On December 11, news emerged that in August 2019, Andrea Thompson, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control & International Security Affairs, USA, had written to Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, Chief of Pakistan Air Force (PAF), expressing concern that Pakistan had “relocated, maintained and operated” the US-origin F-16s and the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) from forward operating bases not approved under the original terms of the sale, and “while we understand from you that these aircraft movements were done in support of national defense objectives, the U.S. government considers the relocation … to non-U.S. government authorized bases … inconsistent with the F-16 Letter of Offer and Acceptance. Such actions could subject sensitive U.S.-technologies to diversion to or access by third parties, and could undermine our shared security platforms and infrastructures.”
Although the letter doesn’t contain any reference to the post-Balakot Indo-Pak aerial skirmish of February 27, the diplomatic reprimand came after that dogfight. This raises a question – what were the conditions imposed by the US prior to refurbishing the PAF’s older fleet of F-16s, as also providing new ones? And why?
From 1990, Pakistan was under US’ nuclear-related sanctions (linked to the Symington, Pressler and Glenn Amendments), as well as Commonwealth sanctions (after General Musharraf’s Oct 1999 coup). Together, these had restricted the supply of Western equipment to fund-starved Pakistan and severely affected its military preparedness (evident during the 1999 Kargil Conflict).
After the 9/11 attacks (Sept 2001), the US had sought Pakistani assistance for conducting operations in landlocked Afghanistan. Sensing an opportunity, Pakistan quickly aligned with the US, and provided port facilities, overland access, airfields, transportation, etc. In turn, the US lifted all sanctions (nuclear-related on Sept 22, 2001; democracy-related on Oct 17, 2001); gave an Emergency Cash Transfer of $600 million to help Pakistan tide over the fiscal crisis; accelerated security cooperation; and designated Pakistan as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ in 2004. It also began economic, security and military aid to Pakistan. Between 2002 and 2018, the US gave Pakistan about US$34.2 billion ($11.3 bn as economic aid; $8.3 as security aid, including $4 billion as Foreign Military Financing (FMF); and $14.6 bn as Coalition Support Fund. In addition, Pakistan received advanced military equipment – some gratis; balance paid through US aid/reimbursement, or from Pakistani national funds. The PAF had focused on modernizing its existing fleet of F-16s and acquisition of new F-16s. It received:
- Around 60 Mid-Life Update (MLU) kits for its 1980s vintage fleet of F-16A/B aircraft. The US subsidized these kits from FMF. This MLU, carried out in Turkey, upgraded them to new standards (Block-52).
- 18 new F-16 C/D Block-52 aircraft (paid from national funds; US$ 1.43 billion).
- Armaments for the F-16s, including 500 x AMRAAMs; 1,450 x 2000-pound bombs; 500 x JDAM Tail Kits and 1,600 Enhanced Paveway laser-guided kits. These too were paid from Pakistan national funds ($629 million).
- Another 14 x F-16 A/B aircraft were given free by the US, being deemed Excess Defense Articles.
- Additionally, Pakistan received six second-hand F-16s (Block-15 Air Defence Fighter version) from Turkey.
The Pakistani military operates a mix of Western, Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment – and there are documented instances of Pakistan providing China access to Western military technology, particularly that from the US, which Beijing then reverse-engineered.
After Pakistan facilitated the 1972 US-China rapprochement, and especially during the later stages of the Cold War, the US had tacitly encouraged Pakistan to give China access to US technologies in order to improve its budding relationship with Beijing and pressurize erstwhile USSR. In 1975, the US endorsed the UK’s sale of 50 Spey jet engines to the China along with a factory to produce them. In 1982, it approved the sale of AN/ALR-69 radar warning system to Pakistan on the F-16 aircraft despite CIA’s explicit warnings about its proliferation to China. Such technology transfer allowed the US (and Pakistan) to work with China till 1989 to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The US’ wink-and-nod policy on such technology transfer ended along with the Cold War – but the leakage from Pakistan continued. One of the ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles fired in the 1998 US attack on an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan crash-landed in Baluchistan – and was transferred by Pakistan to China, who re-engineered it as the air-launched KD-20. Following the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Pakistan reportedly granted China discrete access to the crashed US’ state-of-the-art stealth helicopter.
When the US commenced supplying F-16s to Pakistan in the early 1980s, China had expressed interest in its technology. After the US agreed (2006) to upgrade the PAF’s existing fleet of F-16A/B and supply new F-16C/D aircraft, it didn’t want China to get access to advanced technologies in view of changed geopolitical circumstances. Hence, the US forced Pakistan to accept:-
- The upgradation of F-16s outside Pakistan in Turkey.
- The upgraded and new F-16s be stationed at just two locations, i.e. Shahbaz airbase (Jacobabad) and Mushaf airbase (Sargodha) in order to segregated them from PAF’s other air bases where Chinese technicians operate. The six F-16s ex-Turkey were however allowed at Bholari airbase, Thatta.
- AMRAAMs be stocked only at Mushaf Air Base, with restrictions on their use.
- Placement of Technical Security Teams (TSTs) at both Shahbaz and Mushaf airbases to monitor the restrictions.
The stationing of TSTs had commenced around 2012 – but it’s clear that the US restraints were insufficient to prevent the PAF from deploy the F-16s and AMRAAMs against India on 27 February. Consequently, in July 2019, the US had authorized US$ 125 million as “Foreign Military Sale to Pakistan for Technical Security Team (TST) … assignment of 60 contractor representatives to Pakistan to assist in the oversight of operations as part of the Peace Drive F-16 program”. This aid had generated some ill-will in India – but now, it’s evident the same was aimed at tightening control over PAF’s use of the F-16 and associated AMRAAMs.
This tightening is going to increase PAF’s operational reliance on the Pak-China joint venture fighter aircraft, JF-17, which the PAF is acquiring in large numbers. It currently has 98 JF-17 Block-I and II operational. By 2024, it is expected to induct fifty JF-17 Block-IIIs, each with a new electronic warfare system, upgraded avionics, the PL-10 air-to-air missile, a Chinese-made Active Electronically Scanned Array radar system, and possibly, the Chinese WS-13 engine. Reports suggest that the extant JH-17s may also be upgraded to Block-III standards later. Experts opine that while the JF-17 Block-III may not be as good as 4.5 generation fighters like the Rafale or Su-35, it yet is a very capable aircraft.
 US Congressional Research Service report, “Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2020”, dated 12 March 2019.
 US Congressional Research Service, “Major U.S. Arms Sales and Grants to Pakistan Since 2001”, dated 04 May 2015.