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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
U.S.-Pakistani F-16 Deal Up in the Air

Wade Boese

U.S. and Pakistani officials are denying claims by a senior Pakistani military commander that Washington is about to fulfill Islamabad’s long-stymied and controversial quest for advanced U.S. combat aircraft.

Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat told reporters in September that the United States would soon meet Pakistan’s 15-year-old push for F-16 fighters, providing at least 18 of the planes. In a subsequent interview with Jane’s Defence Weekly, Saadat said the transfers would probably be announced after next month’s U.S. presidential election.

Saadat appears alone in his certainty. Several Americans and Pakistanis, including government representatives of each country, told Arms Control Today that they were not aware of any ongoing negotiations or said no agreement had been reached.

If such an agreement were reached, it would end an impasse that began in 1990 when the U.S. government stopped a shipment of 28 F-16s to Pakistan in accordance with a U.S. law, known as the Pressler amendment after former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), proscribing military exports to Islamabad if it was suspected of possessing a “nuclear explosive device.” Pakistan later publicly confirmed its possession of such a capability by responding to May 1998 nuclear tests by India with blasts of its own.

A senior administration official interviewed Oct. 7 said there is “no decision at any level of the U.S. government to provide F-16s to Pakistan.” A spokesman for the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees U.S. government arms sales to other countries, stated Sept. 22, “[A]s far as we know, a decision has not been made.” Congressional staffers also said they have not been informed of any completed or imminent deal.

The most that a top U.S. government official has said publicly is that such a sale is a possibility. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a Sept. 29 interview with a Pakistani television station that F-16s are “still on the table.…We’ve had discussions with the Pakistani authorities about these matters, and I’ll just leave it right there.”

A Pakistani diplomat said in an Oct. 5 interview with Arms Control Today that Islamabad has inquired about buying F-16s. Yet, the official said that no formal talks were underway and the only encouraging signs about American intentions were coming from outside the U.S. government.

Lockheed Martin Corp. spokesperson Joe Stout declined to comment Oct. 7 on the rumored deal, saying it was a government-to-government matter. Lockheed Martin makes the F-16 and supplied 40 of the aircraft to Pakistan between 1983 and 1987 when the country was actively working with the United States to help oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

The prospect that F-16 sales might resume became more of a reality after restrictions on arms transfers to Pakistan were swept aside days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and its enlistment as a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. (See ACT, October 2001.)

Since waiving the sanctions, the Bush administration has approved several arms agreements with Pakistan, including exports of helicopters, cargo aircraft, night vision equipment, radios, and various radar systems. It also paved the way for Pakistan to have greater opportunities to acquire excess U.S. arms by designating Pakistan a major non-NATO ally this past June.

Despite these actions, one congressional staffer who works on foreign policy issues said Oct. 13 that a resumption of F-16 exports to Pakistan would be a “huge line to cross” because it could have repercussions for all of South Asia.

India has protested past U.S. arms sales to its neighbor, and an Indian government official interviewed Oct. 12 said New Delhi has specifically objected to the potential transfer of F-16s. The official explained that India does not see any role for F-16s in the fight against terrorism, but suspects that Pakistan views the fighters as better suited for its rivalry with India. “It has been our experience that whenever new weapons systems arrive in Pakistan, [the Pakistani army and intelligence service] become more aggressive and intransigent,” the official commented. Such a turn of events, according to the official, could spell trouble for a recent upswing in the Indo-Pakistani relationship. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), who founded a congressional caucus in support of India, voiced these same concerns in a Sept. 23 letter to President George W. Bush. Pallone denounced a possible F-16 deal as “bad policy” and further charged the administration with “contributing to increased security concerns throughout South Asia, and particularly to India.”

The Bush administration has proposed a $3 billion package evenly split between military and economic assistance to Pakistan over a five-year period. Congress has yet to vote on the president’s aid request, which is included as part of the fiscal year 2005 foreign operations appropriations bill.