Our damaging obsession with F-16s
While there seem to be fewer reasons to honour our national holidays with each passing year, it’s always heartening to watch patriotic songs being played on every TV channel upon these days. The heart-warming lyrics and mesmerising tunes make us feel proud to be part of this great nation and remind us of the huge sacrifices made by our forefathers.
Yet, these songs also bring to the forefront a certain kind of sadness along with feelings of desperation and hopelessness, like a loved one has tragically passed away.
The videos of many of these patriotic melodies seem to be made with the same old stock footage. Children running around with a huge Pakistani flag, farmers working in the wheat fields, people dressed in colourful clothes performing folk dances and images of Jinnah and Iqbal zooming in and out of the television canvas.
With all these images in line, one scene remains omnipresent in almost all videos, and that is of a flying F-16 fighter jet.
F-16's have become a symbolic mark for our national pride and honour. The image of this magnificent plane piercing the skies with skill and speed makes many feel secured in knowing that a beast of such precision is guarding our borders and keeping us safe from our enemies. It would not be an exaggeration to say that F-16's have acquired a cult like status in our country.
I remember collecting pictures and posters of F-16s when I was young, as it was the fashion among kids at that time. Maybe the trend has changed but the first profession kids my age always wanted pursue when they grew up was to be a fighter pilot and to soar through the mighty skies over our traditional enemy.
Needless to say, these fighter jets have become an important part of our national psyche since the early 80s. Pakistan had first imported F-16s from the United States in order to protect its then secret nuclear facilities from possible Indian attacks. From that point onward, F-16s have been purchased by Pakistan in increasing quantities.
The last of the fleet of 18 jets was delivered to us in early 2012 at the cost of $1.4 billion, and Pakistan had to pay another $1.3 billion in upgrades to its existing F-16 fleet. This had cost tax payers roughly $150 million for each F-16 Pakistan has.
If Pakistan was a prospering country with its national coffers overflowing with money, these kinds of purchases could be deemed justifiable. However, with our country in deep financial depression and the interest on our national debt expected to clock in at Rs.154 trillion, the decision to extend such expenses is only digging a deeper financial grave for our nation.
This brings me back to my initial observation, that for how long are we going to keep F-16's as a regular participant in our national celebrations. Not that there is anything wrong with flaunting our expensive toys, only that our pride in owning them comes into question as we are unable to make or maintain them by ourselves.
In fact we import them from the US, a country which according to the report published last year by the Pew Research Centre, roughly three out of four Pakistanis (74%) consider as an enemy.
The question that comes to mind then is how productive are F-16s proving in this new war, which by all means has become a war of our survival. Other than occasional raids on militant hideouts in North and South Waziristan, which also run the risk of causing a large number of civilian causalities, the reality is that these fighter jets are made for conventional warfare. Yet, our appetite and obsession with acquiring them does not seem to be changing much.
Even worse, to tilt our public psyche towards warmongering at the time of national celebrations, by displaying images of F-16's mixed with patriotic messages, sends the wrong message to our people and misguides us about our immediate and long term priorities.
Unfortunately for decades we have been conditioned to confuse jingoism with patriotism. This glorification of our military might, and that too by products which are not of our own making and do little to protect us in our current scenarios, gives us a false sense of stability and security. It further deviates us from understanding our real enemy.
Hopefully, our civilian and military leaders, along with our hyper-nationalistic media, learn to understand these complexities and stop resorting to meaningless histrionics.