Last week, Air and Army chiefs spent a busy day at PAF Base Shahbaz, located in Jacobabad. The two chiefs flew in a single formation of 02 Block-52 F-16 aircraft. At this occasion, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman declared, “Jacobabad Airbase is under the control of the PAF.” Americans had vacated this base alongside Pasni in 2004; however the public perception had ever since been to the contrary.
This event marked the induction of Block-52 F-16 aircraft in the PAF fleet. American embassy was not represented on the occasion. Probably, the embassy was busy in a damage control exercise in the aftermath of an uncalled for congressional hearing on Baluchistan. Though the state department had prudently distanced itself from the absurd hearing, Ambassador with his viceregal mindset was erratic enough to axe his own feet by at least tacitly endorsing the hearing through his unacceptable remarks about Human rights situation in Baluchistan. Indeed he worked really hard to earn a Demarche’.
Timely delivery of the new F-16s indicate that despite the public facade of rupture in Pak-US relations since the Raymond Davis saga, the military to military interactions have been going on smoothly. Replying to a media query the army chief said Islamabad and Washington are cooperating on defence operations, “Pakistani officials are taken into confidence whenever Afghan bordering areas are to be attacked. Despite strained relations, “the US always takes Pakistan into confidence when it comes to conducting operations against militants on bordering areas of Afghanistan.” General Kayani hinted at improved coordination with the United States to conduct operations at the Afghan border.
This depicts maturity in bilateral relations; while at the same time, it exposes two faces that the national leadership displays about the Pak-US relation, one the public face of rhetoric and second the private countenance of statecraft and cold business as usual approach. Closure of land route while allowing NATO/ISAF logistics through air amply shows the games that national leadership is playing with its own people. This betrayal would have remained unnoticed but thanks to disclosure by Ambassador Munter.
Army chief acknowledged that Pakistan Air Force is contributing significantly in the fight against terror. General Kayani told the media that the induction of the latest version of F-16 aircraft would strengthen the defence of the country. “These are the most sophisticated aircraft and will certainly strengthen the country’s defence,” he said. While observing that the newly inducted aircraft were a huge asset for the country, he said the army would try not to use them in the tribal areas in anti-terrorists operations; adding that minimum force was being used in the war on terror inside the country to ensure that the collateral damage is kept minimum.
Air Chief said that there was nothing installed in the US F-16s that could stop the air force from using these jets against American warplanes; however he wished that such a situation should not arise. Answering a question he said, “We will try not to use these jets against insurgents in tribal areas; air power had been used at the minimum possible level in the war on terror”. He said the addition of new F-16s have strengthened the defence capability. He assured that the eastern and western borders were safe and the PAF has developed its plan of action to generate effective response to the Indian war strategy based on cold start doctrine.
PAF had acquired earlier version of F-16 (Block-15) planes in the early 80s; these are in the process of mid-life up gradation (MLU) to bring their avionics, radar and night operations capability at par with the Block-52 aircraft. Two of the upgraded planes have recently been received while three more are due this month, remaining 30 planes would be delivered by 2014. This upgrade is taking place in Turkey. In addition to 18 new F-16 Block-52 planes, Pakistan also got 14 used F16s, ‘almost free of cost’.
Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman said, “Pakistan is manufacturing its own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra and we will soon be able to prepare UAVs equipped with missile technology.” About killer drones, he said: “We will work on it”. Pakistan has the capability to bring down drones being operated by the US in the tribal areas, but the policy and decision rests with the parliament, he stated.
The army chief dispelled the impression that a major chunk of the budget was eaten up by the military. He said that only 18 percent of the budget was being spent on the armed forces and reports of more than 50% budgetary expenditure were baseless. He pointed out that due to inflation and depreciation of rupee against the dollar, the defence budget has gone down in terms of purchase power. He further pointed out that the defence budget is presented in the parliament for scrutiny and approval. Talking about the Coalition Support Fund, he said: “Pakistan is yet to receive $1.5 billion from the US.”
The COAS emphasized that army was not involved in any operation in Baluchistan and only FC, which is under the control of Interior Ministry, was conducting routine operations. He stressed on more jobs for the Baluch youth. General Kayani said the government’s policy was clear and that all matters, including the terms of engagement with the US and NATO alongside the question of restoring NATO supplies would be decided by the parliament. Army Chief referred to Prime Minister’s statement about Pak-US relationship which had sent a strong message that the political and military leadership were on the same page on the issue of national security.
Appearance of the two chiefs, together at Jacobabad, would go a long way in improving the inter-services coordination. Abbottabad and Salalah attacks as well as Mehran base incident are our points of national shame. In all three events, national embarrassment could have mitigated, to a large extent, had there been requisite inter-services coordination to put up timely joint response.