United States Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in a press release on September 07, 2022 indicated approval of, “a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Pakistan of F-16 Case for Sustainment and related equipment for an estimated cost of $450 million”.
DSCA reported that Pakistan had requested to consolidate prior F-16 sustainment and support cases to the Pakistan Air Force F-16 fleet by reducing, “duplicate case activities and adding additional continued support elements”.
The sustainment support comprising of engineering, technical, and logistics services for follow-on support of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet will include the following as per the DSCA:-
Participation in F-16 Aircraft Structural Integrity Program, Electronic Combat International Security Assistance Program, International Engine Management Program, Engine Component Improvement Program, and other technical coordination groups, Aircraft and engine hardware and software modifications and support, Aircraft and engine spare repair/return parts, Accessories and support equipment, Classified and unclassified software and software support, Publications, manuals, and technical documentation, Precision measurement, calibration, lab equipment, and technical support services, Studies and surveys, Other related elements of aircraft maintenance and program support.
Analysis of Sustainment Proposal
The details of the programme specified denote increasing the lifespan of the airframe, engine and the electronic support programme.
This will ensure that the F 16 of which Pakistan possesses approximately 60 at present will have enhanced life and operational capabilities. Details of F 16 with Pakistan are provided as an Appendix below.
The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with U.S. and partner forces in ongoing counterterrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations says the DSCA. While a weapons and munitions package has not been included this could be added subsequently and is possibly being held back to avoid the issue being raised by India.
Enhancing Conventional Deterrence vis a Vis India
The aim of the sale has been outlined by the DSCA as it, “improves Pakistan’s ability to support counterterrorism operations through its robust air-to-ground capability”.
While the DSCA has stated that, “The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region,” by sustainment of F 16 programme it contributes to conventional deterrence vis a vis India.
This is evident from the last aerial skirmish between Pakistan and India on February 29, 2019 when US supplied F 16 were used in what the PAF calls Operation Swift Retort. In a dogfight a MiG 21 flown by IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was reportedly shot down by a F 16 missile strike. Thus, use of the sustained F 16 by the PAF in any future combat with India is a sina qua non.
India would have limited influence in blocking the sale, though the press release is only a notice of intent of sales.
The United States overall policy very carefully balances military support to Pakistan and India. India is the principal strategic partner in the Indo Pacific that falls under US IndoPacom.
On the other hand in US Central Command, Pakistan is one of the important partners and is also a Major non NATO ally for over a decade now. Thus US support to Pakistan military is expected to continue.
India will have to effectively enhance conventional combat capability of the IAF to continue to meet the challenge of a resurgent PAF.
Resumption of U.S. military support through the F 16 programme may also entail consideration of the China factor. Presently the PAF has approximately 170 fourth generation Chinese origin fighters including 36 – J 10, some of which are on order.
Dissuading Pakistan from acquiring more advance Chinese could also be one of the objectives.
At the same time PAF’s reliance of US F 16 indicates a lack of confidence on the more numerous Chinese fighters which can be obtained with lesser encumbrances and at cheaper cost.
Pakistan F 16 Fleet
Pakistan Air Force acquired 40 number of F 16 Block 15 fighter aircraft in the 1980’s between 1983 to 1987. These are now vintage fighters some of which have gone an upgrade but would require further sustainment support. Of these 32 are estimated to be still operational with the PAF.
Facing a series of embargoes from time to time, it was only in 2010 that further procurement of F 16 Block C/D was undertaken with 18 acquired. 13 F 16 were separately acquired from Jordan with United states concurrence. Thus approximately 63 F 16 can be number counted with the PAF of which how many are actually operational is unclear for now.