American interests are better served if India is not distracted by the threat from Pakistan
Two months ago, I wrote that the Bush administration’s decision to sell nuclear-capable F-16s to Pakistan crosses a line, and beyond debates on whether the F-16s can actually be used deliver nuclear warheads, this could be one factor that will colour US-India relations for the better part of the next few years.
And the next few years are important because the Indian armed forces are standing at the cusp of a new procurement paradigm. The big question is whether India will remain wedded to Russian technology for its key defence platforms, or whether the much awaited revolution in military affairs (RMA) will incorporate American technology. Even contemplating the sale of F-16s to Pakistan has already strengthened the hands of those in the Indian defence establishment who seek to continue and deepen the relationship with Russia against those who favour American technology, not least in the area of missile defence, where India’s threat perceptions are similar to America’s (read China).
If indeed Musharraf’s Pakistan comes to acquire the F-16s, Putin’s next trip to India (or Manmohan Singh’s 2005 trip to Russia) would echo those of previous years, when multi-billion dollar handshakes were quite common. Eager to hold on to its biggest customer by all means, Russia is using both carrots and sticks to prevent India from going for American or Israeli purchases. The loss of influence in Ukraine is only going to make the Russian Bear more desperate.
From a purely commercial point of view, the United States risks giving away the goose that lays golden eggs.
One of the likely casualties of the F-16 deal is likely to be the US-India cooperation in ballistic missile defence. With no projected jump in defence spending, there is little sense for India to invest in an expensive missile defence shield when an F-16-on-steroids will be as likely to be able to deliver nuclear warheads into Indian territory as the missile defence system will be able stop nuclear ballistic missiles. (The Patriot missiles that were recently offered to India were of first Gulf War vintage, whose actual performance is the subject of enough controversy to cause the offer to be politely declined)
Current understanding in Washington seems to be that India’s deep reservations against the sale of military hardware to Pakistan can be set off against United States selling similar or more advanced hardware to India. That view is valid up to a point. The matter of the F-16s lies across that point. Pakistan’s offensive capability is aimed at India, and India alone. Any strengthening of that capability cannot but be a increase in the threat to India. Coupled with the outdated nuclear non-proliferation dogma of the Foggy Bottom’s ayatollahs, those infernal F-16s could haunt bilateral relations until the next Pakistani military shenanigan.
Moreover, selling weapons to an unreconciled military dictatorship with long nursed territorial ambitions is a fundamentally unsound idea. Clearing up the mess after handing over Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to General Zia’s Pakistan will be nothing compared to having to clear up the mess Pakistan has the potential to create with those F-16s.
Update: Here is why Robi Sen disagrees with this analysis.