By Wade Boese
The Bush administration March 25 announced its willingness to sell advanced fighter aircraft to India and Pakistan, reversing 15 years of U.S. policy to deny Islamabad such arms because of its nuclear weapons ambitions. The decision came shortly after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited South Asia in a bid to further cultivate the two countries.
Asserting that U.S. arms sales to the nuclear rivals would not upset the regional military balance, administration officials said March 25 that they would negotiate with Pakistan about its long-standing request for F-16 fighters, which can be modified to deliver nuclear weapons. The officials also said U.S. manufacturers of the F-16 and F/A-18E/F combat aircraft would be permitted to compete for India’s tender for 125 new fighters.
Islamabad has not officially disclosed how many jets it is looking to buy, but it is thought to be seeking about two dozen. An administration official told reporters that “there is no set limit on what the [United States] is going to be willing to sell Pakistan.” When it worked with the United States to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan acquired 40 F-16A/Bs.
The United States halted additional F-16 deliveries to Pakistan in 1990 after President George H. W. Bush could not certify to Congress under U.S. law that Islamabad did not possess a nuclear explosive device. Pakistan responded to Indian nuclear tests in May 1998 with tests of its own, leading to U.S. economic and military sanctions on both governments.
Most of these sanctions were lifted in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks as the Bush administration moved to secure Indian and Pakistani support for its war on terrorism. (See ACT, October 2001.) Yet, Washington remained reluctant to resume F-16 sales to Pakistan because of regional tensions and the risk of upsetting India.
The Bush administration contends conditions have now changed. Rice said April 5 that there has been a “significant improvement in relations between the two” since they almost came to blows in June 2002. Claiming that the administration has successfully “de-hyphenated the relationship” so Washington can pursue relations with both on “independent tracks,” Rice maintained that “we are creating a new set of circumstances in which the balance will be more stable by an American defense relationship with both of them.”
The budding U.S. relationship with India in the military sector, as well as in the civilian space and nuclear fields, appears to have tempered Indian reactions to the proposed U.S. sale of fighter jets to its neighbor, which New Delhi has vigorously opposed in the past. Indian officials made clear they still have reservations about the deal but have muffled their complaints. During Rice’s visit to the region, Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh noted March 16 that U.S.-Indian relations have reached a point where disagreements can be discussed “freely and frankly” and that India had made its position on U.S. F-16 sales to Pakistan well known.
A major arms client of Russia, India is increasingly eyeing U.S. weaponry. In addition to the potential fighter aircraft sale, the United States and India are discussing missile defenses. The two sides held a March 3-4 meeting on the subject in Hyderabad, India, and the U.S. government permitted Raytheon Corp., a U.S. company, to brief Indian officials for the first time on its Patriot system, which is designed to provide a defense against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Major U.S. arms companies also participated in force for the first time, according to an Indian government spokesperson, at an Indian aerospace exposition in February. Lockheed Martin Corp., which builds the F-16, and Boeing Corp., which manufactures the F/A-18E/F, exhibited at the event.
Although India may have stifled its objections to the United States selling F-16s to Pakistan, some U.S. lawmakers, many of whom describe themselves as friends of India, are expressing their concern.
A bipartisan group of 20 legislators from the House of Representatives sent a March 23 letter to President George W. Bush opposing such a transaction on the grounds it “would undermine our long-term strategic interests.” They argued that Pakistan intends to use the planes against India and not in fighting terrorism, as the administration contends.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), one of the letter’s signers, also introduced bipartisan legislation April 12 that would condition military assistance to Pakistan. A key provision would first require a certification that Islamabad had cooperated fully in shutting down the nuclear black market network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and had granted the United States “unrestricted opportunities to interview” Khan. Pakistan has not given any outside officials access to Khan, but Rice asserted March 17 that the United States has “good cooperation with Pakistan” regarding the Khan network.
Two congressional staffers told Arms Control Today in April that the Ackerman-backed legislation, the Pakistan Proliferation Accountability Act of 2005, faces an uphill fight despite general congressional unease over Pakistan’s proliferation record. Most lawmakers view Islamabad as an essential ally in the war on terrorism.
Regardless of the bill’s fate, Congress possesses the authority to pass a joint resolution to block a proposed arms sale once an administration issues a formal notification of a completed contract. Still, Congress has never successfully done so. Sometimes, arms sales are amended or abandoned before a formal notification due to strong congressional pressure. A formal notification on the proposed Pakistani deal has yet to be made and could take months, depending on the pace of contract negotiations.
Lockheed Martin, which has delivered more than 4,400 F-16s to the United States and 23 other countries, wants to wrap up the deal quickly. Currently, the final F-16 is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 2008, and the manufacturer wants to solidify the Pakistani deal to extend production longer.
Similarly, Boeing is eager to make India its first foreign customer for the F/A-18E/F. Company spokesperson Patricia Frost told Arms Control Today March 15 that the firm is “very excited about this opportunity.”