Pakistan’s Infatuation with the F-16s: Dreams & Realities
July 6, 2010
by Michael Leon
By Raja Mujtaba
The 1971 Indo-Pak War was over and the Pakistan Air Force did not perform as well as in the 1965 war with India. The American technology which our brave pilots and engineers had absorbed and put to its maximum performance in the previous war let us down in the 71 War. The Korean vintage F-86 Sabers, F104 Star Fighters and B-57 Bombers along with their Missiles and Avionics Suites had out-stretched their operational lives and were now lingering along in our inventories to be counted in numbers. All the smart alecks on the payroll of the PAF in the mid 1970s were collected in the Operations Research Directorate at Air Headquarters to identify the needs of the PAF for the next 20 years. Some of us who were fairly impressed by the American technologies due to being exposed to it in the early part of our PAF careers in the American Aerospace Industry wondered at this new Engineering Genius which in its initial phase was known as Experimental-F16 (XF-16).While the USAF was pushing the American Aerospace Industry towards larger aircraft platforms with twin engines and high speeds as a replacement to the Work Horse aircraft of the Vietnam War: Phantoms, few innovative engineers at the General Dynamics Fort Worth Plant were putting their own money and time to develop their dream aircraft without any of their company executives’ support. There were no takers of their design of light weight, single engine, multi-purpose, loads of weapons carrying capability, medium range aircraft at that time and it remained an experimental toy of these handful of extra ordinary aerospace and avionics engineers who were working over time at their own cost and risk. Such was their innovative genius that within a few years of their first proto-type developed on self help basis, they converted the whole world towards their design which became one of the most sought after aircraft ever in the history of military aviation.
At the first glance of the XF-16 we were pleasantly shocked to see an aircraft which snugly fitted into our own ASR (Airstaff Service Requirement).It was as if these American Engineers had seriously read our ASR and fully implemented it even before the USAF had prepared one of their own .From that point onwards we were all hooked to acquire this sleek aircraft to meet our operational requirements for the foreseeable future. From then on, it was passed in the Political Domain to acquire this aircraft from our tax payers money for the first time as previously all American Acquisitions came under the MAP (Military Aid Programme).There were several restrictions put on us on the MAP equipment acquired earlier and therefore, we were now excited to have our own say as we were paying in our hard earned US Dollars. The occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet Union pushed our case forward and finally clearance came from the US Govt for us to negotiate with F-16 Manufacturers after years and years of waiting. Our Buyers’ euphoria came to an abrupt halt when the US offered us the watered down F-16 version known as the Exportable F-16.We flatly walked out from the deal and gained back our ground inch by inch by clearly defining our minimum requirements of the Airborne Radar, Avionics Suite, Missiles &Precision Guided Munitions, Aircraft Engine Configuration and the Electronic Warfare Pods. This itself was no mean task as on several occasions our President had to talk to the US President in the White House to break the stalement. Transfer of Technology was a no go area for us which was very disappointing but as engineers, we tried to fill up the gap, wherever possible, by continuously communicating with the General Dynamics engineering personnel at the personal and professional level. The best transfer of technology in time takes place not through the blue prints of paper drawings but thru the two legs and the right mind placed over it (Human Resource).The PAF Engineers never disappointed the Nation when the hard times came to keep the F-16s flying under a US sanctioned regime.
The year 1983 saw the Fighting Falcons (F-16 non de plume) flying over our skies for the first time. This was a record time for any F-16 user including Israel to adapt to this next generation Aircraft Technology .All thru the 1980s the Fighting Falcons made a big difference in the Air Battles over the Pak-Afghan border and over time the Soviet pilots started respecting its capabilities even though we did not have BVRs then. Not only did we openly engage with the Soviet Air Force and claimed several MIG-23 hits but we jealously protected our Strategic Infra-structure on 24/7 basis by our F-16 Fleet. The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1990 and its down side came with the Pressler Amendment from the US Govt which blocked all our ordered F-16 Aircraft in the pipe line. Not only that, Shahbaz which was an FOB (Forward Operating Base) was being up-graded at a heavy expense as an MOB (Main Operating Base) to house the next batch of the F-16s .Billions of US Dollars of our tax payers money got stuck up in this programme for several years. The PAF finally decided to give it up after waiting for 10 long years and preferred Co-Development of the Super-7 Aircraft with the Chinese. This joint venture is coming to maturity with these aircraft being mass produced at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra.
Twenty seven years after that first flight of the F-16 As&Bs, the new version of F-16 Cs&Ds have now landed at Shahbaz (Jacobabad).The major difference in them being the BVR (Beyond Visual Range) Missile and additional night flying and targeting capability. In the gap of almost three decades between the two F-16 versions, Pakistan has built up a huge technology base at the cost of billions of tax payers’ money which can easily adopt the new technologies inherent in this new version. Our past experience has shown us that for long term sustainability of Aircraft support, we have to harness the new technologies and exert our sovereign rights more vigorously. For this purpose, closely monitoring of Shahbaz by our political leaders and parliament may be required in order to stop repeating our past mistakes. While all the important US players i.e. .Pentagon, Senate and the private sector manufacturers are on the same page, we in Pakistan need to emulate the same. Their complete operations and engineering support have to be carried out on a self reliance basis. After all the F-16 technology is more than 30 years old and can be fully absorbed within our Primary Public Sector Aerospace Industry and our Secondary Private Sector Downstream Vendor Industry for long term sustainability of this system on which more than US Dollars Five Billion would be ultimately spent.
Pakistan is fortunate to have hundreds of F-16s flying in its region and several times in the past, studies were carried out to look at the joint facilities of Turkey and Pakistan for supporting these multiple users. Looking at our past experience, the Americans would not easily let go and therefore, combined political pressure from UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have to be applied to achieve this end. Barring this combined pressure, we would remain dependent on the largesse of US to sustain our F-16 operations .We have to be very pragmatic about it as the F-16 technology may not be the state-of-the-art any more, and therefore, with a little push and pull we may strike a good deal not only for ourselves but other friendly users in our close vicinity. Our Aerospace and Avionics Industrial Infra-structure is now matured enough to take on this challenge and put Pakistan in a vantage position in our region. We also have to closely monitor the American Proposals to sell newer Aerospace systems to our Eastern neighbor and closely scrutinize their terms and conditions. Our Parliamentary Committee on Defense should become pro-active now instead of reacting on the likely Indo-American Deal of the Century thru the Indian acquisition of more than 125 State-of-the-Art Aircraft from the USA.