The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is all caught up this US election season. Both frontrunners offer little by the way of direction on how to deal with the nuclear-armed rough state.
However, the Obama administration’s decision not to supply F16 Block 52 fighter aircraft at a subsidised rate, through the foreign military financing route, is a big blow for its already struggling air force.
It is the beginning of the new normal between Washington, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Now, instead of the US taxpayer subsidising the F16s, Pakistan will have to pay the market price for the deadly fighter aircraft.
The market price is $100 million -- not the cut-price of $35-odd million a pop Pakistan was hoping for. Pakistan has said it will procure fighter jets from elsewhere. That is just bluster.
The country simply cannot afford the revised price tag, and alternatives are far costlier. At best, Pakistan will have to buy some of the F16s second hand like they did from Oman in 2014. Even those may need US end-user certification.
The Green-tailed Falcon
The Pakistan Air Force is over-dependent on the F16. The PAF has 70 F16s in its fleet. Currently, only 20 of those are the top-end versions, and only a dozen combat-ready at any given point of time.
The PAF's desperation, therefore, is understandable.
It is important to understand that the aircraft in question is revolutionary. It is perhaps the greatest single engine fighter plane ever built. The highly manoeuvrable, supersonic fighter has nine hard points that carry joint direct attack munitions, as well as advanced missiles for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Pakistan is short of the weapon systems as well.
The F16 has true all-weather operational capability and advanced radar and enemy recognition systems.
Simply put, it is more than a match for anything the Indian Air Force can offer, bar the Sukhoi SU-30 (photo below).
The F16s may be configured by the US as a non-nuclear strike aircraft but it is well within Pakistan’s capability to turn them into one.
Therein lies its importance. Even if Pakistan had one of them, it could prove one too many India. Imagine the country having 20.
Changing Order of Battle
The F16s would be no fuss if Pakistan needed them for a traditional order of battle.
In that scenario, an aggressive first strike against forward Indian air bases -- as done in the 1965 war -- with remarkable efficiency would have sufficed.
Now, however, Pakistan faces three distinct threats.
Given that it has the world fastest growing nuclear arsenal, both the Western alliance and Israel would like to take them on. They are real and present threats.
The Pakistan Air Force has to be alert to a “take out” strike however implausible it may seem now. This completely changes Pakistan Air Force's requirements and its duties. It has to be, at least at current force levels, almost continually airborne!
In addition, PAF needs the deterrent parity against India. Without top-of-the-line F16s Pakistan will find that a tall order. It can neither deter India nor the world. It makes Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship that much more complicated and far less credible. India has a window of opportunity.
It needs to set the standard for the maintenance and delivery of the SU- 30 MKIs right with Russia. The Rafale fighter jet purchase needs to be speeded up. And yes, the IAF needs a world class single engine option.
Ninad D Sheth is a senior Delhi-based journalist. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Last Updated 31, Mar 2018, 7:03 PM IST