warfare, nor does it care. Stuck in the 1980s’ mindset, the IAF still believes in kinetics while the rest of the world has moved towards electronics. The simplest explanation for this is the scene from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, where an Arab swordsman comes around flaunting his sword skills and Indy simply shoots him with a revolver. Here, the IAF is the Arab swordsman, who thinks a better sword could have won him the battle, instead of transitioning to a revolver; Lockheed Martin is the revolver salesman, who futilely tries arguing with the swordsman to give up his sword for the revolver.
US firm’s disinformation campaign
If LM’s sales pitch left the IAF confused, then LM’s disinformation left the IAF entirely not-amused. This disinformation campaign started off with the promise of F-16 production being shifted to India. This developed into a set of transparent lies that F-16 production would involve deep technology transfer and make India independent. Obviously, it didn’t take long for the lies to get called out, which was followed by a public retraction from Lockheed. The amount of damage this did to LM’s campaign is almost incalculable.
But Balakot was the last straw. The IAF is convinced that it shot down an F-16 using an obsolete MiG-21. The severe factual inaccuracies of the “IAF didn’t shoot an F-16” lobby, combined with an embarrassing set of tweets by the Pakistani DG-ISPR unable to explain two missing pilots, means the IAF is now convinced that its reliance on dogfights is valid (that is, the Arab swordsman can still win against Indian Jones’ revolver) and that the F-16 is a flawed product.
In the end, the overall problems of the India-US relationship explained earlier are distilled into India’s F-16 saga: India’s understanding of war and technology being different to the US, both talking a different language; disinformation from the US’ side; India giving false hope where there was none to begin with. In such circumstances, the resumption of military sales to Pakistan was a foregone conclusion, and would have happened regardless of whether there was a Donald Trump involved without anyone getting surprised.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.