Wednesday, March 09, 2005

ANALYSIS:Ominous call to arms in South Asia

India's defense purchase strategy has changed, with Indian planners now focused on the specific goal of neutralizing Pakistan's nuclear-warhead capability, and once this is achieved, the military balance will turn significantly in India's favor.
Ominous call to arms in South Asia
Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The arms race has begun anew in South Asia, with defense planners in New Delhi eyeing controversial deals, while Pakistan's neglected and cash-strapped military bosses in general headquarters in Rawalpindi are having to come up with alternative strategies to counter developments in India.

India's defense purchase strategy has changed, with Indian planners now focused on the specific goal of neutralizing Pakistan's nuclear-warhead capability, and once this is achieved, the military balance will turn significantly in India's favor.

A top military strategist told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity that this new Indian planning covers a three-to-four-year period, with the key being the proposed purchase of the United States' Patriot missile defense system, which is capable of warding off nuclear attacks. US officials from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency were recently in India to give a presentation of the system, much to the indignation of Pakistan.

The Indian Air Force is also evaluating four different fighters to replace its ageing MiGs: the F-16, the Mirage 2000-5, the MiG 29-M2 and the JAS-39 Gripen. Pakistan's navy does not have a warhead-delivery system, and its F-16s - which have nuclear-launch capabilities - could be contained by a plane such as the Mirage 2000-5.

Pakistan's military decision-makers are now in deep consultations with the Foreign Office and the Inter-Services Intelligence's Kashmir cell to overhaul policies in light of what they see as new ground realities in which they believe India will keep the Kashmir issue in limbo and make breathing space for itself under the cover of confidence-building measures, all the while planning to entrap Pakistan in a new strategic game.

The Mirage 2000-5 of Dassault Aviation of France is a multi-role combat fighter with advanced avionics, including multiple-target air-to-ground and air-to-air firing procedures. Its radar provides multi-targeting in air defense and can simultaneously detect up to 24 targets, and then track and scan the eight highest-priority threats.

The Mirage 2000-5 is a response to the US-made F-16s, which make up the last remnants of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The PAF acquired 40 F-16s in the late 1980s, but by 2004 many had been destroyed in accidents, while others were cannibalized due to a lack of spares; now only a few are left.

Pakistan has been traumatized by what it sees as a US betrayal in reneging on a contract to supply about 70 F-16s in the late 1980s. US officials say the planes were held up because of congressional laws that required Pakistan not to go nuclear, and that Islamabad crossed the line in the sand, fully aware of the consequences, by doing just that on May 28, 1998.

Washington has since squared its accounts with Islamabad by returning (in cash and goods) the money Pakistan had advanced toward the purchase of the F-16s. But the episode has scarred Islamabad, and its military rulers still make periodic pleas to the US for F-16s.

After Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons, the US refused to sell it military hardware. Then came September 11, 2001, and the emergence of Pakistan as an important ally in the "war on terror", and the ban on arms sales was lifted. Pakistan's planners then went for purchases with the mindset that Pakistan's missile-based rocket program was its deterrent against any Indian military might, and India would not dare pursue a conventional war in the presence of nuclear warheads.

Pakistan's purchases included submarines, missiles and tanks and other conventional weapons and hardware. India, meanwhile, changed its plans to center on the anti-missile Patriot system and the Mirage 2000-5, or a similar such plane.

"It does not mean a dead end for Pakistan," a military expert told Asia Times Online. "It is simply the start of a new arms race in the region, on the same pattern previously between the US and the former USSR. US arms were superior in quality and precision, which the former USSR lacked, but it countered the US arms threat with a quantity of various types of missiles of inferior quality, lacking in precision but well advanced in range.

"Anti-missile Patriots are not impossible to be developed in Pakistan, but obviously it could push for new clandestine operations, like access to the black market, to get the technology and materials required. Obviously, it would be a lesser match, but it would tactically suffice to maintain the military equilibrium in South Asia," the expert said.

"There is no end to the measures and counter-measures, and that is exactly the secret behind the profitability of the world superpower's military production complexes," he added.

Syed Saleem Shahzadis Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times