On March 23 2022, at Pakistan’s Republic Day Parade, onlookers watched the first flyover of the recently inducted J-10C multi-role fighter. The purchase from China, announced publicly by Pakistan’s Interior Minister in late 2021, further showcases Pakistan-China defense ties and reflects the rising tensions in India and Pakistan’s conventional deterrence postures. Particularly in the three years since the aerial face-off during the Pulwama-Balakot episode, there has been a heightened focus on conventional military power. India has moved forward with strengthening its air power with the acquisition of the first batch of Rafale fighters from France in 2020 and strengthening missile defense with the S-400 purchase (expected to be operational this year) to counter threats posed by both Pakistan and China.
The Chinese J-10C proved a liability for the Pakistan Air Force as the aircraft needs constant maintenance, and the Chinese domestically made WS-10A engine is in its infancy.
The WS-10A is a reverse engineered copy of French Snecma M88 afterburning turbofan engines. Chinese media outlets reported in 2022 that China has fixed most of the engine-related issues, but Pakistan Air Force sees otherwise as it has failed to prove reliable in thrust-to-weight ratios. The WS-10A limits the air combat capability for J-15, J-16 and J-10C aircraft for its known issues with the thurst-to-weight ratio.
For the first time since the United States cancelled military aid to Pakistan in 2018, Washington approved a $450 million package to maintain and upgrade the South Asian nation’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets, hinting at a thaw in bilateral ties that had turned decidedly frosty of late.
The deal announced on September 9 followed a flurry of diplomatic activity, prompting speculation that in return for agreeing to keep Pakistan’s warplanes airborne for the next five years, the US military covertly secured access to the country’s airspace to carry out counterterrorism operations.
Though Islamabad has repeatedly denied any such conspiracy, the assassination in late July of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul is widely believed to have been carried out by a US drone that traversed Pakistani airspace en route to its target.
And this month’s F-16 deal, described by one analyst as “a bit of a head-scratcher”, has only served to raise eyebrows further.
India, a key US ally and Pakistan’s arch-rival, has already expressed its annoyance at the deal. Analysts have also questioned why Washington would better equip a steadfast China ally when tensions between the world’s two largest economies are at their highest in decades.
“This being a transactional relationship, one certainly can’t rule out a quid pro quo involving the [F-16 deal] and the use of Pakistani airspace,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think tank.
US-Pakistan ties took a nosedive under the tenure of former President Donald Trump, whose administration cancelled $300 million in military aid to Pakistan in 2018 and went on to accuse Islamabad of not only failing to take decisive action against militants but providing a safe haven for insurgents fighting in Afghanistan and disputed Kashmir.
Pakistan denied the charges, and ties remained turbulent for the rest of former prime minister Imran Khan’s time in power. But Khan was ousted earlier this year. US President Joe Biden’s administration has since upped its diplomatic outreach with Pakistan’s powerful military and new coalition government, which assumed office in April.
Since al-Zawahiri’s assassination, more US drones have been spotted over Afghanistan seeking out militants – operations that Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said are likely only made possible because Pakistan “is assisting the US in some respect”.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the precise nature of that help. But it goes without saying that without some form of Pakistani assistance, the US drone strikes in Afghanistan are hard to pull off,” he said.
Islamabad stepped up its diplomatic efforts to buy a fresh batch of F-16V Block 70 or allow Pakistan to source second-hand F-16 from Greece, Denmark, Norway or the Netherlands.
Islamabad is particularly concerned about Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which aims to overthrow the country’s government and is an affiliate of the fundamentalist group that’s back calling the shots in Kabul. A fragile ceasefire established with the militants in June had worn thin since al-Zawahiri’s assassination, with the TTP claiming responsibility for a wave of cross-border terrorist attacks in northwest Pakistan since August 7, when three of the group’s hardline leaders were killed in an unclaimed roadside bombing.
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