The F-16 and Nuclear Security: The Fault Lines in the U.S.-Pakistani Relationship
The health of America’s bilateral relationship with Pakistan is tethered tightly to American attitudes on the export of its most successful fighter: the F-16. During the Trump administration, the United States denied Islamabad the fighter over concerns about support for terrorism. The Biden administration reversed course and authorized the sale of military equipment worth $450 million to Pakistan to enhance the air-to-ground capabilities of the country’s current stock of F-16 fighter aircraft.
This most recent sale is the latest chapter in a decades-long back and forth between Washington and Islamabad, in which bilateral relations have fluctuated erratically. Across several generations, Pakistan’s desire to bolster their supply of F-16s has coincided with Washington’s efforts to halt Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear proliferation activities, limit the threat of war with India, and manage meddling in Afghanistan during the American occupation.
The security ramifications of how the United States handles the F-16 matter carries enormous geopolitical significance, ranging from nuclear conflict, conventional warfare, counter-terrorism, and containing Chinese influence. The United States should consider moving away from the heavily security-centric relationship with Pakistan because it has not moderated Pakistani foreign policy or significantly altered the country’s nuclear decision making. The history of U.S. negotiations with Pakistan illustrates that the temporary, tactical, and transactional nature of the relationship has enabled Pakistan to pursue its adversarial military doctrine of strategic depth in Afghanistan to hedge against India, in which the F-16s became a key tool, while also furthering the ambitions of a nuclear weapons program.
F-16 refurbishments are not going to resolve Pakistan’s crippling economic and humanitarian crisis and may instead contribute to the cycle of military opaqueness and intransigence over stable democratic civilian rule. Washington should stop using F-16s to try and leverage security and non-proliferation commitments from Pakistan. As Pakistan is mired in political, economic, and environmental instability, the risk is that providing Islamabad with more weapons will be counterproductive because they exacerbate regional tensions. Instead, Washington should recognize that these sales and upgrades prop up actors in the country that sometimes work against American interests, all but ensuring that clashes over the sale of this jet — and other American hardware — will continue long into the future.
A Status Symbol
The story of Pakistan’s obsession with the F-16 is emblematic of the country’s dysfunctional relationship with the United States. The aircraft is an object of national pride and military strength. The image of the F-16 appears on painted billboards across Pakistan and adorned on decorated commercial trucks that trudge along Pakistan’s highways. It provides what Pakistan’s air force perceives is an edge over India’s air force as well as representing an endorsement from the U.S. military.
Amongst all these dynamics, the F-16 issue is intrinsically and repeatedly tied to American concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Following the Biden administration’s decision to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16s, and in an effort to address Indian concerns about the deal, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner explained that the F-16 issue was related to the country’s “defense partnership with Pakistan which is primarily focused on counter-terrorism and nuclear security.” The counter-argument, however, is that Pakistan could use these aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons, and so the sale would ensure that Pakistan has the tools to deliver nuclear weapons if its conventional deterrent breaks down.
Nuclear risk is a by-product of Pakistan’s instability, which has occurred directly due to the troubling relationship its military sustains with violent extremists. Pakistan’s commitment to preserve its nuclear arsenal is also configured to level the defense battlefield with India. Ironically, instead of being a conventional deterrent, the F-16 could instead be used to carry nuclear warheads. The United States, meanwhile, has sought to use these aircraft as a diplomatic lever and to try and convince Pakistan to become a more reliable partner for international security, often with only illusory success.
Non-Proliferation and Arms Sales
The sale of American military equipment to Pakistan has been fraught and subject to two competing policy priorities: Non-proliferation and, during both the Cold War and the War on the Terror, American efforts to retain close diplomatic ties with Islamabad for interests in Afghanistan and South Asia. These policies are in tension with one another, but the determination about these sales helps explain U.S. priorities in that moment.
