The Joe Biden administration’s announcement to offer defence equipment worth $450 million to Pakistan for its F-16 fighter jet fleet is a noticeable development. But it definitely doesn’t indicate that America’s South Asian policy is shifting gears or moving away from where it had started to pivot around 2012. The US’ Indo-Pacific strategy remains focussed on India. Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said that America isn’t giving any aid to Pakistan; rather, it’s just the sale of spare parts which won’t add anything to Pakistan’s capabilities.
Theoretically, this is the correct position because $450 million is not a huge amount. It is barely enough to buy the necessary nuts and bolts to keep the three aircraft squadrons in Pakistan Air Force (PAF) operational. It also doesn’t help Pakistan’s flood-battered economy to cough out $450 million. The main aim of PAF here seems to be to keep its F-16s functional.
The US administration’s approval for the sale of spares is meant for about 19 block-52 aircraft. Reportedly, the PAF has about a squadron strength of these aircraft. The PAF is also keen to replace its old French Mirage aircraft but F-16 is certainly not an option as Islamabad wouldn’t have the cash to pay for Western aircraft. The evolving geo-political circumstances also don’t seem to suggest that floodgates to American military and economic aid would open like in the past. Pakistan received the bulk of F-16s in its inventory during the 1980s to fight the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The F-16s became a symbol of strong Pakistan-US relations and gave wings to the country’s security, prompting the PAF to want to acquire about 120 aircraft. The plan was eventually shelved as Pakistan was hit by the US arms embargo after October 1990. The American war against the Taliban that followed resulted in adding some more F-16s to the PAF but the story essentially stops here.
The reality is that over the past decade, the PAF has shifted towards the Chinese JF-17 Thunder aircraft, which it had used during the post-Balakot operation in 2019. The JF-17 Thunder, jointly developed and produced by Islamabad and Beijing, is an aircraft that has evolved with major inputs from the PAF. Initially meant to add numbers to the air force, the aircraft was developed over the years to also fill the quality gap that Pakistan had been unable to do due to lack of access to fourth generation Western aircraft. It was early this year that plans were reportedly afoot regarding PAF procuring 50 JF-17 block III aircraft. The internet is already flooded with photographs of the latest JF-17s flying with the air force.
A soft touch to weakening ties
While it’s clear that the latest American offer isn’t a substantial boost in Pakistan’s capabilities, it is important to note that this is an indicator of Washington remaining connected with Pakistan, though, in a minor way. The two militaries have worked closely for decades. Even if Islamabad is no longer the frontline state for the US, American technology remains a binding force between the two. For instance, until recently, the PAF elite was dominated by the F-16 GD pilots who considered themselves superior, which is one of the reasons that the Indian claims regarding its MiG-21 downing an F-16 in 2019 was snubbed. Even the US did not confirm the Indian story. Both the US and Pakistan had shared interest then in not supporting the news that underrated American technology vis-a-vis an inferior fighter aircraft such as the Russian MiG-21. There is a lot of pride in both the USAF and PAF regarding the F-16s.
However, an effort to gradually build the reputation of the JF-17 Thunder aircraft is afoot. Even in 2019, then-military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor had claimed that the JF-17 Thunder and F-16 jets were used together to shoot down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 during the post-Balakot retaliatory strike. Military sources in Pakistan claim it is only with the current PAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmad Babur Sidhu, that the non-F-16 pilots have gained significance at the top. While this may be logical, it also means lesser American influence, which Washington may not necessarily want.
India’s concern is driven by its understanding that the sale offer in itself indicates a continued US-Pakistan engagement, which it certainly is. Those that look at the Pakistan-US relations in black and white miss the point that the US also benefits from not allowing Pakistan’s security and political elite, in whom it has invested for decades, to drift away. This is also without having to invest additional resources. There is very little benefit to the Western world to unnecessarily push Pakistan into the Chinese camp while it could be kept in the middle where it has opted to be. From its more extreme position in 2013, when China and the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were the only news in town, Islamabad and Rawalpindi have gradually moved back to a place where they want continued engagement with the West – something like ‘Mera joota hai Japani… phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’. Even though all the three services of Pakistan’s armed forces are largely composed of Chinese-manufactured equipment, the heart remains tilted towards the West.
Bajwa will be ‘man of the moment’
Contextually, any reference to the F-16 is an indicator that there is some juice still left in Pakistan’s relations with the US, which is not necessarily to India’s disadvantage. The ability to keep Pakistan in the middle is an advantage for the Indo-Pacific strategy – why add on the additional burden of letting a former ally slip into the Chinese camp? From investment or presence in Balochistan to the Arabian Sea, all areas that Beijing is interested in already have an American presence. Painting the relationship in black and white while suggesting that Pakistan will not be true to American interests is a boorish argument. This is not about love but geo-politics and countries watch out for their interests. In Pakistan’s case, unfortunately, the security establishment always compromised national interests rather than use a middle of the road approach, especially when greater gains could be made.
Surely, there are domestic political implications as well. Whatever Donald Lu might argue about the offer of sale not being significant or not adding to Pakistan’s capabilities (which is the truth), this will surely benefit Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s image as the man for the moment. Even if former PM Imran Khan is muddying the waters for the general, the echelons and the broader elite will look at him more appreciatively as having the capacity to keep the US engaged. That this may have an impact on the case for his extension is beyond doubt, especially when and if a case is to be made to extend his service. In case he chooses to doff the uniform in November, he will probably be remembered as a master manipulator. The Washington offer, though not significant, will be made to look important by the GHQ historians.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)