April 13, 2006 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Pakistan's cabinet last night gave approval to the country's air force to begin negotiations for the acquisition of up to 77 F-16 jet fighters from the US.
PAF F-16A #85726 and F-16B #84608 on a training mission over the city of Lahore armed with Sidewinders [PAF photo]
It is not clear yet whether the supply itself will be made by the U.S. or if the F-16s will be acquired from a third country nor when the aircraft would be delivered.
In addition to old A and B versions the deal will also include some newer C and D versions of the F-16.
The Pakistani government did not reveal the price it would pay for the deal, but it is estimated to be over 3 billion USD.
order will extend F-16 production beyond 2009, helping Lockheed meet its stated goal of keeping the line open until F-35 Joint Strike Fighter full-rate production begins in 2012.
While announcing the cabinet's agreement to the F-16 purchase, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's information minister, revealed that the cabinet had also given approval for the purchase of an unspecified number of Chinese fighter aircraft known as FC-1s.
The Chengdu FC-1 is China's hope to achieve independence in the production of advanced combat aircraft. The aircraft is roughly equivalent to an F-16C. It will be co-produced by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex as the JF-17.
The purchases would mark a significant expansion for the country's air force which has long sought to replace its ageing F-16 fighter aircraft supplied by the US in the 1980s. Pakistan already has about 30 F-16s but further supplies in the 1990s were suspended on suspicions in Washington over Pakistan progressing to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The F-16 deal has been controversial because long-term rival India believes it will upset the regional balance of power. The US only approved the sale in March after years of sanctions concerning Islamabad's nuclear program.
Last year, the Bush administration offered to sell the F-16 as an apparent reward for Pakistan's co-operation with the US-led war on terror. But the plan to place orders was suspended after last October's earthquake, which devastated parts of the country
Last November, the plans for the purchase of new fighter aircraft were suspended. Pakistan was then concerned that donors eager to help deal with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake would pull out if the country planned to spend money on planes.
Foreign donors have offered more than 6 billion USD in international aid for relief and reconstruction work.
"Obviously, General Musharraf is confident that the worst following the earthquake is now comfortably behind Pakistan," a senior western diplomat in Islamabad was quoted in the press.
Buying the aircraft could help General Musharraf politically. Pakistani nationalists have questioned his support for the US-led war on terror, saying the US often benefits more from the relationship than Pakistan.