China-Pak Air Exercises: Why The Iconic F-16 Is Missing From The Line-Up
Missing from the line-up, though, as they have been in every iteration of the exercise, was the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 fighter aircraft. This might seem surprising because Bholari, commissioned in 2017, is Pakistan’s third F-16 base.
December 9, China and Pakistan began their ninth joint air force exercises. This iteration of the Shaheen-IX (eagle) air exercises.
Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF’s) newest airbase in Bholari, Sindh, and featured 50 fighter aircraft, are believed to be the most complicated so far in the decade since the two countries began the exercises to enhance defence cooperation.
That the exercises come during a military stand-off between India and China in eastern Ladakh is the reason why it will be closely monitored by the India Air Force (IAF). The exercise includes the PAF JF-17s, Mirage-IIIs and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force J-10 and J-11s heavy fighters.
The US-built single-engine fighter is one aircraft Chinese pilots might want to match their skills against since they are in service with the South Korean and Taiwanese air forces.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) J-10 itself is widely believed to be a copy of an F-16 copy a Chinese built version of Israel’s F-16 copy, the ‘Lavi’ fighter jet.
For Pakistan to deploy F-16s in these exercises, however, would mean violating end-user agreements that Pakistan signed with the US when it bought the aircraft.
A breach of these agreements could potentially lead to the cancellation of US’s echnical support to Pakistan’s F-16 program.
The agreements date back to the arms sales made by the US to Pakistan, following the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
Pakistan was then under severe US sanctions for its nuclear weapons program. In 2001, the US resumed military sales to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistani assistance in the ‘Global War on Terror’.
Over $10 billion worth of military hardware exported to the Pakistan military included 36 F-16 fighter jets of the newest Block 50/ 52 standard and the upgrading of the PAF’s existing fleet of 32 F-16s purchased in the early 1980s.
The deals, though, came with strings attached the end-user agreements which monitored how the aircraft were being used and who had access to them.
These agreements are monitored by US military personnel and contractor representatives physically present on the ground in Pakistani airbases.
Among the key components of a $125 million program to support Pakistan’s F-16 program approved by the US state department last year, was the inclusion of at least 60 “contractor representatives” working for a US-based firm assist in the overseeing of the operations.
The reasons for these intrusive controls are not hard to see.
The US is wary of letting adversary China from laying their hands on the top-of-the-line US military hardware or knowing about their performance parameters like radar emissions which would enable them to develop countermeasures.
Last year, for instance, the US cancelled a sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey because Ankara persisted with its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems.
The US military had concerns that the S-400’s radars could be used to track its fifth generation fighter aircraft.
US contractor representatives track the deployments of the PAF’s F-16.
One Indian intelligence official recalls an incident from a few years ago when a US contractor representative had flown into an airbase to check why a PAF F-16 had made an unscheduled diversion there.
The PAF might own the aircraft but the ownership is, clearly, largely conditional.
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