US Jet Fighter Deal with Pakistan Rumbles India

Although the administration of US President Barack Obama has rankled the Modi government in New Delhi with its proposed sale of eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter and a cache of military goods worth nearly US$700 million to Pakistan, in fact India’s reaction is considered pretty much pro forma because the sale is so small that they don’t matter militarily to India, analysts say.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs, scoffing at the US’s excuse that the supersonic craft were being sold to “fight terrorism,” promptly summoned US Ambassador to India Richard Verma to express its displeasure over the imminent sale, which announced last week.

"We disagree with their (US's) rationale that such arms transfers help combat terrorism. The record of the last many years in this regard speaks for itself," read a terse statement from the ministry.

More than anything, however, the proposed sale represents the delicate political game the Obama administration is playing to try to triangulate its position as Pakistan draws closer to an increasingly friendly China, which last April offered Islamabad US$46 billion for road, rail, energy and other investments. Its takeover of the Gwadar port, previously to be built by Singaporean interests, gives China a blue-water opening to the Indian Ocean.

The feeling is that after Washington has poured US$40 billion into arming Pakistan since 1950, the current arms sale is too little, too late. Geographical proximity and the lavishness of Beijing – and personal wooing by Chinese President Xi Jinping – mean more than the Obama administration’s embrace.

Besides, in 2005, the George W. Bush administration signed a 10-year defense framework agreement expanding bilateral security cooperation with New Delhi. Last year, for instance, Modi's cabinet announced a major weapons deal with US-based Boeing to the tune of $2.5 billion to buy 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters over Russian-made ones. The aircraft were bought to fortify India’s military capabilities along its disputed border with China. On its part, the US has invited New Delhi to join tri- and quadrilateral military-security exercises and planning with its principal Asia-Pacific allies, Japan and Australia.

Nonetheless, Washington's position that the proposed sale dovetails with its foreign policy objectives and national security goals to empower a strategic partner in South Asia is being widely questioned in India. Many feel that the move will further embolden an already aggressive Pakistani Army to sponsor terrorism in the region as well as create instability at home.

"The US is unmindful of the criticism that its decision to supply the military equipment is being seen as an espousal of a terrorism-sponsoring country whose actions kill not just Indian civilians and soldiers, but also Americans," said defense analyst Kirthi Reddy, formerly a bureaucrat in the South Block, as the ministry is known. "Washington believes that Pakistan's proximity to Afghanistan makes it an indispensible ally in its war against global terror, but the ground realities are very different. Islamabad shelters militant groups operating in India, and Afghanistan is still far from stable after US troops' withdrawal."

Islamabad is unlikely to use the proffered weaponry, designed for major country-to-country combat, to rein in terrorists. Even Pakistan's former US ambassador Hussain Haqqani has stated that it's more likely that the fighters will be trained at India rather than at militants.

"The Obama administration's consideration of a nuclear deal with Pakistan, just like its decision a few months ago to sell almost US$1 billion in US-made attack helicopters, missiles and other equipment to Pakistan will fuel conflict in South Asia without fulfilling the objective of helping the country fight Islamist extremists or limit its nuclear arsenal," Haqqani said.

India's own skittishness over Pakistani acquisition of fighter aircraft reflects concerns that a heavily armed Pakistan would upset the tenuous geopolitical balance in an already shaky region. India last year rejected an offer by the US of its own F16s in favor of a long-delayed and not yet concluded deal with Dassault Rafale. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturers of the F16s, has offered to make them in India if it gets an order.

Militant groups based in Pakistan have been a constant headache for India, often killing innocent citizens and soldiers in brazen attacks of terror. In 2008, they ravaged Mumbai – India's commercial capital – killing 166 civilians and destroying property worth billions.

But more than anything else, experts are worried about the symbolism of the deal and the signal a US-assisted military sale would deliver to the Pakistani Army.

"The Pak army's complicity with terrorists has been established beyond doubt," said Subodh Verma, a retired Indian Army major who was posted on the Indo-Pak border for two years. "The sale will only strengthen its dominance in the troubled country which is sheltering terrorists operating out of India."

What has also irked Delhi is that the proposed transaction is coming at a time when it is fighting to push Islamabad to dismantle Islamic militant groups that are harming India's interests.

Defense analysts say that by aiding Pakistan over the years the US is not helping India's cause, but feeding Pakistan's delusion of being India's regional military equal.

Be that as it may, some analysts feel that India is overreacting to the US's military sale. "New Delhi is only exposing its psychological vulnerability by getting so jittery despite its mighty size," said the retired Maj. Verma. "India's economy is more than seven times Pakistan’s while it spends six times more on defense. There's no reason for India to feel threatened by its puny neighbor."

Indian Express columnist C. Raja Mohan advises that prudence lies in India accepting the fact that “Pakistan’s location at the crossroads between the subcontinent, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and China has given Rawalpindi some unique geopolitical advantages."

However, Washington too, needs to reassess how its monetary aid to Pakistan over the years and nearly a US$1 trillion spent in Afghanistan, has helped stabilize the region. Contrary to the desired aim, Pakistan’s army continues to lend support to violent extremism while Afghanistan may never be back on its feet after the US troop withdrawal, if that ever comes.

There is comfort to be derived from the fact that despite US's open military assistance to Pakistan, New Delhi is learning to live with this dissonance, and in a sign of maturity, shares strong economic and defense ties with the Obama administration.

The US’s embrace of India has led Islamabad to express fears that this equation can tilt the strategic balance in South Asia in India’s favor while forcing Pakistan to build up its military capacities. Pakistan has also accused India of seeking to derail the recent Chinese announcement of building the Gwadar port and economic corridor to western China to Gwadar.

Given these regional complexities, analysts advise that the best way forward is for Washington to match its anti-terror rhetoric by strengthening its strategic partnership with New Delhi. Delhi, on its part, should exploit the current geopolitical dynamics by laying down an expansive framework for defence cooperation with the US while building on convergences with Beijing and Moscow to keep Pakistan in check.

New Delhi-based senior journalist Neeta Lal (neetalal@hotmail.com) was a nominee for World Media Summit and Society of Publishers awards in 2014.