U.S.-Pakistani F-16 Deal Up in the Air

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U.S. and Pakistani officials are denying claims by a senior Pakistani military commander that Washington is about to fulfill Islamabad's long-stymied and controversial quest for advanced U.S. combat aircraft.

Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat told reporters in September that the United States would soon meet Pakistan's 15-year-old push for F-16 fighters, providing at least 18 of the planes. In a subsequent interview with fane's Defence Weekly, Saadat said the transfers would probably be announced after next month's U.S. presidential election.

Saadat appears alone in his certainty. Several Americans and Pakistanis, including government representatives of each country, told Arms Control Today that they were not aware of any ongoing negotiations or said no agreement had been reached.

If such an agreement were reached, it would end an impasse that began in 1990 when the U.S. government stopped a shipment of 28 F-16s to Pakistan in accordance with a U.S. law, known as the Pressier amendment after former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), proscribing military exports to Islamabad if it was suspected of possessing a "nuclear explosive device." Pakistan later publicly confirmed its possession of such a capability by responding to May 1998 nuclear tests by India with blasts of its own.

A senior administration official interviewed Oct. 7 said there is "no decision at any level of the U.S. government to provide F-16s to Pakistan." A spokesman for the Pentagon's Defense security Cooperation Agency, which oversees U.S. government arms sales to other countries, stated Sept. 22, "[A]s far as we know, a decision has not been made." Congressional staffers also said they have not been informed of any completed or imminent deal.

The most that a top U.S. government official has said publicly is that such a sale is a possibility. Deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a Sept. 29 interview with a Pakistani television station that F-16s are "still on the table....We've had discussions with the Pakistani authorities about these matters, and I'll just leave it right there."

A Pakistani diplomat said in an Oct. 5 interview with Anns Control Today that Islamabad has inquired about buying F-los. Yet, the official said that no formal talks were underway and the only encouraging signs about American intentions were coming from outside the U.S. government.

Lockheed Martin Corp. spokesperson Joe Stout declined to comment Oct. 7 on the rumored deal, saying it was a government-to-government matter. …