Those infernal F-16s

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.

Related Links: The US navy intends to beat the Europeans to the deal by selling radar planes to the Pakistani navy. Fair enough, part of the payment comes from American taxpayers after all.

Update: Here is why Robi Sen disagrees with this analysis.

15 thoughts on “Those infernal F-16s”

  1. India might continue to deepen its relationship with Russia but Sino-Russian relationship in defence and their joint excercise might be a cause of concern for India.
    For US with their stated aim to become a large player in supplying arms to the worlds third largest importer, the issue of supplying F-16 to pakistan might be a bargaining chip to gain access to the market.
    Given this Israel and Europe might be better placed to satisfy India’s needs.

  2. Pakistan did pay for them, but they were refunded the money a few years ago.

    The Indian government is within its rights to object to F-16 sales to Pakistan, but it should keep in mind that if the US decides not to sell them to Pakistan on account of Indian concerns, then it’s also unlikely to sell any fighter jets to India, given the damage that such a move could do to US-Pakistani ties in such a context. India should also keep in mind that its GDP is 8x larger than Pakistan’s, and its defense budget about 5x larger. Thus, the Indian Air Force can afford to buy far more American fighter jets than the Pakistani Air Force can.

    On the other hand, if the Indian Air Force feels that it can get by with Russian Sukhois (which Russia refuses to sell to Pakistan at this time), then it makes sense to go on stalling F-16 sales to Pakistan even if this move prevents India from obtaining F-16s of its own. Provided that Russia maintains its refusal, of course.

  3. Robi,

    Let me address some of the key points you made on your blog:

    » 1. F-16s cannot be used for nuclear delivery.

    Believing in this is easier if you are out of range of those F-16s. But even if it were so, why arm Pakistan with a powerful mechanism to deliver ‘conventional’ or biological or chemical warheads? As I pointed out, the sole target of Pakistani offensive capability is India. While I would not like an Pakistani nuclear strike on India, I’m not a big fan of their non-nuclear strikes either.

    » 2. The risk that latest American technology will be ‘leaked’ by India.

    Unproven and unsubstantiated.

    Pakistan on the other hand is working on a joint-fighter aircraft design with China, its ‘all weather friend’.

    » 3. Fear that US-India collaboration on missile defence will anger China.

    True. But this is something that has to happen some time.

    » 4. The commercial motive – that the US actually loses money on selling the planes to Pakistan.

    Yes and No. In the normal business of ‘foreign-aid’, the beneficiaries are usually the companies of the country giving the foreign aid. In other words, money from the taxpayers of the aid-giving country ends up in the pockets of the companies of that country…less the leakages due to the politicians of the aid-receiving country. Yes, the US government may end up losing money in the game, but the corporations end up with additional revenues (and perhaps profits). This is not a win-win deal for the United States.

    Why not cultivate a customer who is willing to pay out of his own pocket? Especially if, as Eric points out, he has the capability to buy five times as much. That’s the point.

  4. 1. You misquoted me in 1. Please correct your quote. I did not say they could not be used for nuclear delivery and I know very well they can. I said they where not effective method. In specific they are not an effective method of delivery nuclear weapons (especially theater weapons) against India given the overarching air superiority as well as radar and air defense coverage. Please address that. I think this is something that various people have reported and I think some politicians have played on but the threat has been over hyped to the point of hyperbole.

    2. Not sure what you mean by this. There are many cases of India providing information to Russia during the cold war. Also vice a versa. That is India or more specifically some Indians giving intelligence and access to such things as SAM’s and MIG’s to the US. This is why for years India was listed as a sensitive country.

    This book mentions a few episodes http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0465003109/103-6509912-0606221?v=glance. It’s a excellent book regardless and will amaze you at how the KGB was able to penetrate ever major intelligence network in the west to the point that even the KGB could not believe.

    3. You take three out of context. I point out that the US should and by agree they should you help make my argument that India will collaborate with the US and that it has overriding reasons to.

    4. You avoid my question to you that you might actually believe the US is creating a profit making arms race which you strongly imply in a previous post.

  5. Nitin, I think you’re missing quite a few points here(and you can blame Robi for bringing this up somewhere else).
    1) The missile defense.
    a)As you noted yourself angering China over it is likely to happen sometime. Why not do it anyways?
    b) Backing out of the abm deal out of pique is silly, for several reasons. India needs abm against both China and Pakistan. Having it definately benefits India immensely. But, not doing it because of a deal meant to strengthen US ties to Pakistan is bad politics. Remember, India and Pakistan came decently close to going head up a few years ago, and both were cajoled out of anger by US intervention(yeah, it served US interests to do so). Now, how is the US going to be able to do that without having some pull on Pakistan? Can you really be serious about not doing abm because of a conventional arms deal, when the bm threat far exceeds the conventional threat? The phrase, “cutting off ones nose to spite the face”, come to mind here.
    c) Staying in the abm, despite the F-16’s to Pakistan, actually strengthens India vs. Pakistan given that you now know that a nuclear or conventional attack is more likely to come in a predictable form(via air) since the strategic bm threat is now chancy(if abm works sufficiently).
    2) Buy Russian. Fine. Even we Americans aren’t annoyed over that. Fine.
    3) Can you afford to essentially pout with China(PLAAF and PLA are HUGE) and Pakistan in alliance? Not really. The F-16’s are intended to solidify US-Pak relations, relations that have in the recent past have forestalled armed conflicts.

