Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has joined the chorus of protest at Washington's announcement that it will sell Pakistan eight F-16 fighters for $699 million, in the fighter's most potent configuration called Block 50/52.
On Thursday, speaking to interviewer Karan Thapar on India Today TV, Parrikar termed the sale a "down" in the US-India relationship, stating: "I'm quite hurt by that and we have expressed our feelings very clearly to America."
This came a day after Phil Shaw, the India head of Lockheed Martin, the company that builds the F-16, offered at the Singapore Air Show to "build the F-16 aircraft in India and to move our production line from the US to India with an Indian partner to help with the 'Make in India' process."
Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources say the US proposal to establish an F-16 production line in India has been dead for some time now. The Pakistan sale only hammers a final nail into that proposal's coffin.
The origin of the latest sale goes back to 2006, when Washington signed a $1.4 billion deal to supply 18 Block 50/52 F-16C/D fighters to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), an order that was delivered in 2010-11. That contract included an option for 18 more aircraft. The eight new F-16s, about which the US Congress was notified last Friday, are being supplied under that options clause.
The US Department of Defense (Pentagon) is reportedly paying almost half the cost as military aid. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that, between 2002-2014, the US sold Pakistan military kit worth $5.4 billion under the Foreign Military Sales programme. About half consisted of F-16s and related equipment.
The CRS reports that, since 2001, the US Congress has allocated $3.6 billion in Foreign Military Financing (an aid category) for Pakistan. More than two-third of this has been disbursed already.
New Delhi is not hiding its anger at this US largesse. On Saturday, the day after the Congressional notification, India's foreign ministry summoned US envoy, Richard Verma, to protest the sale.
The Pentagon has downplayed Indian concerns, indicating the F-16s were being supplied for counter-terrorist operations in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas (FATA). On Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Petro Cook stated: "We think these are important capabilities for Pakistan to go after terrorists… We don't think it should be a cause for concern for India."
Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak of the Centre for Air Power Studies, points out that such advanced fighters are not needed for striking terrorist targets. "When I last looked, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan didn't have an air force! The war on terror does not require air-to-air missiles, airborne radar, and digital avionics," says Kak.
Aviation expert, Pushpindar Singh, points out that the US is supplying the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano to the Afghanistan air force. "In those narrow valleys, ground strikes against terrorist are best delivered by the propeller-driven A-29 Super Tucano, which has armour protection and can even deliver laser guided bombs. The Block 50/52 F-16C/D is primarily for use against a modern air force like India's," he says.
India is not alone in protesting the latest F-16 sale. Influential Republican senator, Bob Corker, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has indicated he will, in the least, oppose the US subsidy on the sale.
US assistance has raised Pakistan's F-16 numbers from two squadrons (40 aircraft) of earlier-generation F-16A/B fighters to four state-of-the-art squadrons that are a match for anything the Indian Air Force (IAF) can throw at them.
The most potent are the 18 Block 50/52 F-16C/Ds that Pakistan obtained in 2010-11, which are based in in PAF Base Shahbaz, outside Jacobabad, forming the PAF's No. 5 Squadron. Along with these, the US supplied the AMRAAM (advanced medium range air-to-air missile), which can target enemy fighters "beyond visual range" (BVR). This was the first time the PAF obtained BVR missiles, obliging the IAF to transform their air-to-air combat tactics.
That contract also provided the PAF with JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions), which convert regular gravity bombs into "smart munitions". A JDAM kit bolted onto a dumb bomb, guides it with pin-point precision to a target 28 kilometres away, using "inertial guidance" and a Global Positioning System receiver. With air-to-air refuelling, these F-16s can strike Indian targets near Mumbai and further south.
The eight new F-16s would come with all this weaponry, as would the 10 additional fighters on which Pakistan could exercise "options" to make up a full new squadron. Like No.5 Squadron, the new squadron too will most likely be based at Jacobabad, since the US has imposed stringent conditions on where Pakistan can base F-16s.
Wikileaks made public a cable (No. 113106/1201 dated June 22nd, 2007) that the US Embassy in Islamabad sent to Washington, revealing US conditions for basing and operating the new F-16s. It says: "The F-16… must be housed on separate, pre-designated Pakistan Air Force bases to ensure no unauthorised access. Furthermore, Pakistan may not have non-U.S./non-Pakistan origin aircraft or personnel at any of the bases with these F-16 aircraft and related equipment."
Further, to keep Chinese technicians and pilots away from the F-16s, "No foreign units or personnel may be permanently or temporarily assigned at the bases where F-16 aircraft are assigned, parked, maintained or stored, or while deployed."
Besides Jacobabad, Pakistan bases three squadrons of its older F-16A/B fighters - Nos 9, 11 and 19 Squadrons - at Sargodha, in PAF Base Mushaf. The first two operate 34 Block 15 F-16A/B fighters, which are what remains of the first 40 F-16s that Pakistan acquired in the 1980s. As part of the 2006 contract, the US provided mid-life upgrade (MLU) kits for these fighters, greatly improving their capability, though not to the level of the Block 50/52 F-16s.
No 19 Squadron has been equipped from 26 older (but upgraded) Block 15 F-16s that the US supplied at throwaway rates, in the category of "Excess Defence Articles" that the US military no longer required.
Pakistan also bought 12-13 Block 15 F-16s from Jordan. Now upgraded, these are used for training PAF pilots in establishments like the Combat Commander's School.
Pushpindar Singh says Pakistan is also looking for old-model F-16s from European air forces - such as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece and Italy - which are being replaced by new fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-35 Lightning II. "These can be upgraded cheaply with US-supplied kits, to replace the PAF's obsolescent Mirage III, Mirage V and F-7 fighters that are nearing retirement," says Singh.
Wikileaks revealed a cable sent by an exasperated US embassy official in Islamabad that noted: "The Pakistan Air Force is obsessed with F-16s… The request for used F-16s represents the GOP's (government of Pakistan's) desire to acquire aircraft at an extreme discount."