US Arms Industry Fishing in Troubled South Asian Waters

NEW DELHI – By offering nuclear-capable F-16 Falcon fighters to Pakistan and the even more advanced F-18 Hornets to India, Washington has shown a cynical readiness to profit from the long-standing rivalry between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors, say analysts.

"This is a bit like the Aesop’s fable in which two cats fighting over a loaf take their dispute to a monkey for settlement," said P.R. Chari, research professor at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a prestigious think tank devoted to security in South Asia.

In an interview with IPS, Chari said what was happening was all too obvious. "The Americans must be laughing all the way to the bank."

Chari pointed to reports in the Washington Post on March 16 that said the sale of F-16s to Pakistan may have saved 5,000 jobs in U.S. President George W. Bush’s home state of Texas where the plane’s builder Lockheed Martin Corporation was located.

According to the Post, Lockheed and other global defense manufacturers depend on sales of sophisticated military hardware to boost their profits.

The F-16 deal was "likely to be as warmly greeted in Fort Worth as it is in Karachi," the paper said.

According to Chari, there was little doubt that U.S arms contractors were now eyeing India’s much larger market that has been closed to them since 1974 when India first exploded a nuclear device. Washington at the time reacted by imposing an arms and dual-use technology embargo on this country.

India, which signed a military pact with the former Soviet Union in 1971, has traditionally sourced its defense needs from Moscow, although it also maintains squadrons of French Mirage fighters as well as British Jaguars.

But rapidly expanding ties in recent years between India and the U.S., the world’s two largest democracies, have seen a progressive lifting of sanctions and moves toward defense cooperation.

A visit to New Delhi on March 15-16 by U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice produced a welter of new concessions covering not only the sale of F-16 and F-18 combat aircraft but also possibilities for co-production.

Lockheed has so far sold F-16s, currently costing $25 million apiece, to 24 countries, and the aviation giant also makes the deadly fighters in Europe, South Korea, and Turkey.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, Washington would actually be resuming deliveries of F-16s halted in 1990 after a U.S. law barred military exports to Islamabad on suspicions that it was clandestinely developing nuclear weapons.

For India, the real icing on the cake was an offer by Rice of cooperation in India’s civilian nuclear energy program, which has since 1974 cut its own path with support from Russia and France as result of U.S.-led embargoes.

As for the fighter deal, analysts like Chari saw little use for either India or Pakistan to be buying expensive nuclear-capable aircraft when they were not likely to be put to actual use.

Chari said neither country needed aircraft to deliver nuclear bombs against each other since both possessed missiles with more than adequate range.

"After 1994 when both countries declared themselves as nuclear powers, they came close to an all-out war twice – during the 1999 Kargil war and the 2002 border standoff – but on both occasions they desisted from resorting to the nuclear option," he said.

India and Pakistan have been at pains to improve relations, soured by a long-standing dispute over the territory of Kashmir, and are currently engaged in "cricket diplomacy" with a Pakistani team currently touring India as part of a series of confidence-building measures.

Rice had words of praise for this peace initiative, but ironically, her actions were matched with the U.S. decision to sell neighbors with a history of more than half-a-century of hostilities sophisticated military hardware.

"The logic of escalating military preparations contrasts with the logic of dialogue and reconciliation," said Prof. Achin Vanaik, a well-known anti-nuclear activist who teaches at Delhi University.

What was interesting to note, Chari said, was that from a position of imposing sanctions against both India and Pakistan for carrying out the 1998 tests, Washington has come round to supplying both countries with platforms capable of delivering nuclear bombs.

"It just shows that Washington has a flexible enough foreign policy to accommodate what it judges to be in its own best interest, and this includes such issues as nuclear proliferation," Chari said.

That "claws in, claws out" approach has seen Washington first offering F-16s to Pakistan during the war to rid Afghanistan of its Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and then reneging on it on the grounds that Islamabad was pursuing a clandestine nuclear program

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, Washington tilted heavily toward India, attracted by its large, rapidly opening market, while Pakistan hovered on the brink of being declared a failed state.

Post 9/11, the boot was again on the other foot and Pakistan found itself designated a major non-NATO ally for its role in Washington’s war against terror in Afghanistan and deemed fit once again to receive F-16 fighters.

Indeed, said Chari, many of the so-called concessions made toward South Asia by Rice were best seen in the context of the upcoming review of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and Washington’s eagerness to deflect criticism from its own failings in South Asia.

Indian analysts have been critical of Washington’s failure to prevent the alleged supply of nuclear weapons know-how and parts from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

On Monday, India’s External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh said it was time that the world took a close hard look at clandestine proliferation.

He declared that for its own part, India was ready to sign a global treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons.

Singh said as things stood, the security environment in South Asia was seriously undermined by nuclear weapons technology and parts flowing into and out of the neighborhood.