External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent dig at the US’ decision to extend the sustainment programme for its F-16 fighter jets for neighbour Pakistan has made it clear that India is concerned about the bilateral development.
Countering the US’ argument that the package was being offered to fight terrorism, Jaishankar said, “You are not fooling anybody by saying these things.”
“For someone to say I am doing this because it is all counter-terrorism content and so when you are talking of an aircraft like a capability of an F-16 where everybody knows, you know where they are deployed and their use,” he recently said at an event for the Indian-American community in the US.
The US was quick to respond to the foreign minister’s comments and asserted that India and Pakistan were both partners of the US with different points of emphasis.
“We don’t view our relationship with Pakistan, and on the other hand, we don't view our relationship with India as in relation to one another,” Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, told reporters at a news conference.
“We look to both as partners because we do have, in many cases, shared values. We do have, in many cases, shared interests. And the relationship we have with India stands on its own. The relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own,” he added.
The volley of remarks is significant because it also comes at a time when India and the US are trying to strengthen their own military partnership.
Why Is India Worried?
Ever since the US initiated the Global War on Terror after the 9/11 attack, Pakistan has been receiving substantial American military aid, amounting to a staggering $33 billion since 2002. The Islamic republic was even granted a major non-NATO ally status by the George Bush administration in 2004. A few of the aid packages’ key components have been P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, military radio sets, tube-launched, optically tracked, wireless-guided anti-armour missiles, among others, in addition to F-16 fighter jets.
The recent $450-million F-16 package to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) includes technical and logistics services for future maintenance of the PAF’s F-16 fleet. The deal also offers modifications and support of aircraft, and engine hardware and software.
Pakistan received its first set of F-16s from the US in 1981 during the peak of the Cold War between the US and erstwhile Soviet Union. The F-16s gave an edge to the PAF, putting India at the risk of losing in dogfights in the case of aerial combat.
The only aerial combat between India and Pakistan in the last two decades occurred in February 2019 when a MiG-21 Bison of the Indian Air Force (IAF) got into a dogfight with a PAF F-16. This was during India’s counteroperation to Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort, the PAF mission against India’s Operation Bandar which carried out airstrikes on the terrorist camps in Pakistan's Balakot. In the dogfight, F-16 gave Pakistan an advantage which resulted in India’s Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being captured by the Pakistani forces. While India had also managed to bring down an F-16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed concern over the lack of a good quality fighter fleet that could take on F-16s of the PAF. He had even said that if the nation had Rafale jets, the outcome could have been different.
The US’ end-user agreement disallows the PAF from using the F-16s for any non-counter-terrorism operations. But after the 2019 episode, the IAF could prove that the PAF had utilised it as well as its armaments against India.
Before Jaishankar, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had brought up the issue of the US’ decision to provide a sustenance package earlier this month in a telephone conversation with Lloyd Austin, his American counterpart. It has been taken up at multiple levels in the past as well.
Talking about India’s reaction, Angad Singh, a military aviation analyst, says, “While an F-16 sustainment or upgrade package is not particularly concerning in balance of power terms, Jaishankar is quite right in flagging the announcement as a symptom of a larger malaise—the seeming inability of the US to play carrot and stick with Pakistan.”
India’s War On Pakistani Terror
India was the first, and perhaps the only, state responsible of putting Pakistan on the grey list of the G-7’s global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF), placing the country under increased monitoring.
Pakistan was last grey-listed in June 2018 and has been on the list ever since. This has severely impacted its ability to receive military aid from the US as each proposal is scrutinised in more detail, thereby delaying Pakistan’s military purchases.
In July 2021, Jaishankar had said, “Due to us, Pakistan is under the lens of FATF and it was kept in the grey list. We’ve been successful in pressuring Pakistan and the fact that Pakistan’s behaviour has changed is because of pressure put by India through various measures.”
Clarity on whether Pakistan will remain on the list or be taken off is expected to come after the group meets in Paris in October this year.
All along, the US chose to not abandon Pakistan when it comes to military support. The chief reason behind that is that both India and Pakistan are nuclear states, says Amit Gupta, a US-based defence analyst. “Washington (is) always concerned that non-state elements could access Pakistani nuclear material. Hence, by continuing with military aid, the US has the means to interfere in Pakistan if and when required,” says Gupta.
Shaky India-US Ties?
In recent times, India has been taking stronger positions on the world stage and is in the process of shedding its history of acquiescence to the US.
Take, for instance, the recent Russia-Ukraine war. Along with Ukraine, the US and the rest of the West have placed great public pressure on India to side with them since the war’s early stages. At the same time, India’s visible policy of late has been to pursue its strategic interests. In the case of this war, its position has been independent rather than non-aligned.
The dissonance between India and the US about the F-16 deal with Pakistan could certainly become a point of discontent but both powers understand well that their relationship is far from being dependent on the outcome of such issues alone.