India’s storm in a teacup over Pakistan’s F-16s
Sultan M Hali
Indian coercive diplomacy to stop the sale of F-16s to Pakistan is akin to a storm in a teacup. India is disappointed that the United States has approved the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan and summoned the US Ambassador to New Delhi, Richard Verma, to ‘convey its displeasure’ regarding the Obama administration’s decision to notify the sale of the aircraft to Pakistan. Indian External Affairs Ministry disagrees with the US rationale that such arms transfers help combat terrorism. Indian aversion to the US providing eight F-16s comes in the backdrop of India having browbeaten Sri Lanka to backtrack from acquiring JF-17 Thunder fighter aircrafts from Pakistan. According to The Indian Express, the procurement process was in the advanced stages, after the Sri Lankan Air Chief had visited Pakistan and later sent an evaluation team to study the aircraft and a green signal had been given to go ahead.
The Indian Express discloses that the Indian government delivered a non-paper — diplomatic parlance for a white sheet of paper without a letterhead or signature — to Colombo at the highest levels about three weeks ago after reports that Pakistan was seriously engaging the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) on the Chinese fighter aircraft to replace the SLAF’s ageing fleet of Israeli Kfirs and MiG-27s.
New Delhi has opposed SLAF plans to buy the JF-17s on the ground that Sri Lanka does not need fighter aircrafts. Sri Lankan sources said India also put forth a technical argument that the Russian engines of the JF-17 were not the best, that even China does not use these aircrafts. Earlier, some Sri Lankan reports had said India had offered its own Tejas to the SLAF instead. India is also concerned that the deal, if it goes through, will enable Pakistan, and perhaps China, to set up a facility in Sri Lanka for maintenance and training, and increase and widen contacts between Pakistan and Chinese security forces and Sri Lanka.
It may be relevant to mention that in 2014 the then Sri Lankan government had cleared a proposal for China to set up a maintenance-cum-servicing facility for its aircrafts that are part of the Sri Lankan fleet in Trincomalee. The SLAF fleet also comprises the Chengdu F-7 fighter aircraft, and the Y-12 and MA60 transporters. India had raised concerns then about the plan and the Sri Lankan government had said it would be manned only by SLAF personnel. With the change in government, that plan was shelved.
Pakistan Air Force requires the additional all weather capable F-16s equipped with precision guided munitions to beef up its effort to combat terrorism but India is bent upon denying this capacity to Pakistan with the plea that the eight aircraft will upset the balance of power in the sub-continent. Interestingly, India itself has opted to acquire 126 French Dassault Rafale fighter aircrafts, is eying Russian MiG-35 fighters and concluded a number of recent defence deals. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Report 2015, India was the highest recipient of arms. India claims that its fighter strength is at an all time low. As against the sanctioned strength of 45 squadrons it only had 34 squadrons. A recent parliamentary panel finding has put the squadron strength at 25 squadrons. This is alarming news for any defence personnel. Of the 25 squadrons, about 14 comprise MiG 21s and MiG 27s which are slated for decommissioning in 2020-25. By 2025, if India does not have sufficient Rafale aircrafts, its squadron strength would be at a dangerous 11. The delay in the Induction of Tejas which is already obsolete before it became operational and the stalling of the Indo-Russian FGFA means India has to make do only with 190 Sukhoi 30MKIs that it currently has. The MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s are slowly being upgraded. Hence, their operational availability will not be reliable. As an interim measure, IAF plans to order more Su-30MKI apart from the originally sanctioned 272. This may not be as effective as hoped. It makes the composition of the fighter fleet predominantly Su-30 which compromises the element of surprise in case of hostilities. Also, the technologies transfer with the Rafale aircraft are needed by India for its own indigenous fighter programmes such as LCA MkII and AMCA.
While unearthing its own ambitious plans, India grudges Pakistan acquiring the eight F-16s, which it knows will only enhance its war on terror capability and make no dent in the balance of forces ratio, which is already heavily tilted in India’s favour.
On the one hand, India is waving the olive branch by inviting Pakistan to a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue for peace; on the other, it is sabotaging every defence deal of Pakistan, however infinitesimal it may be. Our foreign office mandarins or the current political dispensation occupying the corridors of power in Islamabad, who got swayed by Modi’s Raiwind yatra on Mian Nawaz Sharif’s birthday bash, should think deep and hard regarding the real agenda of the Modi government. Irrespective of what political dispensation occupies the mantle of power in New Delhi, the mantra is the same; Pakistan bashing is its foremost priority.
Although US Congress is now going through a 30-day notification period after which it will be finalised. The F-16 aircrafts along with training, radar and other equipment would allow Pakistan’s Air Force to operate in all kinds of weather, as well as “enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations,” the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which coordinates such foreign arms sales, said in a statement. Each country plans its force goals in accordance with its threat perception. Currently, PAF, which is engaged in targeting the miscreants with precision guided munitions is likely to retire about 200 of its aging F-7 and Mirage Fighter aircrafts and needs at least 24 F-16s to meet the threat at hand. The addition of the 8 F-16s from USA under Foreign Military Financing will offset the balance to some extent.