Note to US: Pakistan’s insatiable appetite for F-16s

Published: January 21, 2016

The Congress has recently blocked the White House-approved sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. The deal is viewed to have no relevance to Pakistan’s war against terror besides being used in offensives against India, Washington’s recent ally with a staunch lobby.

Last March, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs blocked sale of cutter vessels worth $150 million to the Pakistan Navy on the same pretext. Defense purchases from the US have rarely been upfront commercial transactions. The White House never shies away from taking political and diplomatic mileage, thereof.

High performance

Despite its plan to induct at least 150 indigenously produced JF-17 Thunder, F-16s currently remain the heart and soul of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) fighter squadrons. First acquired during the 1980s, Pakistan has 70 combat-ready fighting falcons.  In 2012, the United States delivered 14 used but upgraded F-16s to the PAF. Islamabad managed to acquire older version of 13 Jordanian F-16s in 2014, which will go through a mid-life upgrade programme.

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The formidable fighter jets set a production record of 4,550 units, sold to 26 air forces. Despite technological advances in fighter technology generation after generation, this system is the most affordable and reliable in its category. In a recent competition, F-16 outmaneuvered F35-lighten II, the most expensive fifth-generation fighter.

Along with the F-16, the PAF does eye SU-35, F-35 and F-22 Raptor besides some J series Chinese fifth-generation fighter jets. During the period of US sanctions, Pakistan eagerly pursued purchase of French Mirage 2000 and Swedish JAS 39 Gripen. The deal with the French could not go through mainly due to the high price tag while Sweden succumbed to US pressure.

The risks of continued and added reliance on F-16s are dreadful. Given the influential Indian lobby in the States, sanctions are likely to be slapped against Pakistan in case of war with its eastern neighbour. The other undermining factor will be increased presence of US officials at PAF airbases to prevent the latest version from being shared with China.

Regardless of hiccups such as the Pressler Amendment, which banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan, and Indian opposition to the sale, F-16s continue to be every Pakistani pilot’s favorite multi-role fighter. Until the Chinese fifth-generation fighter technology matures up and becomes ready to be shared with Pakistan, the Air Force will rely on an assortment of F-16s in good numbers against India’s Su-30, MiG-29, Mirage 2000-v and Rafale jets. The F-16 is a resilient fighter jet with an excellent safety record and since PAF servicemen have a long experience in handling the machine the crew won’t need training if the jets are added up again. Induction of a new platform, on the other end, will be costly and time consuming both.

Pakistan meets JF-17 production target

Give and take

Ironically, F-16s continue to be a determinant of relations between Pakistan and the United States. Although blocking the sale of F-16s to one of the earliest users sounds absurd in Pakistan, US Congressmen believe ties between Washington and Islamabad are not warm enough for such a sensitive transaction to continue.

For Obama administration, sale of a handful of fourth-generation fighters is a means to exercise leverage over Pakistan. Islamabad has already tied itself closely to China, and to an extent Russia. It’s anybody’s guess if the Obama administration will be able to overcome the obstacles to the deal posed in the Congress for the time being.

Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Ali
    Jan 21, 2016 - 6:12PM

    Relying on the US for anything is a potential Achilles heel.
    However options are limited.

    Or economy is in a shambles.
    Fix that via investment in education and health, and everything else will follow.Recommend

  • curious2
    Jan 21, 2016 - 6:13PM

    Blaming Indian lobby maybe popular/convenient but it’s not accurate. Congressional delay is the result of certain Congressmen questioning why the USA should be selling advanced weapons systems to a country which still provides sanctuary to the Haqqani. That’s a subject that is studiously avoided by the author as well and the military and political elite of Pakistan.Recommend

  • yousuf
    Jan 21, 2016 - 6:22PM

    Pakistan has paid for F-16, its not begging. It needs areal fleet to counter insurgents infiltrating from Afghan borders. Recommend

  • Rahul
    Jan 21, 2016 - 6:31PM

    So according to this author, what US congress and Husain Haqqani are saying is true. F-16s will be used against India and not the Taliban.Recommend

  • Usman
    Jan 21, 2016 - 7:15PM

    Pakistani pilots may love the F-16 while flying it safely inside our own airspace, but how much do the PAF’s engineering department know about the AIM-9s and AIM-120s IFF integration? When was the last time our F-16 got a radar lock on an India plane? Let alone firing the missle, Indians may already have been supplied with dummy IFFs nullifying our missiles and reducing our F-16s to nothing more than un-armed trainers.Recommend

  • Always Smiling
    Jan 21, 2016 - 8:23PM

    I hope you were referring to Hussain Haqqani, he is at the core of the issue. Also bringing terrorism into a conversation about defense is irrelevant. It is akin to saying, India has an hindu extremist as their premier, why give them a civil nuclear deal. Get your story straight bud. Recommend

  • John B
    Jan 21, 2016 - 8:41PM


    This is a new F-16 deal. The previous F-16 deal money which was withheld under congressional ban was paid to pak in term of Food import some time back. Recommend

  • Jan 21, 2016 - 9:13PM

    so Pakistan needs different set of planes and other military hardware to fight India,just like different players for T20 and one day cricket match.Americanhuman rights laws only become active against Pakistan when they have to squeeze them.they dont have any idea that F16 might just be the last combat plane Pakistan will ever buy from the US keeping in view how Pakistan has diversified its weapons supply and stated indigenous productionRecommend

  • kamran afzal
    Jan 21, 2016 - 9:31PM

    These aircrafts are surely to be used against india as they are tectical requirement of PAF. I dont see any harm in it if induction of such planes will help decrease power gap between the two forces. In reality it will reduce the chances of an easy air conflict. Indians will have to think before talking about surgical strike in Pakistan. If Pakistan is purchasing these aircrafts it has got every right for it. India has many Russian and French aircrafts which are definately not to fight against terrorism or to suppress kashmir mujahideens. Recommend

  • Jan 22, 2016 - 8:55AM

    The glaring problem for Pakistan is ECONOMICS and INTERNAL FUSION (law and practice). Getting modern hi-tech aircraft through purchase negotiations is a pipedream that ended with sanctions in 1965.
    Swedish and French are prohibitively expensive and only allow outdated Mirages after exhaustive US scrutiny. Swedish AWAC/EWA that got destroyed/damaged in militant attacks were subsequently repaired by Pak technicians after Sweden refused.
    The only real clear-cut sales of military equipment and supplies comes from China and will InshAllah in future come from Russia. The sales of US F-16s and other military equipment is commercial or a ‘quid pro quo.’
    Hi-class training, R n D, and building up an internal economy that is dependent on a population of 200 million is our real-time, hands-on formula for self-sufficiency. Salams Recommend

  • Feb 13, 2016 - 9:57PM

    If US wants Pakistan to reduce the production of nuclear arsenal….it will have to provide conventional weapons to Pakistan….no other option.Recommend

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