New Delhi: India registered a strong protest with the US over the latter’s decision to approve a $450 million sustainment package for Pakistan’s aging F-16 fleet. The protest is learnt to have come in the form of a sharp rebuke delivered to US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs Donald Lu and focused on both substance and timing of the decision.
The package for Pakistan, which reversed the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to suspend such assistance to Islamabad, was announced while India was hosting top US officials, including Lu himself, for a US-India 2+2 Intersessional Meeting and Maritime Security Dialogue. Lu also led the US delegation in a Quad senior officials’ meeting.
While the Indian government doesn’t believe that this development will have any impact on the upward trajectory of the relationship, it’s upset that the US didn’t forewarn India about a policy decision that can have serious implications for India’s security. The issue was strongly raised with Lu in all the meetings he had after the US announcement and he was told that the government expected US to be more mindful of India’s security interests. India has so far not said anything publicly on the issue. The US, of course, has said the maintenance package won’t include “new capabilities, weapons, or munitions”.
A state department spokesperson said Pakistan was an important counterterrorism partner, and “as part of longstanding policy, the US provides life cycle maintenance and sustainment packages for US-origin platforms”. The government believes though India will remain the primary target of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, even if some of the aircraft are too old or not operational even. India has also been wondering about the purpose of the move to allow Pakistan to upgrade the fleet as it’s unlikely to make any serious dent in Pakistan’s defence cooperation with China. There has been speculation about US rewarding Pakistan for, as the Taliban have claimed, allowing the use of its airspace to take out al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri but India authorities are not aware of such a “deal”. Pakistan has also denied the Taliban’s claims.