Jeffrey LewisF-16s to Pakistan

The Bush Administration has decided to sell Pakistan at least 24 F-16 “Fighting Falcon” aircraft, Reuters reported on Friday.

Pakistan has some 32 F-16s from a prior sale in the 1980s (right). A subsequent sale of F-16s was blocked in 1990 after President Bush unable to certify that Pakistan did not posess a nuclear explosive device—triggering prohibitions on economic and military assistance under the so-called Pressler Amendment.

At the time, opposition to the sale of F-16s centered on Islamabad’s possible use of the aircraft as a primary means to deliver nuclear weapons.

Initially, the George H.W. Bush Administration argued that the aircraft, as delivered, were not “nuclear capable” and that Pakistan could not modify its F-16s to deliver nuclear weapons. In 1989, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Hughes testified:

In order to deliver a nuclear device with any reasonable degree of accuracy and safety, it first would be necessary to replace the entire wiring package in the aircraft. In addition to building a weapons carriage mount, one would also have to re-do the fire control computer, the stores management system, and mission computer software to allow the weapon to be dropped accurately and to redistribute weight and balance after release. We believe this capability far exceeds the state of the art in Pakistan and could only be accomplished with a major release of data and industrial equipment from the U.S.

Press reports, including articles in Der Spiegel and U.S. News & World Report, however, suggested that Pakistan was busily doing precisely what Hughes said it could not—reconfiguring its F-16s to carry nuclear weapons. Senator Glenn asked DCI Robert Gates about these press reports in 1992:

SEN. GLENN: How about delivery systems? Is there any evidence that Pakistan converted F-16s for possible nuclear delivery use?

MR. GATES: We know that they are—or we have information that suggests that they’re clearly interested in enhancing the ability of the F-16 to deliver weapons safely. But we don’t really have—they don’t require those changes, I don’t think, to deliver a weapon. We could perhaps provide some additional detail in a classified manner.

Asked the same question, Gates’ successor, R. James Woolsey, also deferred to closed session.

Now—thanks to the wonders of FOIA—we know the White House told Congress that US intelligence believed Pakistan had reconfigured its F-16 fleet to deliver nuclear weapons.

The National Security Council submitted a Report to Congress on Status of China, India and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on or before July 28, 1993. Obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, the NSC report concludes that “Pakistan probably would rely on its F-16 fighters” to deliver its small nuclear arsenal.

(The New York Times obtained Woolsey’s replies to questions by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which also affirm “Our best judgment right now would be [that Pakistan would use] the F-16’s” to deliver nuclear weapons.)

The 1993 NSC Report to Congress… , however, also noted a potential source of leverage over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons ambitions: “Moreover, unless US military aid is resumed, Pakistan’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons with F-16s will erode over time.”

The Clinton Administration pressured Islamabad to accept a verifiable cap on Pakistan’s production of fissile material in exchange for the release of the blocked F-16 sale. The Clinton Administration dropped the effort, as Assistant Secretary Of State Robin Raphel testified in 1995, after Pakistan declined the proposal and it “drew criticism from the Indian government and from some in Congress.”

I don’t know what the controlling factor was, but that looks like a much better deal than the one we have now, where we let Pakistan keep producing fissile material and purchasing nuclear capable aircraft.


  1. Stephen (History)

    Back in February, when there was talk of giving Patriot PAC-2 anti-missile technology to India, some newspaper stories from the subcontinent expressed concerns about destabilizing the military balance, including the nuclear one. One of these stories
    mentioned the current sorry state of Pakistan’s F-16s:

    Sources in the PAF admit, adds Aroosa Alam, that lack of spare parts and non-supply of new aircraft had left the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) almost crippled with just a few F-16 fighters after most of them were cannibalized. The US has consistently refused to consider Pakistani request for new F-16 fighters, although Pakistan has been declared a Non-NATO ally and military sales have resumed to Islamabad.

    The “erosion” of an F-16 capability mentioned in the 1993 NSC report would already seem to have been underway (before this sale).