How Pakistan’s downed F-16 may impact US-India defence trade
Recent tensions between India and Pakistan, have bought the US’ arms export policies into question. In a dogfight over the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC), Pakistan shot down an Indian MiG-21 Bison and captured its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Whereas, India shot down a Pakistani F-16 which crashed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan not only denied India’s claim but also denied having deployed the US-made F-16 fighter jets against India. Thereafter, in a news conference by senior Indian Air Force officers, evidence was presented in the form of mangled remains of an Advance Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile recovered in Indian territory. In underscoring the use of F-16s, Air Vice-Marshal R G K Kapoor said the missile was “appropriate for carrying only on the Pakistan F-16”.
This reportedly prompted the US Embassy in Islamabad to announce that it was “looking into reports that Pakistan used F-16 jets to shoot down the Indian pilot, a potential violation of Washington’s military sale agreements that limit how Pakistan can use the planes.”
Sale of F-16 upgrades for Pakistan was considered in 2008, amidst much controversy. The Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs even held a hearing titled ‘DEFEATING AL–QAEDA’S AIR FORCE: PAKISTAN’S F–16 PROGRAM IN THE FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM’. Subcommittee Chairman Gary L Ackerman had raised concerns over “how can we be assured that the F–16s will be used as a counterterrorism tool rather than just the way to boost Pakistan’s conventional warfare capabilities vis-à-vis India?”
Eventually, the sale went through to “increase the capability of the Pakistan Air Force to conduct close air support and night precision attack missions” towards achieving “shared goals in countering militants along its western border”.
On ascertaining if Pakistan’s recent use of the F-16 constitutes a violation of that rationale for sale, the specifics of the US-Pakistan “end-user agreement” are not public as per US’ government-to-government Foreign Military Sales guidelines. Moreover, the US embassy in Pakistan also announced that the US Government “does not comment on or confirm pending investigations of this nature.”
However, if the end-user agreement does indeed bar actions beyond counterterrorism mandates, Pakistan’s deployment of the F-16 against India maybe an attempt to push the envelope on deployment restrictions devised during the heydays of the War on Terror.
This Pakistani effort to seek steady erosion of those limitations via setting a precedent, may also complicate America’s plan to capture India’s $15 billion-market for fighter jets.
Since 2008, Indo-US defence trade has increased from under $1 billion to now over $18 billion –with US arms exports to India increasing by over 550 percent during 2013-17. On fighter jets specifically, India – the world’s largest arms importer, is expected to be a burgeoning market for the United States – the world’s largest arms producer and exporter. For instance, the US defence firm Lockheed Martin is competing chiefly with Boeing’s F/A-18, Saab’s Gripen, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, and the Eurofighter Typhoon “to supply the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 114 combat planes in a deal estimated to be worth more than $15 billion.”
Furthermore, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) has moved India and the US away from a traditional “buyer-seller” dynamic to one of co-production and co-development. This collaborative approach under DTTI is central to addressing concerns over Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook being incompatible. In this vein, Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its F-16 production line – in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems, to India. Overtime, India would become the sole global production centre for the F-16 in order to also cater to overseas markets.
Last year, Lockheed even announced that its joint venture will produce wings for the aircraft in India, “regardless of whether it wins the Indian military order”. One may argue the announcement was a result of the US firm finally accepting “what many have warned it for years: That the IAF would never buy a fighter whose very name is associated across India with the Pakistan air force which has operated the F-16 since the 1980s.”
F-21 – New jet in an old airframe?
In tackling the stigma with the F-16, Lockheed Martin recently introduced the F-21 at Aero India in Bengaluru. Though deemed to be specially configured for the IAF, experts have noted “little to differentiate the F-21 from the F-16 Block 70.”
Described by Vivek Lall (Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics) as being “different, inside and out”, the F-21 is essentially a recast of the F-16 with its airframe and engine remaining “largely the same”. A significant India-specific addition, however, is the F-21’s dorsal fairing – “a rib along the fighter’s spine in which additional equipment can be carried in the future, in order to improve the fighter’s avionic capability.” The F-16 had been rejected in IAF’s past Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft contest as the air frame was not considered capable of “integrating future capability expansions.”
Aiming for India’s 114 plane requirement, the F-21 is being touted as “For India, From India”. However, this exclusivity raises the stakes – and possibly even the price-point with the economics of scale by catering to overseas markets not figuring in the case, as co-production with Tata Advanced Systems may not take off unless the bid is won. Furthermore, Pakistan’s discussed effort to push the envelope on deployment restrictions would complicate the F-21’s bid to capture India’s fighter jet market.
Due to past corruption scandals over arms acquisitions and the recent political rancour over the Rafale deal, arms acquisitions in India now play out in the hyper-polarised public domain. Given the F-21’s broad similarities to the F-16, perceptional parity with Pakistan may continue to factor in – if not exacerbate unpopularity given the case that India shot down a Pakistani F-16 with a relatively less-advanced MiG-21 Bison.
Most importantly, recently Pakistan’s ambassador to the US was asked about the misuse of the F-16. In response, he decried any violation by stating, “I think the question is whether Pakistan is prevented” of such an action by the end-user agreement. The envoy’s statement raises questions if Pakistan’s agreement has wiggle-room to justify its use of F-16s. For instance, in some cases of the United States’ end-user agreements with Israel, deployment of US arms are permitted on the vaguely-termed grounds of “legitimate self-defense.”
For a long time, the United States’ relations with Pakistan served as an impediment to the development of Indo-US ties. Off late, US actions like its support for grey-listing Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force have gone a long way in tackling that hurdle. Progress on this front may stand jeopardised if the US gives Pakistan a pass on its effort to erode deployment restrictions.
Therefore, US response on Pakistan’s possible deployment of the F-16 will bear heavily on its effort to tout the F-21 as an all-exclusive platform for India – despite India-specific value additions like the dorsal fairing and its boost to ‘Make in India’. In the meantime, $15 billion hang in the balance.