As the F-16 fighter roars into the skies of Bengaluru at the Aero India 09 show, all attention is on the wonderful aerobatics display it puts up, not on the tiny flag of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on its tail. But the fact is, two of the four F-16s brought here by Lockheed Martin belong to the UAE Air Force.
Two intriguing questions immediately arise: Firstly, were these aircraft flown, perhaps just days ago, by combat pilots from the Pakistani Air Force (PAF), which has long sent its officers on deputation to fly UAE fighters? Would these very aircraft, now here on a sales pitch by Lockheed Martin, have been bombing India in the event of a war with Pakistan?
Senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officers have confirmed to Business Standard that, in any war with India, Pakistan could field up to two squadrons of F-16 aircraft borrowed from Arab nations, where its pilots are posted on deputation.
Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who won a Vir Chakra in combat in 1971 and went on to head the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, points out, “This has happened regularly. In 1965, the Jordanian Air Force supplied F-104 Starfighters to Pakistan, one of which was even shot down by the IAF. In 1971, Turkey and Iran had supplied F-86 Sabres to the PAF. I wouldn’t rule out a repeat of this kind of help.”
Air Marshal Vinod Patney, the top air force field commander during the Kargil conflict, also believes the UAE Air Force F-16s could be used against India.
He reasons, “There are Pakistani pilots there in the UAE: fact. They are flying their F-16s: fact. There is a close military relationship between those countries: fact. I would not rule out Islamic solidarity coming into play in the event of a war with India.”
Clearly visible on the UAE Air Force F-16s on display in Bangalore is an extra fuel tank, just above the wing, specially built for the batch of F-16s ordered by the UAE. The IAF believes UAE asked Lockheed Martin for the extra range to allow the Pakistani pilots in the UAE to reach Indian targets, deliver their weapons, and then fly to a Pakistani base from where they could operate for the rest of the war.
Air Chief Marshal SC Tyagi, the IAF chief until 2007, recounts, “In the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Pakistani pilots even flew Jordanian and Iraqi fighter aircraft in combat missions against the Israeli Air Force. One Bengali pilot from East Pakistan shot down two Israeli Mystere jets during that war. There was an agreement to help each other. But the world has moved on; it’s an open question whether such an agreement exists today.”
Lockheed Martin told Business Standard that they had no idea whether Pakistani pilots had recently flown the F-16s, now in Bangalore. Douglas Hartwick, CEO of Lockheed Martin India Pvt Ltd explained, “We just leased these planes from the UAE Air Force.”
India’s strategic community is concerned about F-16 aircraft being evaluated by India despite their being in service in Pakistan. Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, the air force chief, told a press conference at the Aero India that he was not concerned, as the IAF would equip the fighters that they bought (even if they were F-16s) very differently from the PAF, and use “home-grown” tactics while flying them. But when pressed on the issue he admitted, “I am not happy that someone else has something that I have. But that’s the way the world works.”