Are Major Weapons Sales Necessary for a Strong US-Pakistan Relationship?


A strong security relationship has historically been a feature of
America ’s ties with Pakistan . Pakistan first entered into a military-based partnership with the US in the 1950s. By 1955, Pakistan had joined two regional defense alliances with the US led anti-Communist coalition, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Under the rubric of these alliances, the US transferred advanced weaponry, including Main Battle Tanks and fighter aircraft, as part of a package worth more than $700 million in military grants to Pakistan until 1965. The US suspended military assistance following differences over use of American arms in Pakistan ’s 1965 war with India [i]

Pakistan again entered into a wide-ranging military arrangement with the US following the Soviet Union ’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In September 1981, the Reagan Administration agreed to a $3.2 billion, five-year economic and military aid package with Islamabad . This package again included major weapons systems like the F-16 fighter jets, armored vehicles and artillery systems. Another American package, worth $4 billion over six years was agreed with Pakistan in 1986. However, following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid advancement of Pakistan ’s nuclear weapons program, the US terminated all military and most economic aid to Pakistan in 1990 as part of a legal requirement under the Pressler Amendment. The US also stopped pending weapons deliveries, including a fulfillment of Pakistan’s 1989 order for 71 F-16 fighters, although Pakistan was reimbursed under an agreement in 1998 [ii]

Following the calamitous events of
September 11, 2001 , Pakistan once again entered into a US-led coalition, this time as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). While Pakistan , under the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf, agreed to allow the US access to its airspace and military bases as well as to cut off assistance to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan , the US returned the favor with generous economic and military assistance and debt relief support. In June 2003, the US announced a 5-year $3 billion aid package for Pakistan , equally split between economic and military assistance. Pakistan was also designated a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) of the United States in June 2004, enabling the latter to receive priority military assistance from the US , among other benefits. Reinforcing this trend, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (S.2845), signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2004 includes verbiage promising to indefinitely continue assistance to Pakistan at current levels [iii]

Objectives of military support

The policy areas of
America ’s engagement of Pakistan include counter-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional stability, and the long-term viability of the Pakistani state. Apart from the obvious American interest in making sure that Pakistan does not follow a negative trajectory in the aforementioned areas, there is a very real incentive to American strategists in seeing Pakistan evolve into a moderate Islamic state. With its million-strong professional army, Pakistan could turn out to be a troop contributor in American-led “coalitions of the willing” against global threats. It is reasonable to infer that the US policymakers believe that a strong security partnership with Pakistan is essential to achieve the above objectives. 

In terms of regional stability, the U.S seeks to prevent or defuse military crises between
India and Pakistan while simultaneously stabilizing Afghanistan . American policymakers believe that a military partnership with Pakistan
is vital to achieve both regional goals because of the belief that Pakistani insecurity on either front has contributed to destabilizing acts by the Pakistani military establishment [iv]

Military Balance in
South Asia

Most analyses of military balances between rival nations or alliances tend to focus on the conventional arms comparison; personnel and systems such as armored vehicles, artillery, and strategic forces comparison. A detailed discussion of the India-Pakistan strategic force equation is out of the scope of this effort, but it is worthwhile to point out that most experts believe that there is a reasonable level of parity between
India and Pakistan in terms of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them [v]

Recent India-Pakistan military comparisons in Western media and think tanks have highlighted what is perceived to be a steady tilting of the conventional arms balance favoring
India [vi]. However, there are a few problems with this conclusion. First, Pakistan has historically depended on foreign aid to supplement it defense spending. The U.S is now committed to giving Pakistan at least $300 million annually for an indefinite timeframe. The Congressional Research Service, quoting Pentagon documents, states that between January 2003 and September 2004, Pakistan received coalition military funding equivalent to about a third of Pakistan's total defense expenditures during that timeframe [vii]

Pakistan ’s economy has also begun to grow at an impressive rate, which when taken in consideration with the above factors, indicates that Pakistan is unlikely to be swamped by India ’s defense expenditures in the near to medium term [viii]. India ’s numerical military superiority against Pakistan has actually declined in the recent years from a ratio of 1:1.4 to a statistically insignificant 1:1.07 [ix]. Another factor to consider is that successive Indian governments have routinely left a large portion of budgetary defense allocation unspent, while Pakistan ’s actual military spending usually exceeds the outlay. Therefore, given current trends, India is unlikely to have the surpluses needed to afford a huge military dominance over Pakistan for many years, perhaps decades, in even the most optimistic view.