  6. Ry,

    The threat from China is long-term and geo-political, as the two giants contend with each other as they ‘rise’. But serious consideration and planning against this threat is often shadowed by the necessity to deal with the immediacy of the Pakistani threat — both in budgetary terms as well as management-bandwidth terms. China would like to keep it this way.

    The import of my analysis, which I point out in the subtitle is that any move that keeps India engaged in managing the threat from Pakistan will come at the cost of preparing for the threat from China. And it is with respect to engaging China that US and India will have the most in common.

    Both sides of the Indian political spectrum support missile defence, so it is not likely that India will pull out of the missile-defence cooperation out of pique; rather it will be because of the need to prioritise spending and management-bandwidth. The import of this is that it is unlikely that India will be able to simultaneously invest in missile-defence technology and in keeping the Pakistani threat at bay.

    The net result will be that while Pakistan and China continue to develop their ballistic missile arsenals, India and the US will fail to cooperate for mutual protection.

    I do not dispute the need for the United States to support Pakistan in various ways to maintain its leverage and influence. But why should that be in the form of advanced weapons, specifically the F-16s? Surely, there are plenty of other things the US could do for Pakistan.

  7. “Both sides of the Indian political spectrum support missile defence, so it is not likely that India will pull out of the missile-defence cooperation out of pique; rather it will be because of the need to prioritise spending and management-bandwidth. The import of this is that it is unlikely that India will be able to simultaneously invest in missile-defence technology and keep the Pakistani threat at bay.”

    Sorry to be a total pain today but I disagree again. India can and does easily out spend Pakistan and of course the sharp point of Missile Defense (Arrows or Patriots) are hyper effective against air craft (i.e. overkill) as well as missiles. India’s military is also far superior to Pakistan’s, has a better trained Air Force, and better equipped Air Force, better Armor, better trained Armor forces, a kick as navy etc. There really is no equity which is a good thing. Pakistan thus waged proxy war and insurgency. China encourages this.

    Anything India does in the way of missile defense offsets the 800 pound gorilla in the area which is China. Furthermore India does not really need to invest so much as partner with the US on missile defense. India knows this and thus we see the ever greater number of exercises and joint partner ships between the two. India though is not going to just trust the US (or Russia) to its defense and of course wants to have a strong powerful military that it has as much possible control over which is one reason why they are not excited about the idea of pulling like a Poland or something and inviting the US to build missile defense bases in the India which is only reasonable.

    India by working with US easily offset and in fact leap frog China and Pakistan and get far more in the way or deterrent and real defense vis missile defense that by spending money on just conventional and nuclear assets. Frankly I think India can walk and chew bubble gum and the same time and can manage the threat from China and Pakistan and in specific the Patriot (1 or 3) not only helps nullify the threat of missile strikes it also counters China and Pakistan’s strategic air power (depending on how deeply its deployed).

    Also I am not really sure all sides in Indian politics agree that missile defense is a good idea. Many on the left see it as a start of a real arms race and as well as antagonizing China. This I think is reasonable although I disagree with it.

    Your comment and specific point about why the US feels it should provide F-16’s to Pakistan is also valid. Indeed I am consistently critical of it but I am trying to point out that the threat of the F-16’s as nuclear delivery platforms is wildly exaggerated. Still all this is moot in that the US has not shown any strong swing to grant the sale of the F-16’s.

  8. Robi (#6),

    On 4 – No, I do not believe that there is a motive on behalf of the United States to profit selling to both sides of an escalating arms race. The stakes are too dangerous for that game. What I believe is happening is that US feels that while it cannotside with the Pakistanis on issues such as Kashmir, it is necessary to indulge Musharraf in order to keep Pakistan stable (and under American influence). My entire take is that this view leads to rather unhappy downstream consequences for the United States, India (and ultimately Pakistan itself)

    On 3 – (See the response to Ry)

    On 2 – My point is now right now, India is exploring a new paradigm in defence procurement; I don’t think the legacy of Cold War era acts (on both sides) should be allowed to impact the new dynamics of the 21st century.

    On 1 – Yes, okay. I was inaccurate in summing up your argument; but this does not change the import of my response.

  9. Clearly, the solution here is for the U.S. to sell _broken_ F16s to Pakistan and for India to build up its own defense industry.

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  11. Simon,

    You missed my point. I actually do not disagree with Nitin’s view that selling F-16’s to Pakistan by the US is a negative thing and does indeed give one of India’s major threats access to some serious hardware but I disagree with several major points of his analysis in specific the degree of the threat, if its actually threatens US/India cooperation on missile defense, etc. Nitin and I have some conflicting opinions but many similar opinions as well. So I actually agree that the US needs to stop providing major military systems to Pakistan but I disagree with several of the points and tangential concerns he brings up in his post.

    BTW I love your blog!

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