India has wasted no time in beefing up its armory after the United States sanctioned the sale of F-16 fighter jets to neighboring Pakistan.
Peeved at Washington's decision to sell the fighter jets in its neighborhood, New Delhi on Tuesday evening OK'd defense acquisitions and upgrades worth $750 million.
India's cabinet committee on security has approved the price negotiations with Qatar for 12 used French-made Mirage 2005 fighters that have 80 percent to 85 percent of their operational life intact, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said.
The meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also approved buying nine offshore patrol vessels for the navy, purchasing a C-303 submarine-fired torpedo decoy system from Italy, and upgrading 14 aircraft-carrier-based Sea Harrier planes of British-make. The Harriers would be equipped with Israeli made air-to-air missiles.
India's defense purchases are part of its enhanced defense budget earlier this year.
All of India's defense orders are with Russia, Italy, Germany, Israel and Qatar. In a clear snub to Washington, no defense equipment was ordered from any U.S.-based suppliers.
While Pakistan had been craving F-16 jets for a long time, India had successfully stalled the delivery of the jets to its arch-rival neighbor. Despite an assurance by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit earlier this month to New Delhi that the United States would not sell planes to Pakistan, Washington last week doled out the jets to Islamabad, its partner in fighting a "war on terror" in Afghanistan.
The U.S. largesse came almost 15 years after sanctions were imposed on Pakistan for its nuclear ambitions that turned out to be true in 1998.
The decision to sell warplanes to Pakistan is part of a five-year, $3 billion U.S. assistance package. To placate India, the United States also offered F-18 jets to New Delhi, a proposal India is considering.
India said earlier this week that the F-16 sale to Pakistan would fuel the arms race in the nuclear-capable subcontinent. Even the Communist allies of India's ruling combine and opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party slammed Washington's decision.
BJP leader and India's former Foreign and Defense Minister Jaswant Singh said the U.S.-Pakistan F-16 agreement was held in abeyance "principally on the grounds of WMD proliferation and terrorism promotion" by Pakistan. The U.S. should now elaborate on the "improvements demonstrated by Pakistan," he said.
Singh also blasted the U.S. offer to India to acquire F-18 jets. "It is a strange proposition and we find it patronizing. We are not in a queue for alms."
Islamabad has rejected India's claim, saying the jets would help maintain military balance in the region. The United States on Tuesday tried again to placate India by dispelling apprehensions that the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan would vitiate the India-Pakistan peace process and upset the region's military balance.
U.S. Ambassador to India David C Mulford told reporters that Washington's decision to participate in New Delhi's proposal to acquire 126 multi-role fighter jets was "important."
Reacting to Mukherjee's statement that the sale of F-16s to Islamabad would affect the peace process, Mulford said: "I don't see why it should. The balance of power will not be disturbed by the U.S. proposal to sell F-16s to Pakistan. India has fighter airplanes in quite a number."
"Just when the subcontinent was toning down its war rhetoric and the general across the border was making dove-like noises, albeit from a hawk-like stance, the United States has stepped in and shot down the peace overtures mid-tune," the Indian Express commented.
The American media has also joined the debate in bashing Bush administration's decision.
The New York Times said in an editorial, "The worst thing for these two nuclear powers (India, Pakistan), which have fought three wars against each other since 1947, is to encourage them to engage in a new, American-fueled arms race."
"Decades of swollen military budgets have virtually bankrupted Pakistan, leaving its government unable to afford adequate spending on education and job-creating economic modernization," the Times said in the same piece.
"The United States does have a compelling strategic interest in helping Pakistan. But the right kind of help does not consist of selling Pakistan's armed forces, led by the country's military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, prestigious, expensive and dangerous weapons systems."
"Decades of swollen military budgets have virtually bankrupted Pakistan, leaving its government unable to afford adequate spending on education and job-creating economic modernization. Instead, its leaders have fed the Pakistani people a diet of belligerent nationalism and projects like nuclear weapons that are designed to enhance a sense of prestige," the editorial added.
The arms race went into high gear just before Musharraf's April 16 visit to India to watch a cricket game. He is scheduled to hold talks with Indian officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.