Technology Gap: Real or Imaginary?

Some Pakistani and Western analyses point to
India ’s growing technological edge in the weapons arena. Systems such as the Israeli Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the Sukhoi-30MKI multi-role aircrafts are given as examples of India ’s growing technology advantage when compared to Pakistan

Once again, the analyses that highlight
India ’s perceived technological edge overlook some critical factors. Recent trends indicate that Pakistan is rapidly closing the airpower technology gap with India . The FC-1 fighter, which Pakistan is jointly developing with China , is close to production stage and will go far in terms of neutralizing the Indian threat. The fighter program gives Pakistan some assets that were unavailable to date including Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, mid-air refueling and better radars. Pakistani experts believe that the FC-1 is an asset that is superior to anything on India ’s inventory except perhaps the Sukhoi-30 [xi]. The U.S also appears to have promised an upgrade package for the PAF F-16 fleet. In the next few years, PAF will be armed with upgraded F-16s and a large number of advanced FC-1 fighters – a situation few can argue as indicative of a major imbalance with respect to India [xii]

Meanwhile, the
Pakistan army and the Navy have actually made significant technology advances, largely through purchases from friendly countries and selective system upgrades. In the last few years, Pakistan ’s purchase of the Ukrainian T-80UD and the induction of the locally manufactured Al Khalid Main Battle tanks provided Pakistan a decided armor edge even though India partially countered the threat with its own acquisition of T-90 tanks from Russia

Pakistan army also created a strong centralized corps of reserves for its formations in the critical semi-desert and desert sectors in Southern Punjab and Sindh provinces and rapidly equipped them with assets needed for mechanized capability. These reserve formations are dual-capable, meaning they can be used for offensive as well as defensive purposes and some analyses say that they even give Pakistan an edge at the theater level. When one adds the fact that Pakistan has smaller lines of communication and can mobilize its formations in less than 96 hours as opposed to ten days for India
, the balance of power does not appear dire from the Pakistani perspective [xiii]

When speaking of naval power comparison, neither
India nor Pakistan has considered naval battles to have a decisive impact on the outcome in their previous three wars. While India does have ambitions to develop a blue water navy, Pakistan ’s naval goals are modest – to protect her maritime interests in peacetime and to keep the supply-critical sea-lanes open during times of war. In essence, Pakistan ’s navy is tasked to neutralize an Indian threat of a naval blockade of the port of Karachi [xiv]. The U.S recently announced approval of Pakistan Navy request to purchase 8 more P-3C Orion Maritime Reconnaissance aircrafts from America . With a large fleet of Pakistani P-3Cs armed with deadly Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which have no comparable competitors in the world, along with the advanced Agosta 90B French submarines, few can argue that the Pakistan Navy is not equipped to defend its sea lanes from any Indian blockade attempt.

In real terms, the Indian Air Force and Navy’s assets have declined in terms of both numbers and age, in the past decade. It is quite clear therefore, that when one looks at the overall picture of the Indo-Pakistani armed forces, the conventional force balance has clearly not tilted as far in India’s favor as many would like to portray and the current trends indicate that Pakistan would be able to keep up with India in the near to medium term.

What about Sub-state actors?

Recent studies have discovered that the most likely path of military escalation in
South Asia begins with unconventional or asymmetric warfare. Therefore any discussion of conventional weapons balance between India and Pakistan
would be meaningless without a concomitant debate on the unconventional forces equation between the two rivals.

Pakistan , especially under military rule, has a history of employing sub-state actors as military agents against its neighbors. In 1947, the first war between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region started with a Pakistan sponsored invasion by tribal militia. In 1965, Pakistan ’s military ruler Gen. Ayub Khan launched an operation codenamed “ Gibraltar ” using non-uniformed Pakistani Special Forces and militant volunteers to try to seize Kashmir from Indian control. Under General Yahya Khan’s authoritarian regime in 1971, the Pakistani military helped create bands of militant Islamists to suppress the pro-independence Bengali movement and fight Indian troops. Pakistan ’s 1999 incursion into the Kargil region of Indian-controlled Kashmir
utilized militant groups as well as regular soldiers and special force members in disguise.

