Plane Politics
By Dr Shireen M Mazari

The initial euphoria in some circles over the possibility of acquiring F-16s from the US should now be tempered by the reality on the ground. This includes the fact that Pakistan will have to pass through many hurdles before the sale itself is actually realized -- if it ever is, given the power of the Indian lobby in Washington. Despite the ongoing supposed détente between Pakistan and India, the Indian lobbies have already begun their work on Capitol Hill with a proposed Pakistan Accountability Act 2005 in the US House of Representatives.
This bill, introduced by Gary Ackerman, has been referred to the House Committee on International Relations. Amongst other things, the law, if passed, will demand unrestricted access to Dr A.Q. Khan as a precondition for the sale of any military equipment or technology to Pakistan. As the bill states:
“No United States military assistance may be provided to Pakistan and no military equipment or technology may be sold, transferred, or licensed for sale to Pakistan … unless the president first certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that the government of Pakistan has provided the Untied States with unrestricted opportunities to interview the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan …; the government of Pakistan has complied with requests for assistance from the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) …” and so on. Even before Pakistan has negotiated the terms of the sale, given that the April visit to Islamabad of the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency did not have the mandate to actually discuss the terms of the deal, moves are afoot in the US to block it.
So much for being a frontline ally of the US in the war against terrorism! It seems Pakistan-specific laws are once again going to do the rounds in the US Congress - especially as the war in Afghanistan wanes. Clearly, the more Pakistan chooses to cooperate on the proliferation issue, the more heavy-handed and intense the demands become from allies like the US.
This is similar to the increasingly intrusive manner in which the US military is issuing statements about the Pakistan military’s actions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan international border and in the adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan. The most recent declaration by General Barno is typical of the US approach. In the case of Pakistan, the US seems to take our cooperative behavior as a sign of weakness on which to be ever more aggressive in their pronouncements and demands. So the proposed Ackerman sponsored law is only one caution Pakistan should take heed of. The politics of the sale of the F-16s has many dimensions and the question that really needs to be debated is whether this is the best plane for Pakistan from a number of perspectives.
The F-16 is a third generation plane which will cause problems for us in the long term, since the present manufacturers, Lockheed Martin, may not survive for very long. As it is, the sale of F-16s to Pakistan and India may prolong Lockheed’s life a little which is why it suits Bush to offer this sale to South Asia, but one can visualize, only too familiarly, the problems of spares and upgradations after some years.
Equally important, one is not sure whether we will get the “fully loaded” model or a stripped down one. What avionics would we get on the planes and what sort of weapon systems would we be able to use? All we know is that the F-16s we are seeking are the upgraded C/D models. At the end of the day, these issues, added to the issue of costs, make one wonder whether it would be better to acquire only about a dozen new F-16s, if we must, to sustain our present fleet while we develop other options.
A far better option would be to get the US to allow the Swedes to sell us the JAS 39 Gripen, one of the best lightweight multi-role combat aircraft in the world. It is a state of the art fourth generation combat plane that will be viable even 25-30 years on. The Swedes need US approval for the sale since the Gripen uses US-manufactured engines and missile systems.
Given the problems of getting Congressional approval for the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, if the US really was supportive of Pakistan updating its air force, it would give Sweden the go-ahead to sell to Pakistan. There could be other problems such as whether the Swedes themselves, or the EU, would have political reservations but these hurdles would be far less onerous than a US Congressional approval.
Overall, given the politics of planes, Pakistan’s best possible option would be to buy some new combat aircraft while continuing to develop the Pakistan-China co-produced JF Thunder, with an avionics package from the European states, as we have had a good relationship with some of them. Of course, the EU collectivity is beginning to get more intrusive vis-a-vis Pakistan in terms of our domestic laws and politics, but their sense of business normally remains strong -- especially since their arms and avionics industries have tough and often unfair competition from the US. In this connection, it is too bad that the French Mirage has priced itself out of the market as far as Pakistan is concerned because it is a remarkable fighting machine.
All in all, buying American comes with a heavy price, both political and economic. We are already experiencing this with the purchase of the Boeing 777s for the national airline. Some important questions are now being raised about this particular deal which is all set to pull the national carrier down with the loan repayments and interest charges. At a time when the national carrier was all set on a healthy road to profits, this one deal is threatening its very existence. There is a growing view that the manner in which the planes were purchased was highly questionable.
Apart from the financial costs, there is a debate amongst pilots over whether the 777 purchase was the most viable. In fact, for the price of one 777 we could have purchased three good second-hand 747s -- which provide a greater sense of security with their four engines as opposed to the two of the 777. There are those who argue that the 777 offers prestige to an airline unlike second-hand aircraft -- but at what cost?
Another viewpoint is it would have been more rational to go for the airbus, since its maintenance structures would not have had to be created anew. Many pilots flying for the national carrier that I spoke to seem to have grave reservations over this 777s purchase, and so far we seem to be having a number of problems with these new planes -- which incidentally are not particularly comfortable either. This is where decision-making without proper scrutiny and no accountability makes the nation pay the price for generations.
(The writer is Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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