By Dr. Nayyer Ali

April 01, 2005

The F-16’s

Pakistan’s government has been lobbying the US for the last two years to sell it F-16 fighter aircraft, a plane designed in the late 1960’s which first flew in the 1970’s. This effort so far has been unsuccessful, and is currently in limbo, as the US has not made a decision, and India has objected, while pursuing its own attempts to purchase the aircraft. So what’s all the fuss about? Why are these old airplanes so important?
Although the original airframes were designed over 30 years ago, the F-16 remains one of the top two fighter planes in the world, with only the F-15 Eagle, another American aircraft, its better. Its engines, weapon systems, and electronics have been continually updated to keep the plane at the state of the art. At about 50 million dollars per plane, they are quite expensive, but the production cost is deceptive. No other country in the world could produce its equal for 50 million dollars per plane or even 500 million dollars per plane. The technological and human resources that the US has developed over the last six decades in advanced military hardware has given it a capacity to build weapons far more advanced than any other country.
There is no alternate supplier of fighters equal to the F-16. Any nation that has them in quantity and faces an air war with a country that does not, possesses an overwhelming advantage. Command of the air is so vital in modern warfare that such a factor alone can determine the outcome of a war. With F-16’s a country is much more secure than without them, all else being equal.
The US has four options. It can sell F-16’s to neither India nor Pakistan, it can sell to both, or it can sell to one and not the other. What is the best choice for US policy?
It depends on what the goals of that policy is in South Asia. There are three goals of high importance. The first is to crush Al-Qaeda, capture Osama Bin Laden, and stabilize Afghanistan. The second is to ensure that nuclear war does not occur. The third is to maximize America’s commerce and economic benefits from the growth of the South Asian economy.
F-16’s are of no use to Pakistan with respect to catching Osama Bin Laden. They are also of no real value in the struggles in FATA or even with the situation in Baluchistan. From a War on Terror perspective, the US has no reason to sell Pakistan the F-16’s.
But in the case of nuclear war scenarios, there is a rationale to sell the F-16’s, and to sell them only to Pakistan. The only plausible situation that would result in a South Asian nuclear war would be if Pakistan were facing a catastrophic defeat in a full-blown conventional war. To prevent that scenario from occurring, Pakistan needs to have a conventional military capacity that is sufficient to hold back India. One critical element of that would be the ability to control Pakistani airspace and deny it to the Indian Air Force. For that, a fleet of F-16’s would be extremely useful. It would be in US interest to sell F-16’s for that purpose.
The US would want to carefully calibrate its arms sales in order to maintain a reasonable balance in South Asia, but not arm Pakistan to the point of encouraging Pakistan to become “adventurous”. Arming both sides with F-16’s is a dangerous idea that would actually increase the likelihood of war as both sides would have an incentive to launch a surprise air attack intending to wipe out the other sides F-16 fleet. Selling to India alone makes no sense whatsoever, as India has no real threat on its borders that requires F-16’s to defend it.
Pakistan did receive an older version of the F-16 in the 1980’s during Reagan’s presidency, and those planes are still the backbone of the Air Force. A further batch of planes were purchased and paid for in the late 1980’s but delivery was stopped due to sanctions. It took Pakistan eight years to get its money back. Pakistan should obtain guarantees of delivery before paying this time around. Pakistan should also seriously consider if the cost of a fleet of F-16’s (about two billion dollars) is not better spent on development. Comments can reach me at


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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