Were Pakistan's F-16 fighters only meant to attack terrorists?

Pakistan Air Force F-16 A Pakistan Air Force F-16; the conformal fuel tank atop the wing can be seen clearly | Nellis Air Force Base

Apart from its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, no weapon system of Pakistan has caused as much heartburn to the Indian public as its fleet of US-built F-16 fighter jets. The first F-16 reached Pakistani soil in 1982, and Islamabad is believed to have a total fleet of around 75 jets.

The Indian Air Force claimed on Thursday that the recovery of parts of an AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) proved that a Pakistani F-16 was involved in the violation of Indian airspace on Wednesday. As the AMRAAM is integrated only on the F-16 for the Pakistan Air Force, the IAF declared Pakistan had violated its 'commitment' to the US to not use the fighter and its weapons for “offensive” missions.

But how credible is the claim the US sold the F-16 to Pakistan for the purpose of using it against terrorists?

In 2005, when the George W. Bush administration announced plans to resume F-16 sales to Pakistan, it triggered furious criticism from India. The deal—valued at $5.1 billion and including the supply of 36 F-16s along with upgrades to in-service aircraft—and was interpreted as a sign of US 'gratitude' for Pakistan's support for the war on terror in Afghanistan. The US had embargoed the sale of 71 F-16s to Pakistan in 1990 due to Islamabad's nuclear weapons programme.

A cursory glance at the details of the deal released by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency in 2006 effectively deflate the argument the new F-16s and its weapons were meant to help Pakistan in combating terrorists in its border regions with Afghanistan. Among the items that were listed as being sold to Pakistan were 36 pairs of conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), 500 AMRAAMs and 500 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kits:

CFTs are mounted on top of both wings of the F-16 and add a total of 450 gallons of fuel to the fighter. They increase the range of the F-16 by around 20-30 per cent on strike missions, while not impairing the aircraft's manoeuvrability as adversely as underwing fuel tanks. CFTs have been sold to several F-16 users, primarily for the purpose of ground attack missions. Given the spread of Pakistan's airbases and relatively shorter distances to potential targets on the bordering regions with Afghanistan, an F-16 equipped with CFTs would have provided little added advantage to the Pakistan Air Force's capabilities. However, CFTs would expand the range of F-16 to hit more targets in India.

AMRAAM is considered far superior to Pakistan's older fleet of AIM-7 Sparrow missiles that depended on the launch aircraft for radar guidance. With the AMRAAM possessing a range well in excess of 50km and high supersonic speed, it is incredulous to assume it is relevant for counter-terrorist operations. Furthermore, there has been little or no credible intelligence of any terror group near Pakistan's borders having aerial platforms that would necessitate the use of a missile like the AMRAAM. And 500 AMRAAMs are way too much to fight terrorists!

JDAM is a guidance kit for general-purpose bombs that equips them with satellite guidance and fins, turning them into smart munitions, with a range in excess of 20km. The only known air defence weapons that terror groups like al Qaeda and the TTP were believed to have were shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, with a range of less than 10km. Pakistan's F-16 fleet is already equipped with both laser-guided and unguided bombs, which would have been adequate to strike most terrorist targets.

In 2008, two Democrat members of the House of Representatives questioned the George W. Bush administration's plans to allocate $226.5 million to upgrade Pakistan's F-16s.

Representatives Howard Berman and Nita Lowey claimed the proposal would shift funding from equipment more suitable to Pakistan's fight against terror groups such as night vision goggles and attack helicopters, which they described as being “more effective counter-terrorism tools”.