The Pakistan Air Force today received its first three of 18 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16s that the U.S. hopes will give the Afghan neighbor nation a crucial edge against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in its northwest.
The aircraft give the Pakistan Air Force a night-attack capability and all-weather precision targeting, “an unprecedented advantage they have not had,” said Vice Admiral Michael Lefever, head of the U.S. military mission in Islamabad.
He predicted that the most up-to-date version of the fighter aircraft could be pressed “fairly quickly” into air operations against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other insurgents in the ungoverned northwest provinces.
The Obama administration is seeking to solidify relations with Pakistan, as its strategy for stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan depends on weakening the fighters who have found havens in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas and threaten regional stability.
“Terrorists can operate at night with impunity but we have had virtually no air cover at night,” Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, said in an interview.
The F-16 Fighting Falcons were accepted in a ceremony at Shabaz Air Force base 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Karachi -- an installation U.S. and Pakistan officials agreed was the best location for guarding the planes’ sensitive technology. The remaining 14 will be delivered by December, a Lockheed spokesman said.
‘One of the Few’
Twenty-five nations have Lockheed F-16s, and Pakistan is “one of the few” to have the advanced version, Lefever said in an interview. That’s “a major milestone” for Pakistan and for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, he said.
The U.S. Air Force has completed training in Arizona of 16 Pakistani pilots, eight to instruct other pilots on the new plane’s capabilities and eight who will lead nighttime missions, spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Adriane Craig said in an e-mail.
The Pakistan Air Force has depended on 35 older-model F-16s built in the 1980s. Today’s delivery brings its air strike capability “to another level,” said Derek Mitchell, Pentagon Deputy for Asian affairs said in an interview.
Pakistan is now flying only day operations to support the almost 147,400 troops in its regular army and paramilitary Frontier Corps in their stepped-up offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The Air Force increased its ground strikes in 2009 to about 230 from about 95 in 2008, according to Pakistan figures.
Today’s delivery has “particular resonance in Pakistan” because of the history of the sale, Mitchell said. “They have seen it as a ‘marker’ in some regards,” he said.
The sale of 28 F-16s was approved in 1989 but canceled the following year as part of U.S. sanctions over Pakistan’s nuclear program.
The cancellation embittered Pakistan officials and citizens. “There are some hard feelings still,” Lefever said.
The cancellation “became emblematic of the tension in U.S.-Pakistan relations,” Haqqani said. “The delivery will be a symbol of the burgeoning strategic partnership between our two countries.”
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz was scheduled to attend the ceremony.
Many Pakistanis consider the aircraft “a symbol of national strength and pride,” said Alan Kronstadt, a Pakistan analyst for the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
Symbol of Strength
“It’s common to see elaborate and heroic depictions of F- 16s painted on lorries,” he said. “Many are keenly aware of the allegedly unjust non-delivery, so this transfer may help restore some trust in the U.S. as an ally,” he said.
The U.S. planned to deliver four F-16s today but a last- minute maintenance issue kept one back, said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryder. It and four others will be delivered in August, he said.
The aircraft were part of a $1.4 billion deal with Lockheed Martin. The aircraft are equipped to drop laser-guided bombs and satellite-guided bombs.
The sale finally went through because former President George W. Bush’s administration in 2005 sought to reward Pakistan for its cooperation in the war on terrorism, including stationing thousands of its troops along its border with Afghanistan to stop Taliban and al-Qaeda infiltration and arrest suspected terrorists.
The proposed sale had to clear congressional hurdles that included concerns about the aircraft’s relevance to counter- insurgency and whether it would roil relations with its neighbor and adversary, India.
Schwartz said he didn’t think India “will see this as a strategic issue.”
Pakistan’s overall inventories of F-16s “are not so large, and the 18 new aircraft will not upset the balance,” he said in an interview.