Pakistan has also used non-state forces during times of peace. In the 1980s, the Gen. Zia-ul-Haq administration provided copious support to Sikh separatist militants in the Indian state of Punjab . Pakistan ’s premier spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has also been linked to anti-state guerilla groups in India
’s North East from the 1950s to the present day.

While some may claim that
Pakistan ’s neighbors, including India and at times Afghanistan and Iran , have supported anti-government insurgents in Pakistan , it is hard for anyone to argue that such support is in any way comparable to the breadth and depth of Pakistan ’s utilization of jihadist groups. For instance, Pakistani journalist Muhammad Amir Rana, who has written extensively on Pakistani jihadist groups and their government links, states that at least 30,000 Pakistani fighters have been killed in Kashmir and Afghanistan in the last decade. He also estimates that there are around 200,000 active jihadist volunteers in Pakistan
today [xv]. Other experts put the number as high as 500,000 and growing [xvi]

Despite the official Pakistani claim that jihadist groups do not and have never enjoyed state support, a preponderance of evidence indicates that this position is untenable. Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad recently reported that Pakistan-based jihadist groups operating in
Kashmir are even part of the Pakistan army reporting structure in Pakistan-administered Kashmir [xvii]. Other reports detail the financial, training, intelligence, logistical and occasional artillery support provided by the Pakistani army in support of the militants infiltrating into Indian-controlled territory [xviii]. Senior Pakistani officials have boasted in the past that the Pakistani military has the jihadist groups by the “scruff of the neck [xix].” While one cannot rule out the fact some Kashmir-linked jihadist groups may be rogue actors, it is quite clear that most of these fighters could still be a part of the Pakistani military apparatus.

Based on the above arguments, one can see that the current “balance of terror” in
South Asia stands with India holding a small, if temporary, conventional arms edge, Pakistan maintaining a decided unconventional edge with a clear parity in strategic forces between the two belligerents.

Cold Start

Media reports indicate that the Indian military has come out with a new doctrine titled “Cold Start,” which essentially entails the use of all service arms to launch punitive strikes rather than looking to gain the opponents territory or threatening their national survival, with the aim of avoiding prevent nuclear escalation. At face value, this appears destabilizing but many Indian and more importantly Pakistani military experts see
India ’s conventional superiority today as not large enough for it to use such a doctrine with any meaningful results [xx]

Some Pakistani experts do caution that were
Pakistan to keep falling behind conventionally to India , the latter might reach a stage to effectively implement a Cold Start like doctrine at some point in the future. But as the above arguments and evidence show, Pakistan has recently taken big strides to catch up with India in terms of regular forces. For instance, Pakistan ’s impending acquisition of advanced FC-1 fighters, along with its rapid Chinese and American supported modernization of Air Defense systems would arguably render any airborne component of Indian attacks prohibitively expensive in terms of attrition to be meaningful.

It is difficult to argue therefore that threats of Cold Start like operations by
India justify any externally inspired enhancement of Pakistan
’s conventional forces.

The Role of

During the 2002 India-Pakistan border crisis, triggered by Kashmir-linked Pakistani jihadist groups, Western commentators pointed out that
India ’s refusal to even discuss Kashmir with Pakistan was untenable and it was unrealistic to expect Pakistan to abandon the use of sub-state forces in Kashmir without a quid-pro-quo from India . Perhaps acknowledging this argument, successive Indian governments have since made moves to put Kashmir on the negotiating table with Pakistan . However, it is clear that the Pakistani establishment has since then moved the goalposts to demand a large territorial concession from India as a pre-requisite to curtailing the Kashmir-linked jihadists

It would be relevant to note at this stage that there are two differing views on how to interpret the Pakistani establishment’s current position on the use of jihadists. One view, which some in the U.S government agree with, says that President Musharraf is moving decisively to negate the jihadist role in
but is hampered by the presence of hardliners within the military and intelligence services. The other view, supported by many Western and Pakistani analysts, posits that the Musharraf led Pakistani establishment still controls the jihadists to a large extent and has merely turned off the tap without dismantling the plumbing as part of a conscious effort to keep the jihadists under state employ [xxi

With the assumption that the U.S has an enduring interest in preventing war in South Asia, if the jihadists are wriggling out of control of their handlers in the Pakistani military, it behooves America to press the responsible elements in the Pakistani state apparatus to eliminate their out of control proxies before the latter stage a cataclysmic attack in India. On the other hand, if the jihadists are still largely under Pakistani military command, it would not be responsible for any external power to prop up
Pakistan ’s conventional forces without a concomitant, verifiable degradation of jihadist infrastructure and numbers.

