US cables expose Pak F-16s 'image' problem

US cables expose Pak F-16s 'image' problem

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The F-16 fighter aircraft, which America sold to the Pakistan Air Force, and recently tried to sell to India, has been a relationship spoiler all round.

Pakistan complains that American sanctions held back many F-16s that had already been paid for. India complains that Pakistan will use the F-16s against India, not terrorists. And America is upset that India hasn't bought F-16s.

WikiLeaks cables accessed exclusively by NDTV reveal how the the F-16 assumed mythical proportions in the Pakistan public mind making it a very big deal in that country. They also reveal how Pakistan has always known that they will not really help it match India's air combat prowess and how India is not really worried about it's the F-16's fighting capabilities. (WikiLeaks - Pak wants better terms for buying F-16s)

Several cables exchanged between the US embassy in Islamabad and Washington illustrate how large the F-16 looms in the minds of Pakistanis. US diplomats write that, "The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) is obsessed with F-16s" and the fighters have "an inflated symbolic importance in the public imagination". (Read: WikiLeaks - Pak signs F-16 Letters of Offer and Acceptance)

Cables also note that the Pakistani Air Force tacitly admits that the Pakistan Air Force is no match for the Indian Air Force's resources. The PAF's operations chief, Air Vice Marshal Khalid Chaudhry, was quoted in a cable of March 2006 as telling a visiting Pentagon official John Hillen that, "The PAF has no hope of matching the IAF's resources... the math just doesn't add up". Even the proposed purchase of 20 F-16s would not make a difference, Chaudhry reportedly said.

The Pakistan Air Marshal was also quoted as saying drily that the Pakistani public must be "convinced that they're getting a great aircraft... even if there's no money to pay for them. Chaudhry told Hillen to "ensure the F-16 deal has enough sweeteners to appeal to the public... (such as smart bombs and night vision)... but not to offer the PAF things it cannot afford." (Read: WikiLeaks - Pakistan threatens top stop F-16 payments) | (Read: WikiLeaks - Request for specific changes in F-16 security notes)

Across the border, for India too, the F-16 has been seen more as political weapon, not a military one of great worth. Then Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran is quoted in cable as telling visiting US Under Secretary Nick Burns as much. That India's concern about the US sale of F-16s to Pakistan was not about the fighters' military impact, since the Indian Air Force would remain much more powerful. But, Saran said, this sale by America might "cause political problems for India's coalition government."

Nick Burns noted that he saw an opportunity to push through the sale to Pakistan. (Read: WikiLeaks - US reassurances to Pakistan on the F-16 sale) His cable noted that New Delhi was okay with F-16s being sold to Pakistan..."the problem is merely one of managing Indian public opinion."

Story First Published: May 30, 2011 08:49 IST

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