F-16s carry a lot of symbolism for Pakistan. The narrative built around F-16s allows Pakistani military to send a signal to the public of its modern capabilities (such as smart bombs, night vision, BVR missiles), while the politicians can showcase their ability to extract goodies from the US. It is something the US officials understand rather well. Moreover, for USA; F-16s acts as their foreign policy tool to have its leverage over Pakistan. In India’s context, it is a diplomatic victory. India’s influence in USA is proving to be quite effective in isolating Pakistan as well as denying it from acquiring highly sophisticated F-16s. This is not the first time it happened with Pakistan. Last year, India once again defeated Pakistan diplomatically, when India’s influence prevented Sri Lanka from acquiring 8 JF-17s from Pakistan; breaking the dream of Pakistan to find its first ever customer for JF-17s.
An era of Cold War
The history of F-16 deal, between US and Pakistan goes back to early 1980s, when Pakistan was an important military ally of USA. In 1979, Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq was provided intelligence information that India wanted to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Kahuta. He immediately relayed this information to Air Chief Marshal Anwar Shamim, his closest confidant and also the deputy chief martial law administrator.Shamim was among a few four-star officers who had played a key role in developing Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear arms program. Air Marshal Shamim responded with the plea that it was necessary to procure supersonic fighter jets to keep the Indian planes at bay. The air chief told Gen Zia that since Kahuta was in close proximity to the Indian border, the Indian air force had the benefit of time.
It was therefore decided to expedite efforts to acquire F-16s, for which talks with the United States immediately went underway. After 2 years of long negotiations as well as by exploiting the Afghanistan issue, so as to counter Soviet threat, the United States agreed to supply the F-16 jets. President Ronald Reagan exercised executive authority, despite opposition from Congress, to agree to the sale of F-16s to Pakistan in order incentivize Pakistan’s assistance to the United States in Afghanistan.The first batch of F-16 fighters, which involved 6 F-16s A/B came to Pakistan in 1983, followed by 34 more F-16s A/B from 1983-87.
With the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan in 1988, U.S. reliance on Pakistan quickly waned. The Pressler Amendment came into effect in 1990, as a result of which the United States slapped sanctions on Pakistan on account of the country’s undeclared nuclear weapons program and canceled the supply of 28 F-16s after the first 40 fighters were received by Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The PAF was hit with financial constraints during the 1990s, and hardware restrictions were imposed on it by the US and its Western allies due to Pakistan’s nuclear program. Specifically, the refusal by the US to deliver 28 F-16s despite receiving a hefty price of $685 million hit the steady development of the PAF.