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F-16s: Can we trust Uncle Sam?

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 05, 2005

    The US offer to sell F16s and F18s to India, announced on March 25, has to be seen in context. True, this initiative is linked to the White House decision to lift the ban on supplying F16s to Pakistan and the more cynical view is that the US manufacturers of these aircraft will now laugh all the way to the bank as the sub-continent gets sucked into an arms race.

    This black-and-white reduction is misleading. The US has offered India these aircraft as part of its radically new policy towards South Asia and this re-orientation is significant. The other elements include co-operation in nuclear energy and safety, space and high technology commerce, as also access to the US military industrial complex. This is being undertaken to enable India to become a credible world power and clearly the new Bush template has accorded Delhi a certain salience in the concert of democracies. If these statements of intent are implemented with determination, then India-US relations will note March 25 as a major punctuation.

    The new Bush policy for the sub-continent has been crafted to advance US interests, and this is to be expected. But, in the emerging regional and global systemic, an economically prosperous and militarily strong India is perceived to be in the US' larger interests. The package that includes nuclear energy co-operation and the sale of military hardware is the means to this end. Given the fact that India and the US had widely divergent perceptions of their security interests during the Cold War decades, there is a great deal of wariness about the 'other' on both sides.

    The F16 itself has become a symbol of contestation between India, the US and Pakistan since it was originally denied to Islamabad for multiple transgressions by the Pak military establishment. There is little to suggest that the Pakistan GHQ has either atoned or recanted or allowed genuine democracy to take roots and to that extent the US decision to resume the supply of F16s is deemed to be perfidious.

    It merits repetition that India is not in a position to radically influence the short-term objectives that the Bush team has prioritised by way of the war against terror and the capture of bin Laden. Against this, it would be prudent for India to accept the US offer for closer strategic co-operation in an objective manner and nurture shared interests. Trust grows gradually in any bi-lateral relationship and the US offer to India to enter into what is termed the NSSP — the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership — is unique and indicative of how the Bush team perceives India. Delhi has to decide when and how to get its feet wet and the F16 may turn out to be an unintended catalyst.