WHY DOES PAKISTAN NEED F-16s TO FIGHT TALIBAN?
Fighter jets and state-of-the-art missiles are some of the goodies that the US has lavished on Pakistan in the name of combating terrorism. No prizes for guessing who it might be used against
Rajat Pandit | TNN
Pranab Mukherjee is not given to sudden public outbursts on foreign policy matters. But just over five years ago, he angrily tore apart the American argument that the weapons it was supplying to Pakistan were meant to fight the al-Qaida and Taliban. “Nobody uses F-16 fighter planes and other weapons meant for big wars to fight terrorists,” Mukherjee, then defence minister, thundered. Uncharacteristic though the outburst was, it conveyed India’s grave concerns on the matter.
Little, however, has changed since then. Pakistan continues to get sophisticated weapon systems, missiles, sensors and related equipment from the US, the majority of which are clearly meant more for waging conventional wars rather than combating militants.
In the name of the ‘global war on terror’ since 9/11, Indian experts say, Washington has funnelled well over $10 billion in military aid and assistance to Islamabad to bolster Pakistan’s counterterrorism capabilities in the volatile border regions with Afghanistan.
But, as independent international assessments have shown, not even onethird of this whopping assistance has been spent on the intended purpose of fighting the Taliban, which a section of Pakistan’s ISI-military establishment still covertly supports.
A major chunk has been diverted to expand Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional military capabilities against India. “An F-16, for instance, can of course be used to let loose a missile on a cave or a militant stronghold but it’s mainly meant to wage war against a state, not stateless actors,’’ says a top Indian security establishment official.
The US may have so far refrained from handing over the Predator drones, controlled by satellites and armed with Hellfire missiles, which are being used by American forces in the ****** region with telling effect. But it has opened the floodgates for a lot of other military hardware and software. These range from refurbished P-3C maritime patrol aircraft and Cobra helicopter gunships to thousands of missiles like Harpoons, TOW-2As and AIM-9M Sidewinders.
The F-16 fighter programme, of course, is the showpiece of the American security assistance package to Pakistan. Under it, Pakistan is getting 18 spanking new advanced F-16 C/D Block 52 jets and mid-life upgrades for the 32 of the original 40 jets acquired by Pakistan Air Force in the mid-1980s, with advanced targeting, precision-guided munitions (PGMs), sensor and radar systems.
That’s not all. The USAF has also transferred 14 F-16s, under its ‘excess defence article’ policy, to Pakistan since 2005. The entire F-16 programme also includes a deadly munitions package with AMRAAM (advanced medium-range air-toair missiles), 2,000-pounder bombs and JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions), which are guidance kits to convert gravity bombs into all-weather ‘smart’ bombs. “AMRAAMs are beyond-visual range missiles to take out enemy fighters in air combat. Does al-Qaida have fighter jets? They are obviously directed against India,” said a senior IAF officer.
For that matter, al-Qaida or Taliban also do not have warships. But the Harpoons, which arm the P-3C aircraft, are potent all-weather, sea-skimming antiship missiles. Pakistan, in fact, has even modified the Harpoons, in contravention of US Arms Control Export Act, to expand its capability to strike land targets.
Says a senior defence official, “The US knows very well that F-16s, P-3Cs or the other deadly toys it’s giving to Pakistan are not counterterrorism weapons. But it chooses to look the other way, much like it did when A Q Khan was helping build Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and proliferating to other countries like North Korea.”
All this does evoke concern in India. Apart from the substantial upgrade of their combat and precision-targeting capabilities, Pakistani F-16s have been modified to deliver nuclear weapons. Pranab Mukherjee, in fact, told Parliament, “F-16s are nuclear capable...The range of F-16s would cover a number of civilian and military facilities in northern India.’’
Apart from the US help to enhance its conventional military capabilities, Pakistan has also used the last decade to work towards bolstering the number of its nuclear warheads as well as delivery systems. It has also stepped up efforts to supplement its ongoing enriched uranium-based nuke programme with a weapons-grade plutonium one.
Some US nuclear experts, in fact, estimate Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has now grown to around 70-90 warheads, with India slipping behind at 60-80. The fear is that if not the militants, hardliners within the Pakistan army may get access to enriched uranium, nuclear components or even actual warheads in the middle of the ongoing turmoil in the country.
Despite protestations to the contrary, the US is reportedly keeping a hawk-eye on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, with specially trained personnel on stand-by to swiftly intervene if a crisis erupts. At least that’s what the Indian defence officials hope. After all, a ‘dirty’ bomb in the wrong hands can lead to all hell breaking loose.
MADE IN US
Fighters with advanced allweather and precision-strike capabilities
Maritime patrol aircraft, with E-2C Hawkeye 2000 airborne earlywarning suites, for anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare
Anti-ship missiles, AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, TOW-2A anti-tank guided missiles
Refurbished attack gunships and Bell 407 helicopters
155mm self-propelled howitzers
Close-in weapon systems for warships