By Boese, Wade
Arms Control Today , Vol. 35, No. 4
The Bush administration March 25 announced its willingness to sell advanced fighter aircraft to India and Pakistan, reversing 15 years of U.S. policy to deny Islamabad such arms because of its nuclear weapons ambitions. The decision came shortly after secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited South Asia in a bid to further cultivate the two countries.
Asserting that U.S. arms sales to the nuclear rivals would not upset the regional military balance, administration officials said March 25 that they would negotiate with Pakistan about its long-standing request for F-16 fighters, which can be modified to deliver nuclear weapons. The officials also said U.S. manufacturers of the F-16 and F/A-18E/F combat aircraft would be permitted to compete for India's tender for 125 new fighters.
Islamabad has not officially disclosed how many jets it is looking to buy, but it is thought to be seeking about two dozen. An administration official told reporters that "there is no set limit on what the [United States] is going to be willing to sell Pakistan." When it worked with the United States to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan acquired 40 F-16A/Bs.
The United States halted additional F-16 deliveries to Pakistan in 1990 after President George H. W. Bush could not certify to Congress under U.S. law that Islamabad did not possess a nuclear explosive device. Pakistan responded to Indian nuclear tests in May 1998 with tests of its own, leading to U.S. economic and military sanctions on both governments.
Most of these sanctions were lifted in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks as the Bush administration moved to secure Indian and Pakistani support for its war on terrorism. (see ACT, October 2001.) Yet, Washington remained reluctant to resume F-16 sales to Pakistan because of regional tensions and the risk of upsetting India.
The Bush administration contends conditions have now changed. Rice said April 5 that there has been a "significant improvement in relations between the two" since they almost came to blows in June 2002. Claiming that the administration has successfully "de-hyphenated the relationship" so Washington can pursue relations with both on "independent tracks," Rice maintained that "we are creating a new set of circumstances in which the balance will be more stable by an American defense relationship with both of them."
The budding U.S. relationship with India in the military sector, as well as in the civilian space and nuclear fields, appears to have tempered Indian reactions to the proposed U.S. sale of fighter jets to its neighbor, which New Delhi has vigorously opposed in the past. Indian officials made clear they still have reservations about the deal but have muffled their complaints. During Rice's visit to the region, Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh noted March 16 that U.S.-Indian relations have reached a point where disagreements can be discussed "freely and frankly" and that India had made its position on U.S. F-16 sales to Pakistan well known.
A major arms client of Russia, india is increasingly eyeing U.S. weaponry. In addition to the potential fighter aircraft sale, the United States and India are discussing missile defenses. …