Rationales for Weapons Sales

At this point, it would be beneficial to weigh the merits of the various rationales advanced in favor of the U.S propping up Pakistan’s conventional defenses beyond what most agree is necessary for prosecuting the war on terror.

Argument #1:
Pakistan ’s conventional forces are so degraded that any attempt by India to preempt Pakistan over Kashmir would force Pakistan to use nuclear weapons in self-defense.

As reviewed above,
Pakistan ’s army and navy are well equipped today to take on India moreover with Chinese help and American spares, Pakistan is well on its way to neutralizing the air force threat as well. In addition, the Indian political leadership has shown it is not willing to risk punitive steps that would result in nuclear war. In Kargil they kept the war on the Indian side of the Line of Control even in the face of heavy casualties. Likewise they showed restraint in 2002, despite intense pressure and criticism from influential hawks within and outside the government. Besides, from a realpolitik point of view, it can be argued that it is in the American interest that Pakistan should remain more dependent on American goodwill as opposed to American weapons for protection from a potential Indian attack.

Argument #2: Weapons sales represent the biggest point of leverage that the U.S has over
Pakistan .

American policymakers and legislators at various instances have echoed this point over the years. However, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates that Pakistani policymakers value the diplomatic prestige associated with being an American ally and the accompanying economic benefits as well as the institutional ties with the American military more than the transfer or denial of specific weapons systems [xxii]

Argument: #3: Enhancing
Pakistan ’s regular military power would encourage its leaders to stop encouraging jihadist militias.

This argument does not bear scrutiny both in terms of history as well as recent evidence.
Pakistan has used irregular forces, mostly religious radicals, throughout its history. It used them in 1965 when it was arguably at its military zenith vis-à-vis India as well as in the 1980s (Sikh insurgents) and 1990s ( Kashmir and the Taliban), when it was flush with billions of dollars worth of American weaponry. Pakistan ’s leaders themselves made it clear that their use of jihadists is tied to political goals such as wresting Kashmir from India as well as installing a pliant regime in Afghanistan [xxiii]

Argument #4: Bolstering conventional defenses would assuage
Pakistan ’s insecurity and discourage its leaders from undertaking military adventures, especially in Kashmir .

This asseveration is false. The principal driver of instability in
South Asia is Pakistan ’s willingness to challenge the territorial status quo with force, although repression driven refugee crises could be a secondary potential trigger. It is in U.S interests that Pakistan is deterred from challenging the status quo. A moderate, as opposed to overwhelming, Indian advantage over Pakistan is therefore not something that demands correction. When one takes the recent Kargil war as an example, there is evidence that Pakistan ’s strategists view Kargil as a military victory that was turned into defeat by an inept civilian leadership. Western experts point out that Pakistan ’s leaders are likely still convinced that they can undertake similar military maneuvers under their nuclear umbrella, especially when they feel that the U.S needs Pakistan for the war on terror [xxiv]. President Musharraf has also made statements refusing to rule out another Kargil should the Kashmir dispute remain unresolved in a manner acceptable to Pakistan , thereby negating this theory [xxv]

Argument #5: A conventionally strong
Pakistan would not need to focus on nuclear and missile systems. Therefore U.S weapons sales would discourage the Pakistani state from undertaking risky proliferation activities.

Since 1998,
Pakistan ’s leaders have constantly stated that Pakistan would do everything to sustain the credibility of their nuclear forces. Therefore, any external cooperation that Pakistan may undertake with other countries in the nuclear and missile technology arena is likely to be dependent on what Pakistan feels is necessary to sustain and burnish its nuclear deterrent, and not on what conventional weapons they get.

Argument #6: Conventional weapons sales would help
America strengthen the hands of “moderate” Pakistani leaders.

This theory has been historically proven wrong. American experts on Pakistan, such as Jack Gill of the National Defense University and Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently pointed out that past sales of big weapons systems to Pakistan actually strengthened the hands of those elements in the Pakistani state that favored military confrontation as means to resolve issues with neighbors [xxvi]. If anything, the nuclearization of
South Asia dictates that the U.S should err on the side of caution when it comes to moves that bear a risk of encouraging military adventurism in Pakistan .