In 1974, India tested its first nuclear weapon, raising the specter of a reciprocal Pakistani weapons program to hedge against its larger, more powerful rival. In response, the Ford administration pushed for the United States to introduce the 1976 Symington and 1977 Glenn Amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Both amendments prohibited U.S. defense assistance to any country found to be trafficking nuclear technology and to any non-nuclear state that detonates a nuclear explosive device. However, by 1979, the United States appeared resigned to the fact that they could no longer prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear technology and shifted its priorities, attempting to deter Pakistan from carrying out a nuclear test.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was a watershed moment for the United States and its dealings with the Pakistani military establishment. Just three months prior, U.S. officials had already weighed up the pros and cons of circumventing the Symington Amendment and providing Pakistan with “high performance aircrafts such as the F-16” to slow down Pakistani proliferation. This subplot in U.S.-Pakistani relations, of F-16s and nuclear proliferation, would develop in parallel to the mujahideen war against the Soviets. In a somber conversation with China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, U.S. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown explained that American objections to Pakistan’s nuclear program would be “set aside for the time being to concentrate on strengthening” the country against the Soviet Union. Pakistan held all the cards as the United States subordinated its non-proliferation goals to those of competition with the Soviet Union, much to the benefit of Islamabad.
The Reagan administration continued this policy. In 1981, section 620E was added to the Foreign Assistance Act, allowing the president to waive existing military sanctions against Pakistan, paving the way for the first export of 40 F-16s in an arms deal worth $1.1 billion. The United States justified the sale by arguing that improving Pakistan’s conventional forces would allow Islamabad to meet its security demands without the need for nuclear weapons. The Pressler Amendment of 1985 made a half-hearted effort to ban economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless the president could annually certify that the country did not have nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, Reagan certified Pakistan throughout his tenure. However, by 1990, the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Pakistan had successfully assembled several nuclear weapons that could be deployed on Pakistan’s F-16s.
The end of the Cold War shifted American priorities. President George H.W. Bush was unwilling to certify Pakistan’s status based on the Pressler Amendment, despite considering the sale of 60 more F-16s just a year earlier. U.S. officials were also aware that Pakistan’s air force had stepped up its F-16 training to practice the dropping of a nuclear bomb and German authorities had discovered that Pakistan was developing the computer and electronic technology to not only plot the correct flight for a bomb mission but also equip the F-16s to carry nuclear weapons. With all of these concerns, the Bush administration could not justify the transfer of the F-16s.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed executive order 12938, prohibiting U.S. arms sales to countries that sought the procurement of weapons of mass destruction but included a clause that sanctions could be overridden on the “grounds of significant foreign policy or national security interests.” Following Pakistan’s nuclear weapons test of 1998, Clinton invoked this law against Pakistan which, alongside the application of the Glenn Amendment, pushed U.S.-Pakistani relations to one of their lowest points, and $2 billion from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to Pakistan was suspended and the country became an international pariah.
The Global War on Terror
Following the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan’s importance to the United States increased again. This meant that U.S. policy once more prioritized interests in Pakistan’s neighborhood over its nuclear program. President George W. Bush assembled a multi-billion-dollar defense and aid package to ensure Pakistan’s help in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Ironically, Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, whose regime maintained reported ties with those very same extremist groups, demanded that the F-16s be given to Pakistan as a matter of national pride, which Bush initially refused. Some of the terrorist entities connected to both the Pakistani military and al-Qaeda even engaged in the hostage-taking and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in lieu of the F-16s being released.
After four years of persistence from Pakistan, Bush relented and agreed to give Musharraf the F-16s as well as upgrade its existing fleet. This was despite the controversy surrounding Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear and missile technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. Then-Senator Joe Biden, amongst others in Congress, denounced the F-16 sale, calling it a “reckless action.” Bush officials argued that F-16s would only be used against terrorists and insurgents.
Aside for counter-terrorism purposes, past instances have shown that Pakistan’s military has used its air force against its own civilian population in Balochistan, where decades of maladministration of the province’s natural resources has spawned a separatist movement. Pakistan has also used the F-16s for operations against the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but it has resulted in the substantial collateral damage of the local Pashtun population — contributing to resentment towards the military.
