India has registered strong protest with the United States over its approval of sale of equipment and other elements worth $450 million to Pakistan for the upkeep of its fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
The Pakistan Air Force operates a fleet of F-16 figher jets, which it first began procuring from the United States in the 1980s. The current package involves repair, spare parts, sofwares and software support among other elements for the maintainance of the fleet.
Even though it does not include new planes or weaponry, India has registered a strong protest with the United States over the sale. Notably, New Delhi believes that Pakistan used F-16 fighter planes in its retaliatory aerial raid on Indian installations in February 2019 after Indian warplanes had bombed a terrorist facility in Pakistan's Balakot. The Indian airstrikes followed the Pulwama terrorist attack by Pakistani-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group.
"Included are US Government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics services for follow-on support of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet...The proposed sale does not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions," said the US Department of State in a press release.
India registered the protest with the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, reported The Times of India. Lu was in India for senior official-level talks under the India-US 2+2 mechanism.
"The protest is learnt to have come in the form of a sharp rebuke delivered to US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs Donald Lu and focused on both substance and timing of the decision...The issue was strongly raised with Lu in all the meetings he had after the US announcement and he was told that the government expected US to be more mindful of India's security interests. India has so far not said anything publicly on the issue," reported ToI.
The US State Department said the sale will boost counter-terrorism operations and inter-operability with the US and partner forces.
It said, "This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with U.S. and partner forces in ongoing counterterrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations.
"The proposed sale will continue the sustainment of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, which greatly improves Pakistan’s ability to support counterterrorism operations through its robust air-to-ground capability."
The approval of military sale to Pakistan by US President Joe Biden's administration is the reversal of the former President Donald Trump's decision in 2018 to stop all aid and military sales to Pakistan.
The United States has sold dozens of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan over the decades as Pakistan has repeatedly become key to US interests in the region. In the 1980s, Pakistan got planes for its support to US-backed muhajideens in Afghanistan against the Soviets. While sales were stopped in the 1990s over Pakistan's nuclear program, sales resumed in the 2000s as Pakistan became key to War on Terror after 9/11 attacks. Pakistan was a key base of transit to land-locked Afghanistan and Pakistan was also capturing terrorists for the United States. Hence it was rewarded with planes and cash.
The United States in 2010 sold 18 F-16 fighters to Pakistan.
"The 18 [F-16 aircraft] being sold to Pakistan are the Block 52 versions of the aircraft, Robbins said, which will give Pakistan new capabilities, including day-night, all-weather and precision-attack capabilities," said the US government at the time, adding that the US Air Force also trained Pakistan Air Force pilots.
Experts have questioned the US sale of spares and equipment to Pakistan in light of its poor counter-terrorism record. Several jihadist groups continue to operate from within Pakistan and some of the most high-profile jihadist leaders, such as Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and 9/11 attacks mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were captured in Pakistan. Notably, a very close relationship between the Pakistani miltiary and jihadists has emerged over the years.
Bin Laden was living close to the Pakistani military academy and Sheikh Mohammed was captured in a villa of an army officer within a five-minute drive from the Pakistan Army headquarters. Yet the US continues to deal militarily with Pakistan.
It has also been noted that the US sales to Pakistan has closely followed the US killing of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri, who was killed in a precision air strike in Afghanistan's Kabul. It was wondered at the time whether Pakistan had supplied intelligence to the United States of Zawahiri's presence and had permitted its airspace's usage by American drones for the strike. This, some speculated at the time, was done in lieu of military aid and financial bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as Pakistan is financially unhealthy at the moment.
Another expert wondered whether Pakistan has ever used F-16 in a counter-terrorism operation, putting into question the relevance of the sale.
"will support...national security objectives of the US by allowing Pakistan to 'retain interoperability with US and partner forces' in ongoing counterterrorism efforts."— Jeff M. Smith (@Cold_Peace_) September 8, 2022
How many times has Pakistan used an F-16 in a counterterrorism operation? This is not a rhetorical question. https://t.co/552oV8trPL
National security commentator Somnath Mukherjee also noted on Twitter the suspected delivery of weapons to Ukraine by Pakistan. The aid to Ukraine against Russia is among top priorities for the United States.
"Not just F-16. There's IMF bailout, FATF grey-list escape, more Saudi and Qatar loans. Nice payback for Pakistani supplies of ordnance to Ukraine," noted Mukherjee on Twitter.
(With PTI inputs)