Argument: #7: Big weapons systems are necessary to keep
Pakistan able and willing to take part in the war on terror.

There is expert consensus that the U.S should enhance
Pakistan ’s military abilities in the areas directly related to the war on terror. Reports indicate that the U.S is already taking such steps, which include providing counter-terror training, flak jackets, and helicopters to Pakistani forces. However, it would be a logical stretch to argue that weapons like F-16s, air-to-air missiles or AWACS aircrafts are needed to fight terrorist groups. As far as incentives go, Pakistan has already reaped enormous diplomatic and economic benefits from direct and indirect American assistance related to the war on terror. It is hard for anyone to make a persuasive argument that Pakistan needs more carrots than what it is already receiving.

Argument #8: “Defensive” weapons sales to
Pakistan do not affect regional arms balance.

This argument has been advanced to support sales of such systems as anti-tank missiles, reconnaissance aircrafts etc. to
Pakistan . In reality, there are no such things as “defensive” weapons. Every military that fights a war uses every type of weapon in its armory. In South Asia , Pakistan is the anti-status quo or revanchist power. Should its leaders decide to undertake a military operation in furtherance of what they see as Pakistan ’s interests, American supplied “defensive” weapons will likely end up being used for offensive activities as was done in 1965.

Argument #9: Sales of systems like the F-16 fighters could provide an incentive for
Pakistan to cooperate more on issues like unraveling the A.Q.Khan nuclear network.

Some non-proliferation supporters have advanced such a view. However, many other experts oppose this type of deal because they allude to the negative aspects of U.S-Pakistani ties and encourage
Pakistan ’s rulers to be intransigent when it comes to matters critical to American security. Pakistan ’s level of cooperation in the unraveling of the A.Q.Khan network will always be limited by what the Pakistani establishment considers as its redlines. Such as, the exposure of any Pakistani state involvement in the underground nuclear transactions. 

Argument #10: Subsidized American weapons sales could encourage
Pakistan to allocate more budgetary resources towards education and state building.

Experts on
Pakistan point out that over the past two decades successive Pakistani governments have allocated significantly decreased funding to education and social sectors. Pakistani analyst M.B. Naqvi notes that even with a growing economy, US enhancement of Pakistan’s military spending, and assistance with debt payments since late 2001, Pakistan still allocates 82 per cent of its budget towards debt servicing and national security [xxvii]. Pakistan also lacks internal checks and balances on military spending, priorities and risk taking. It seeks to change the status quo, and continues to be willing to use violence to that end. Hence, the historical record clearly demonstrates that major American weapons sales have led to major Pakistani attempts towards military adventurism and decreased rather than increased stability. 


Since 9/11,
Pakistan policy specialists have argued that America needs to stay engaged with Pakistan for the long-term. Those views were echoed in the independent 9/11-commission report’s recommendations towards Pakistan
[xxviii]. It is also hard to argue against the view that the nature of U.S-Pakistan relationship necessitates broad and deep security cooperation between the two partners.

To that end, the U.S has already moved to restart and strengthen ties with Pakistan in the areas of professional military exchanges, education and training, regular high-level contacts and bilateral dialogue, counter-terror and counter-narcotics cooperation while adding weight to the cooperation through sales of counter-terror specific equipment and transport aircrafts. The conferring of the MNNA status to
Pakistan lent an element of permanence to the alliance as well as guaranteeing the supply of military spares and excess inventory items. 

However, tensions between
Pakistan and India remain a serious American concern. According to South Asia expert Michael Krepon, the first of the ten “commandments” of nuclear risk reduction between rival powers is “Don’t change the territorial status quo in sensitive areas by use of force [xxix].” Clearly, Pakistan
has not reconciled itself to exercise restraint with regard to this crucial escalation trigger.

In this context, there is overwhelming evidence that sales of major military hardware to
Pakistan , especially under generous financial terms, over and above the current American assistance could likely produce results contrary to the intended purpose. Sales of systems like advanced versions of F-16 fighter jets armed with newer radars and missile technology could end up sending the wrong signals to hawkish elements within the Pakistani establishment, especially with respect to India and Kashmir

In review of the aforementioned information, one can reasonably conclude that major weapons sales represent a high risk - low reward option when it comes to American policy regarding
Pakistan and is inadvisable when dealing with a nuclear South Asia

References and Footnotes