New Delhi: Multiple members of the United States Congress had expressed their serious concerns over the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan while discussing the issue in 2006. These concerns included the possibility of Pakistan using the aircraft, which it had sought ostensibly for anti-terror activities, against India including for carrying nuclear weapons. The lawmakers had opposed the sale of the aircraft also on the ground that Pakistan, once it possessed these aircraft, would share information about its avionics with China.
While the jury is still out as to whether Pakistan and China modelled their joint production of JF-17 after scanning the F-16, there is no doubt over the fact that Pakistan’s effort to buy the F-16 in the 2000s was not in line with the focus to eliminate terror camps, rather it was bought to target India, as recent incidents have shown, say security experts.
On 20 July 2006, when the Congress Committee on International Relations met to discuss the proposed sale of F-16 aircraft and weapons systems to Pakistan, the committee members had strongly questioned the need of the George W. Bush Administration to sell these aircraft to Pakistan.
Tom Lantos, the representative of the state of California, told the committee that he was “extremely concerned about the details of the security arrangements to be put in place to safeguard these aircraft, their associated technologies and munitions, all of which will be of great interest to third parties, especially China. It is also unfortunate that Pakistan export controls are so lax as to have allowed A.Q. Khan to provide the crown jewels of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development program to states such as North Korea and Iran. The Administration’s plan is inadequate to safeguard United States’ technology properly and to protect the country’s national security against espionage and compromise in Pakistan.”
Similarly, Eni H. Faleomavaega, who was American Samoa’s longest serving non-voting delegate to the US House of Representative, had asked the Bush Administration to reconsider the sale of F-16 to Pakistan while giving the example of how Pakistan had regularly used US weapons against India.
“I am also hopeful that the Administration will reconsider its decision to sell this $5 billion worth of military hardware to Pakistan. F-16s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and while Pakistan is an important partner in our campaign against international terrorism, it has a history of using the US weapons platforms against India, as we saw in 1965 when Pakistan launched a war against India using F-104s it had purchased from the US in 1960,” Faleomavaega said.
Brad Sherman, who is still a member of the House of Representatives, had raised concerns of the Chinese getting their hands on the electronics and avionics of the aircraft. He also strongly stated that the deal should not be allowed to go ahead until Pakistan punished the perpetrators of the 11 July 2006 Mumbai train blasts in which more than 200 people were killed.
“We have to look very carefully at the avionics and electronics of these planes because you know that operatives from the People’s Republic of China will be cautiously looking at these specifics on each of the planes that are delivered. Even with the best security plan, and I think we should have the best one in place, hundreds of Pakistani engineers and pilots will become aware of every aspect of these planes, and each of them can take their drawings and pictures in meetings with Chinese operatives. Finally, I think there is an additional outrage, in addition to the protocol outrage. It is outrageous for us to let this deal go through without putting it on hold until we know whether Pakistan will fully cooperate in bringing justice to those who were killed in the Mumbai blasts. For us to approve this deal by letting it go forward with some angry rhetoric directed at the State Department, but to let it go forward—in a week when this outrage has occurred, and when some indications point to Kashmir and Pakistan—is to dishonor those who were victims. I think we need to put a hold on this agreement and work it out in the weeks and months to come,” Sherman stated.
Another representative, Diane Watson, too, had strongly resisted the sale of F-16 to Pakistan. “The President’s argument is essentially that Pakistan’s military rulers deserve these F-16s because they have cooperated in the effort to fight both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But this is only half the story. Yes, the government of Pakistan has helped us in hunting down individual Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders but it has not made any effort to stop their moral, if not material support, for like-minded extremist groups,” she had said.
Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican lawmaker, who served in the Congress until last year, had stated that it would be incorrect to believe that Pakistan was seeking the F-16 for use against the Taliban.
“I don’t believe that spending $5 billion for a sophisticated weapon system and selling $5 billion worth of weaponry to a relatively poor country make good sense to me. The fact is that the F-16 is an offensive weapon system, it can drop nuclear weapons. And it is designed to wage war on countries that have sophisticated Air Forces, not the Taliban and radical Islam,” she said.
Responding to all these concerns, John Hillen, the then Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political Military Affairs, US Department of State, had tried to assuage the concerns of the lawmakers by convincing them that the US was going to have enough safeguards to stop the misuse of F-16.
“We have put into the deal that they (Pakistan) must comply with the approved security plans for their F-16 related bases and facilities before we release any systems in the sale. We will have a US presence to monitor compliance with the security plan requirements, a much enhanced end-use monitoring program—semi-annual inventories of all F-16 aircraft equipment and munitions, including related technical data. There are more frequent inventories for other systems, including separate, distinct and restricted areas for the F-16 aircraft equipment and munitions. It will be monitored that no mixing with third-country origin aircraft equipment and munitions takes place. Routine access to F-16 aircraft and munitions is in restricted areas and limited to Pakistan Air Force personnel that are pre-approved for the same. There is a two-man rule, so to speak, for access to this equipment and restricted areas. F-16 flights outside of Pakistan and participation in exercises and operations with third nations must be approved in advance by the US government. The maintenance is limited to remove and replace line-replaceable units and shop replaceable units. And Pakistani Air Force personnel must perform the maintenance—no Pakistan contractors, industry, or third-country nationals. We have also mandated that F-16 maintenance and parts storage must be in dedicated facilities and also part of the overall surveillance plan,” he had said.
However, these arguments did little to allay the fear of the Congressmen.
Henry J. Hyde, the Chairman of the Committee, said that he was worried that China would have access to the F-16. He said, “I think we agree that China has access to Pakistan’s military development. They are an ally, and they have their presence there. So if this sale goes through, I am wondering how much China will be advantaged by this sale to Pakistan and, through China, Hezbollah? In other words, are we not arming our enemy? I don’t speak of Pakistan in these terms at all, but I am talking about the inter-relationships in that part of the world and China’s close relationship to Iran and Pakistan. Hence, I am troubled by that aspect of it. I wasn’t until Hezbollah began its assault. But now I am concerned that it will continue to be armed by China and some of this very sophisticated weaponry will be in unfriendly hands. Have you a comment on that?”
However, Hillen countered Hyde’s argument by stating that “the best thing that could happen for the Chinese military is for a sale like this not to go through, because then it is they who will have access and influence over the Pakistan military as opposed to the United States, and Pakistan wants very much for the US to be its pre-eminent and closest strategic and military-to-military partner. One of the reasons why we want to have access and influence into Pakistan, and other nations like Pakistan, through this strategic and military-to-military relationship, is precisely to prevent China from having that kind of relationship.
Hillen later admitted that the F-16 can be used to carry out nuclear strikes. While responding to Dana Rohrabacher, who had asked whether the F-16s have the capability of carrying a nuclear weapon, Hillen stated that even though the “F-16s specifically will not be sold to Pakistan to be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon”, with little tweaking, it can be used to carry that nuclear weapon.