The Shahbaz airbase, which houses F-16 aircraft, is the subject of several US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. One cable, dated October 6, 2009, makes note of the security requirements for the F-16s to be housed at the airbase.
According to the cable, “The security notes also mandate a five-year, 24/7 US technology security presence for the F-16s. SAF/IA has determined that when fully in place, the US security presence should consist of 45 US personnel – 40 at Shahbaz (five US military and 35 contractors), and five in Islamabad (two US military, one US Government civilian, two contractors). The estimated cost of the US security presence is $30 million per year, or $150 million for the full five-year period.”
The F-16 aircraft are subject to security restrictions that the aircraft, armaments, related equipment and technical data need to be housed at a separate air force base which does not have “non-US/non-Pakistani origin personnel and aircraft.” A January 2009 cable explained this further, stating that “there have been other US government concerns about illegal technology transfer relating to Pakistan’s co-production program with the JF-17 Chinese fighter aircraft.”
The cables also note Pakistan’s difficulty in making payments for the security presence. According to the October cable, Pakistan also had to make upgrades and security enhancements to the airbase, which it estimated would cost $210 million.
The Shahbaz airbase in Jacobabad became the focus of agitation by Pakistani politicians during last year’s floods as allegations were leveled that the floodwater had been diverted to Balochistan to protect the base.
Additionally, rumours that the base was not being used for flood relief efforts because it was allegedly under US control further fueled the public ire.
Calls for investigation came from former prime minister Mir Zafrullah Jamali, and the government was forced to clarify.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) said in public statements that the base was under Pakistan’s control and denied that there were American officers stationed there.
Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told the Senate in January 2010 that the base had been used for “covert operations in Afghanistan two years ago” but the Shamsi, Pasni and Shahbaz bases were not being used by the US.
Then-US ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson wrote in the cable that “the Pakistan F-16 program - a package which includes new aircraft, Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) kits, and munitions - is the flagship symbol of our renewed, post-9/11 engagement with the Pakistani military. The success of the program is critical to demonstrating that the US is committed to a long-term relationship with Pakistan and is a reliable security partner. Pakistan is already using its existing F-16s in counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but the inability of those aircraft to execute precision targeting or to fly at night increases collateral damage and limits their effectiveness. New and MLU-ed F-16s and their munitions packages will significantly improve the PAF’s precision and night strike capabilities.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2011.