Expressing apprehensions over the Biden administration’s decision to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar implied that the primary use of the aircraft would be to wage war with India. At present, Pakistan has nuclear-capable F-16s, in addition to its ballistic missiles, which can reach key strategic points inside India. Jaishankar’s concerns are not without merit. Tensions between Pakistan and India ignited in February 2019, after the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group carried out a suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 Indian security personnel.
Matters further escalated as both countries deployed fighter jets during an aerial skirmish resulting in an Indian Air Force MiG-21 being shot down by a radar-guided missile from a Pakistan Air Force jet. Recovered debris of an AMRAAM missile, a U.S.-built weapon which can only be compatible with American-built F-16s, provided proof that Pakistan had deployed F-16s against India as opposed to the Chinese-built JF-17 Thunder that they initially claimed to have used, violating the terms of sale from the United States. Pakistan was subsequently reprimanded for the deliberate misuse of the jets by then-U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Andrea Thompson as well as for moving the F-16 to unsanctioned forward operating bases. However, Pakistan did not face further sanctions from the Trump administration, who sought cordial ties with Pakistan’s then-prime minister Imran Khan to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban.
For the United States, Pakistan has once again become a strategic necessity, this time for the Biden administration’s “over the horizon” counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan. The U.S. drone operation that eliminated al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan, was made possible because Pakistan provided access across its airspace. However, concerns that Pakistan’s military retains close ties with the Taliban regime, especially the proscribed Haqqani Network, raises questions about the long-term approach of this strategy.
Aside from links to the Taliban, the United States is also troubled by Pakistan’s deepening strategic relationship with China. For Islamabad, the F-16 deal juxtaposes Pakistan between China and the United States. Due to Pakistan’s “all-weather friendship” with China, there are concerns that both countries could collaborate to train People’s Liberation Army pilots to better understand the operability of F-16s and adjust their tactics in anticipation of a future war with the United States and its allies, especially over the Taiwan issue. The United States does have Technical Security Teams that monitor Pakistan’s F-16 use and can account for the weapons usage. The challenge is that these teams cannot control where the Pakistan Air Force flies, raising concerns in Washington over a potential security crisis spiraling out of America’s control. China already stands accused of recruiting retired British air force pilots to train its military to understand Western operations. The added worry is that China may be able to learn about the F-16 from Pakistan and use this information for its own manufacturing and to develop tactics to shoot down Western fighters.
The contorted situation of the F-16 raises a perennial yet fundamental dilemma on whether Washington can ever really achieve its objectives with Pakistan regarding cooperation in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups, curtailing nuclear proliferation, ending hostilities with India, and containing China’s expanding clout in South Asia.
The answers will likely turn out to be disappointing, as they have in the past. In part, this is because multiple U.S. administrations pass laws with the intention of taking a principled stand in holding Pakistan accountable for its ties to terrorism or nuclear proliferation but then subsequently seek to find workarounds when there is an impending strategic security concern. Pakistan has understood this all too well.
By fulfilling Pakistan’s wishes on the F-16, the Biden administration may be hoping it will help shore up the fragile governing coalition from outside interference. However, it is the machinations of Pakistan’s military that remains the constant and will continue to shape what transpires within the country. For Pakistan’s establishment, statecraft of strategic depth outweighs the economic and social challenges that continue to engulf the country and which in turn heighten insecurity in the region. This will eventually put Islamabad at odds with Washington once more. The debris that rained from the sky when Pakistan was caught in a confrontation with India back in 2019 provided a cautionary lesson about the danger of giving heavy weapons to an unreliable and unstable state actor with nuclear weapons, ties to terrorist groups, and deepening relations with China. Therefore, the United States should be cautious and hesitant in delivering more military support to Pakistan, such as the F-16s, where there is no guarantee that they will be used competently and where trigger-happy generals seek to polarize the region by foreclosing on what they have done for generations: encouraging and inciting its neighbors into full confrontation. Therefore, the F-16 squabbles between the United States and Pakistan are far from over.
Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel, Ph.D., is the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation think-tank and a visiting teacher at the London School of Economics. He is the editor of NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum and chairman of Global Threats Advisory Group with NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.
Marcus Andreopoulos is a senior research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation as well as a researcher and instructor for the Global Threats Advisory Group with NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.