By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
The U.S. and Indian militaries are planning to conduct their first joint exercise with fighter aircraft, U.S. defense officials said, a move that has aroused concern among senior Pakistani officials because it is likely to teach India how to blunt the ability of Pakistan to use fighter jets to launch nuclear weapons.
The planned training, which is likely to take place later this year or early in 2004, has not previously been disclosed. It represents an intensification of the new relationship between the U.S. and Indian armed forces, which until recent years tended to regard each other with suspicion.
The exercise could strain relations between Pakistan and the United States, said Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri. “We would not be happy at all” if the exercise takes place, he told reporters and editors yesterday at The Washington Post. “I don’t think it is politically advisable at all for the military and the United States government to do anything which would further complicate matters for the government of Pakistan.”
He added that he expects the exercise to produce “negative fallout” and said he planned to raise the issue with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The exercise apparently would be the first time that the highest-performing fighters built by the United States and Russia would be pitted against each other. In the training, the top air-to-air fighter in the U.S. Air Force inventory, the F-15C, is expected to fly against the Russian Su-30s that India started acquiring in 1997. The Pentagon is interested in practicing dogfighting the F-15C # which was introduced in the Air Force in 1979 # with the newer Russian aircraft.
The United States asked that India fly its top-of-the-line warplanes, rather than the older MiG-29s that India also owns, because the Air Force has never had the opportunity to exercise against the Su-30 or its variant, the Su-27, said Maj. James Law, a spokesman for the Air Force’s headquarters for Pacific operations. “We requested those aircraft because the USAF already participates in exercises with countries that have the Jaguar, Mirage, and MiGs, other aircraft the [Indian Air Force] flies,” he said.
“We are still in the early planning stages of this exercise,” he added.
Law said that it has not been decided what aircraft would be used in the exercise, but another Air Force official said he expected that the F-15 squadron based on the Japanese island of Okinawa would be tapped.
Asked whether Pakistan’s concerns had been taken into consideration, Law said that the exercise is “consistent with President Bush’s strategic objectives in South Asia.” But, he added, “We would not want any neighboring country to get alarmed by these exercises.”
The training might enable India to learn how to better deter Pakistan from believing it could use U.S.-built F-16s to threaten India with nuclear strikes. The big, twin-engine F-15 is generally seen as superior to the smaller, single-engine F-16. Pakistan’s air force operates about 32 F-16s, and is believed to consider them a more dependable means of delivering nuclear weapons than its ballistic missiles.
Pakistani F-16s supposedly have practiced a “toss-bombing” technique that would be used to deliver nuclear bombs, according to GlobalSecurity.org, an independent defense consulting organization. In that technique, a plane begins its bomb run at a low altitude, perhaps to better avoid radar detection, and then pulls up sharply as it nears its target, releasing the bomb as it climbs. The bomb then continues on an upward arc before detonating far from its release point, giving the pilot time to speed away from the nuclear blast.
“For the time being it appears that the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent depends not on its limited-range missiles, but on the survivability of its strike aircraft,” according to an assessment posted on GlobalSecurity’s Web site.
Over the past two years the U.S.-Indian military relationship has thawed and led to a series of exercises, most of them less combat-oriented than the planned air superiority exercise. Indian paratroopers last year practiced parachute jumps in Alaska, U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft flew to the big Indian air base near Agra for an exercise in military airlift operations, and the Indian and U.S. navies conducted a four-day exercise that included anti-submarine training.
In addition, Indian experts participated last June in a U.S. missile defense exercise in Colorado, and Indian defense officials followed up with a visit to the United States to discuss participating in the U.S. missile defense program. The Defense Intelligence Agency also instituted a formal relationship with India’s military intelligence service.
Some senior Pentagon officials in recent years have advocated developing a new strategic relationship with India, which since achieving independence in 1947 was usually seen by the U.S. government either as neutral or as leaning toward the Soviet Union. Pentagon officials said they believe that India, with its democratic capitalist system, huge population and burgeoning information technology industries, can help offset the growing influence of China in South and East Asia.
Correspondent John Lancaster in New Delhi contributed to this report.