F16s And All
By Praful Bidwai
04 April, 2005
The News International
speed with which the United States has rushed to offer substantial military
deals to India and Pakistan after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's
flying visit is truly breathtaking. Within hours of announcing that
it would supply the latest version of F-16 warplanes to Islamabad, Washington
told New Delhi that it was willing to sell not just F-16s but also a
bigger, multi-role warplane, the F-18, which the US hasn't sold even
to its NATO allies.
Indeed, what's on
the cards so far as India goes is not just sale of sophisticated weapons
systems by the US, but joint or licensed production, complete with technology
transfer. The US has tied up this offer with other "sweeteners",
including a lifting of a three decades-long embargo on cooperation in
civilian nuclear technology with India, possible cooperation in space,
and a greater role for India in global institutions.
Senior US officials
say in their background briefings that this is part of a major move,
which aims to help turn India into "a major world power in the
21st century", with all the military implications that that has.
Pakistani and Indian
responses and counter-responses to these US manoeuvres confirm and reinforce,
on every count, the fear expressed in this column two weeks ago of a
runaway South Asian arms race, fuelled this time not by two or more
rival powers, but by the same state. It's as if Indian and Pakistani
obsessively enacting the roles assigned to them in a tragic script,
executing each step like half-zombies.
Each set of actors
proffers a half-coherent rationale or explanation about why they are
making certain choices. Yet, both deny the compelling, ineluctable consequences
of their own actions -- an inevitable mutual arms race, and greater
insecurity for both.
Consider the Pakistani
argument. The Foreign Office says the US decision to "supply F-16s
is a trend in [the] positive direction... It lays [the] foundation for
a long-term and solid relationship." According to Foreign Minister
Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, "Pakistan's purchase of F-16s would not
amount to starting an arms race or inducting a new weapons system as
Pakistan already has a fleet of these planes."
However, if India
were to procure new weapons, including Phalcon air-defence systems or
Patriot-II missiles, it would introduce new uncertainties and rivalries
and call for an appropriate, "matching", response from Pakistan.
It's another matter
that Pakistan is planning to buy not just qualitatively more sophisticated
versions of the F-16 than it had bought in 1988-89, but also larger
numbers of them (reportedly, something like 70). General Pervez Musharraf
says: "the F-16s will increase Pakistan's strategic capability
and deterrence... The inclusion of P-3C Orion aircraft, F22-P frigates
and acquisition of F-16 fighter aircraft would certainly enhance the
offensive punch of our defence," and "help our strategy of
Similarly, the Indian
logic runs thus: Pakistan does not need F-16s to fight terrorism; there
are other ways of "rewarding" it for cooperating with the
"war against terrorism". F-16s will have an adverse impact
on the subcontinental security environment. Their sale will divert attention
and resources to arms acquisition when bilateral
relations are improving. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee says the
sale's timing "may jeopardise ... confidence-building measures";
in the past Pakistan did not fire "a single shot at any other direction
This is not all.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to tell President Bush next
month in Moscow that "mere words" won't "sweeten"
the deal enough for India. The Indian Air Force isn't particularly impressed
with the F-16/18 offer because it considers the French-made Mirage more
"attractive". Besides, an Indian official says:
"we still don't know the terms and conditions [for the sale of
F-16s]... At the end of the day, Pakistan has got the planes, and India,
loads of sweet assurances."
The Indian reasoning,
like Pakistan's, elides over some basic assumptions. New Delhi wants
to maintain its "natural" airpower asymmetry or superiority
over Islamabad. (India has about 30 squadrons, as against Pakistan's
20, and plans toadd another 126 warplanes to its existing total of 680
combat aircraft, against Pakistan's 415
the firmness of the US's F-16 commitment to Pakistan also helps play
down the higher size and "quality" (if that's the word!) of
the package being offered to India.
Yet, it's clear
that Pakistan is about to spend some $35-40 million apiece on each of
the 70 F-16s of the latest make. The total spending will be about 10
times what Islamabad commits to health and education. Likewise, India
too will give up the opportunity to build several medium-size rural
hospitals or scores of elementary schools for each of the fancy, lethal,
toys it buys.
This colossal expenditure
will ultimately help neither India nor Pakistan. It will only help Lockheed
Martin, the F-16's manufacturer, which has already sold more than 4,000
planes to 24 countries, and raked in billions of dollars in profit.
The F-16 deal will
give a fresh lease of life to the company's factory in Fort Worth, Texas,
which has reduced its workforce by 800 to 5,000 over the past year.
Pakistan's F-16 order, as an industry analyst puts it with characteristic
cynicism, is "a happy juxtaposition of the wants and needs"
of an ally in the "war on terrorism" and Lockheed's profit-line.
An even "bigger issue" for the Military-Industrial Complex's
is the chance to sell 100-plus warplanes to India!
Nothing would more
graphically and literally fit the description of global merchants of
death thriving on the insecurities of states thousands of miles away,
each of which turns to them for ever deadlier weapons even as it turns
its back upon its own poor citizens and their survival-related needs.
There is a way to
avert this zombie-like embrace of danger, this great march of folly.
And that's to put the issue of conventional arms reduction on the bilateral
dialogue agenda. There is immense scope for reducing or even abolishing
several classes of conventional armaments, starting with landmines (which
end up wantonly
killing and maiming innocent civilians). The potential in our two countries
for pruning defence expenditure is stupendous.
India and Pakistan
would do well to explore this. Making knee-jerk responses to arms procurement
will draw them deeper into strategic rivalry and eventually impact their
mutual dialogue. Changing this will need patience and recognition of
the constraints within which both establishments work.
Musharraf is already
beginning to show fatigue with confidence-building measures, accompanied
by little progress on substantive issues like Kashmir. His Pakistan
Day speech bears eloquent testimony to this.
He is of course
right to say the Srinagar-Muzafferabad is not a substitute for a resolution
of the Kashmir issue. But that resolution isn't going to happen in a
good deal of groundwork will have to go into it, with a series of alternative
solutions and formulas being thrown on the table for informal and formal
discussion. That process must begin soon. But it cannot be sustained
in the long run, even the middle run, unless India and Pakistan consciously
avert a spiralling arms race that will vitiate the climate for dialogue.