By VIVEK RAGHUVANSHI
, NEW DELHI
Posted 03/21/05 09:37
Indo-American defense ties have come under a cloud again after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern over the proposed India-Iran gas pipeline and declined to rule out a U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan.
Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf has been pressing Washington to allow the sale of the Lockheed Martin jets.
“We will talk about defense requirements. We very much look forward to doing that,” Rice said in a joint press conference held here March 16. “We prefer a military balance in the region. “
Rice did offer to sell F-16s to India during her talks with Foreign Minster Natwar Singh, an External Affairs Ministry official said.
In January, New Delhi asked Lockheed to propose terms for a deal to buy 125 of the multirole fighter jets, a Defence Ministry official said. India has asked for similar proposals from France’s Dassault Aviation, Russia’s RAC MiG and Sweden’s Saab.
The ministry official said that informal talks with the firms have elicited offers of F-16s for $28 million apiece, MiG-29M2s for $37 million, Mirage-225s for $50 million, and Gripens for $33 million.No decision has been made, he said.
A U.S. analyst said Pakistan would acquire a daunting air capability if it added two dozen F-16s to the 36 it purchased in the 1980s.
“This makes sense for the Paks as well, because they have to break with the Russian and local junk and they can’t get the numbers,” said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. “India is just too big. They have to go for quality and cost-effectiveness.”
“The Indians are very interested in the F-16 for reasons well beyond any concern about Pakistan,” a U.S. government source said. “First, it’s a much better airplane than anything the Russians can give them. Second, they are serious about a strategic partnership with the U.S. and they would like to have a major program that goes beyond smaller systems like the firefinder radar. Cooperation on a multirole combat aircraft does a lot for national prestige.
“As for the Pakistanis, the F-16 is a capability of almost mystical significance.”
A Lockheed official directed questions about potential Indian and Pakistani purchases to the Pentagon. In a statement, the company said, “Should a program be approved between the two governments, we stand ready to support it through the normal Foreign Military Sales approval process.”
Pakistani diplomats here refused to discuss a potential F-16 purchase but said they are optimistic Washington will honor its commitments toward military ties.
Protracted negotiations over the proposed sale of P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft are beginning to irk New Delhi.
Indian-American defense ties took off after Washington lifted nuclear-test-related sanctions in September 2001. India put in requests to buy $2 billion in weapons and gear, including P-3s, anti-missile radar and Patriot air defenses. So far, the sole completed deal was the 2002 sale of weapon-locating radar worth $140 million.
Rice said Washington looks forward to strengthening defense cooperation with India. But Defence Ministry sources said relations likely will suffer over the pipeline.
“I think our views concerning Iran are very well known by this time, and we have communicated to the Indian government our concerns about gas pipeline cooperation between Iran and India,” Rice said.
Afterward, a senior official in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that the Iran-India negotiations would proceed nonetheless.
In early 2003, India and Iran formed a strategic relationship that calls for India’s help in modernizing Soviet weapons, upgrading warships and training troops and technicians. In return, India received assurances about energy supplies. Washington was not pleased.
One defense analyst here called India’s pursuit of the pipeline “the first acid test” for the United Progressive Alliance government that came to power in May last year. •Vago Muradian
contributed to this report from Washington.