Mint Explainer: Behind the US-Pak F-16 support deal

Pakistan has used F-16s against India. After the Balakot strike of 2019, a Pakistani F-16 shot down an Indian MIG-21. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Pakistan has used F-16s against India. After the Balakot strike of 2019, a Pakistani F-16 shot down an Indian MIG-21. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint


  • The F-16 fighter jets mark fluctuations in the US-Pakistan strategic ties since 1983 when the US first supplied them.

American upgrades to the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 programme were at the centre of controversy after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar criticised the US decision to provide a $450 million military sustainment package to India’s northwestern rival. Mint breaks down Pakistan’s F-16 program and India’s concerns.

What is the controversy about?

On 7 September, the United States government announced that Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets, designed and manufactured by America, would receive “technical and logistical service for follow-on support". Put plainly, the US will provide maintenance support as well as upgradation and improvement on the F-16’s capabilities. Washington claims that the upgrade will help Pakistan contribute to counter-terror operations in the region.

New Delhi has made its concerns felt. Jaishankar, visiting the US, maintained that the US justification for upgrading Pakistan’s F-16 “was not fooling anybody". Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also conveyed his concerns to the US.

What is the story with Pakistan’s F-16s?

The US began supplying F-16s to Pakistan in 1983. The jets were first sold to Pakistan after Islamabad proved an important ally in the fight against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Supplies were far from smooth. Pakistan’s rogue nuclear program caused the US to pass the Pressler Amendment which restricted the sales of F-16s to the Pakistani Air Force. The Americans made several attempts to sell the planes manufactured to other countries like Indonesia but these plans eventually fell through. In 2005, the program was renewed after Islamabad became a major ally in the American war against terror. More jets were supplied in 2014. Pakistan now possesses approximately 85 of these.

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Why is India concerned?

New Delhi and Islamabad have been engaged in a battle for advantage in the air for decades. The introduction of the F-16s in the 1980s gave Pakistan an edge over the Indian Air Force. India has remedied this imbalance in recent years, especially with the acquisition of the Rafale fighter jets. The F-16s, on the other hand, have been ageing for some time now. The American sustenance program, which many suspect may include upgraded capabilities for the F-16, may revitalise Pakistan’s fighter fleet.

F-16s have also been used in operations against India. During the aerial battles after the Balakot strikes of 2019, the Pakistan Air Force used the F-16, armed with AMRAAM missiles, to shoot down an Indian MiG-21. This was reportedly done in contravention of understandings with the US about the use of the jets, and Washington was said to have issued a written note to the Pakistan military’s top brass.

How has the US responded to Indian concerns?

US Assistant Secretary of Defence Ely Ratner argued that “the action on F-16s is not designed as a message to India as it relates to its relationship with Russia. The decision inside the US government around the F-16 issue was made, predicated on US interests associated with our defense partnership with Pakistan, which is primarily focused on counter-terrorism and nuclear security."

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price echoed that line and stated that India and Pakistan were both American partners. “We do have in many cases shared interests. And the relationship we have with India stands on its own. The relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own," said Price.

What are the motives of the US?

This is where matters get murkier. Some have speculated that the American decision comes as a reward for Pakistan's support in the recent assassination of terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While this remains contested, analysts have pointed out that Washington might simply be looking to keep Pakistan from veering too close to China. Islamabad’s fighter fleet now possesses more Chinese-made fighters than American ones but F-16s are still seen as superior within the Pakistani military. Either way, it demonstrates that Washington is looking to maintain a relationship, however limited, with the powers that be in Pakistan.

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