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Sleepwalking Towards Danger,
F16s And All

By Praful Bidwai

04 April, 2005
The News International

The 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 policy-makers were
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 defensive

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 but India."

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

Overemphasis on 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 jiffy. 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.











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