The US-made F-16 fighter line is playing an important role for the Pakistani Air Force, causing India to fear that the neighboring country could use this powerful weapon against them.
Most recently, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency approved a contract to sell maintenance services and related equipment to Pakistan in a $450 million deal, implemented by contractor Lockheed Martin. This once again raises India’s concerns as to whether the upgraded F-16 fighter jets will change the balance of power in the region.
The DSCA also notified that the planned transaction would not change the regional military balance and does not involve any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions. However, it has got alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, a key US partner in its strategy to counterbalance China. The DSCA said in a statement that the sustainment program would assist Pakistan in its campaign against terrorism with a rider that it will not affect the status quo in the region.
Currently, the Pakistan Air Force operates about 75 F-16s of various variants, including the newer and more modern F-16C/D Block 52. Pakistan was once the number one military partner and was favored by the US to sell jet fighters such as the F-86 Saber and the F-104 Starfighter. In the early 1980s, Pakistan signed a contract to buy 40 F-16s. By 1987, the F-16s were received and delivered in two batches. The remaining aircraft were canceled after a conflict over Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Over time, Pakistan’s F-16s needed to be upgraded as India upgraded all of its MiG-29s to UPG standards. In response to the Indian MiG-29UPG, a mid-life upgrade to the Pakistani F-16 was approved by the US in 2009. Pakistan’s F-16 Block 15s were upgraded to the Block 20 standard, which includes computer upgrades, avionics, electronic warfare (EW) and integrated AN/APG-68V9 radar system.
Pakistan’s upgraded F-16 version is almost equivalent to the latest Block 52 version in terms of combat capabilities. In 2016, a further upgrade was carried out on these Block 20 versions, focusing on performance enhancement, but not by the American company Lockheed Martin. Although not all Pakistani F-16s are of Block-52 standard, most of them are compatible with many advanced weapons such as AIM-120 AMRAAM, AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-88 HARM , and a variety of precision-guided and unguided bombs and rockets.
After the US canceled the supply of F-16 fighter jets, Pakistan considered developing its own single-engine fighter with China, given Washington’s growing proximity to India and the higher cost of upgrading the F-16. In addition, Pakistan also has many reasons to switch to using JF-17. Currently, Pakistani F-16s cannot refuel in the air with Il-78MP refueling aircraft. Not compatible with local data link, known as Link-17; while F-16 uses Link-16.
However, despite the compatibility difficulties, the F-16 is still an important fighter to fill the capacity gap of the Pakistan Air Force, which does not have a dedicated twin-engine heavy fighter like India’s Su-30MKI. Compared to the JF-17, the F-16 can carry more weapons due to more hardpoints and better take-off weight, and the engines on the F-16 have been proven over time.
There is some information that the JF-17 fighter will eventually replace the F-16 in the Pakistani air force; but in fact, the F-16s are still the “backbone” of the Pakistani Air Force. The Biden administration’s decision to reverse the decision of aiding Pakistan coincides with tensions between India and the US over New Delhi’s refusal to join the West in denouncing Russia’s ‘military operation’ in Ukraine.
As for South Asia, Pakistan’s F-16s have been in focus since the 2019 Balakot Strike that led the PAF to dispatch the aircraft as part of ‘Operation Swift Retort.’ While New Delhi claimed to have shot down the American-origin fighter jet, Pakistan dismissed the claims as baseless. The US decision comes when arms sales worldwide are booming owing to newer threat perceptions. Western officials have debated how to wean India off its dependence on Russian armament. However, India has refused to join the West in isolating Russia.