ISLAMABAD — Pakistan continues to talk to the US about purchasing a new tranche of F-16 fighters, but analysts here warn that it is unclear if or when such a deal could close.
Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, head of the Pakistani Air Force, was quoted in local media here Monday saying Pakistan was "in talks with US defense officials to get some [of the] latest F-16s but the deal may take some time." He spoke at an event to mark Pakistan Aeronautical Complex having manufactured its target of 16 JF-17 Block II for 2015.
That follows reports from mid-October that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would use a visit to Washington to push for the sale of eight F-16s for his military.
Pakistan currently operates a number of F-16 variants, so the addition of eight more jets is unlikely to have much impact on the local power balance between Pakistan and India.
However, the US Congress has historically been skeptical of arms sales to Pakistan, in no small part due to Indian lobbying, and any discussion of defense deals naturally must take this into account.
But circumstances could now be in Pakistan's favor. In addition to the Washington's speculated desire to maintain influence in Pakistan, there is a need to keep the F-16 production line open, which in the absence of domestic US orders can only be achieved through exports.
Despite the usual obstacles in the path of a deal, Brian Cloughley, an author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, says there is now a stronger chance that a deal could be struck.
"The India lobby in Congress is quite powerful and might help to block such sales to Pakistan, but the defense production lobby is much more influential,” Cloughley said. "On that basis, it's likely such a sale would get through."
Author and analyst Kaiser Tufail, who flew F-16s among other aircraft during his Air Force career, said that if negotiations really are serious he does not "see any reason why the US would be secretive about it."
He also questioned whether the US would use the possibility of more F-16s to maintain political ties with Pakistan at a time when China is strengthening its ties with the Asian nation.
"Under the ongoing Pak-China strategic cooperation, there must be great urgency in US quarters to retain influence in Pakistan. Any rumored offer of military hardware should be seen in that light," he said.
Lockheed Martin is represented in Pakistan by Kestrel, which also represents a number of other US firms such as Sikorsky, Gulf Stream, Hawker Beechcraft and L3 Communications. However, no comment was forthcoming from the firm about details such as the potential timeframe for a deal.
"There is no doubt that the F-16C-52 is the world's best single-engine fighter. Since we already operate a squadron of this type, its additional induction would be smooth," Tufail said.
David McKeeby, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, declined to comment on a proposed sale until it has been formally notified to Congress.
However, McKeeby noted that, “When provided in the past, Pakistan has used US-funded equipment and US-provided technology to significant effect in their counter-terrorism efforts. Pakistan's F-16 is one key example of how US support has improved Pakistan's precision strike capability and capacity to combat terrorist elements in North Waziristan.”
Those operations, he noted, are “in the national interests of both Pakistan and the United States.”
More F-16s would certainly speed up Pakistan's modernization efforts and Aman also stated the intention to replace the older generation of jets, such as the Mirage III/5 aircraft, by 2020.
First in line for replacement has been the Chengdu F-7P, of which small numbers are still operational. According to PAF officials the more advanced double-delta winged F-7PG is likely to remain as a point defense interceptor for the time being.
Even if the F-16 sale does not materialize, however, the JF-17 program is on course, and a spokesman for the Air Force said production would be increased to meet export orders. Though no official confirmation has yet been forthcoming, Myanmar is considered by analysts to have been the first export customer.
Four Pakistani Air Force squadrons are now equipped with the JF-17 and the number will grow as China and Pakistan signed a deal in April for the delivery of 50 aircraft in the coming three years.
Some parts of the JF-17, such as the rear fuselage, are still manufactured in China by Chengdu.
Even without further F-16s, Tufail believes the JF-17 can easily replace the remaining F-7P and Mirage III/5 fleets in the desired timeframe.
"We should have no problem as it is a well-planned and a phased program. The JF-17 production capacity of one squadron (16 aircraft) per year fits in well with the plans to complete the replacement by 2020."
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.