Prospects for a Russian-CIS-Pakistan security dialouge

This article was written before the notorious nuclear tests, performed by India and Pakistan this year. However, it touches upon mainly the aspects of conventional arms trade. We presume that it will be interesting for our readers to get a full coverage of the state of affairs in the Pakistani Armed Forces and the ways it may affect Russia-Pakistan relations.

The strategic development in the form of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its division into fifteen independent states carried serious implications for a large number of countries in the world. It wouldnít be far-fetched to suggest that this transformed the chemistry of international politics. To begin with, this marked the end of the Cold War between the USA, and its allies, and the USSR. This presented countries that depended upon the East-West rivalry to feed their regional hostilities with large problems. It became clear that no longer would Washington and Moscow provide weapons for free or minimal cost to maintain politico-military control over these countries.

One of the most affected states was Pakistan. A natural corollary to the end of the Cold War was the arms embargo imposed on Pakistan by the USA. The Pressler amendment was mainly aimed at penalizing Pakistan for its nuclear activities, hence, all military and economic assistance to Islamabad was stopped in 1990. Earlier in the 1980s, Pakistan had been provided with the state-of-the-art American equipment to help it meet, what was considered as, the threat posed by the Soviet Union. At that time the military regime in Pakistan had decided to capitalize upon the opportunity to fulfill some of its dire weapons requirements that were needed to counter the larger and more traditional adversary: India. The various government sources that I talked to admitted that at no point did the authorities feel that they were directly threatened by the USSR, but the convergence with American policy was necessary to acquire superior quality equipment from the western sources who were willing to provide the help at minimal cost to Pakistan. Thus, the breakup of the Soviet Union threw the Pakistani authorities totally off-guard. It was expected that there would be some kind of rapprochement between the two superpowers but such a drastic development was not thought of by Islamabad, nor were they prepared for this kind of a calamity. Unlike during the Cold War era, Pakistan could not hope to become closer to the United States again. With the Communist threat gone Washington was under no obligation to help its South Asian ally.

The end of the East-West rivalry, however, did not lead to the cessation of hostilities between India and Pakistan, or the arms race in the region. For Pakistan the situation did not change. Its military competition and needs vis-a-vis India continue, accompanied by the problems of the lack of a militarily superior partner which can provide Islamabad with military hardware and financial assistance to purchase weapons off-the-shelf. In addition, there is the growing military capability gap between Pakistan and India that will be described in the following section of this article. This description is aimed at enunciating Islamabadís weapons needs.

The Threat Perception and Weapons Requirements:
American assistance in the 1980s had helped to improve Pakistanís military capabilities in relation to India. Within the two aid packages Washington transferred fighter aircraft, ASW aircraft for the Navy, artillery equipment, fire control radar, anti-ship missiles, old tanks and some other less significant hardware. The most remarkable transfer was of F-16 fighter aircraft and Cobra gun ship helicopters. The F-16s alone played a major role in improving Pakistanís general defense capability and in providing confidence in the military. After the initial acquisition of 40 F-16 from the first American aid package the PAF ordered another 72. These were to be transferred from 1991-97. The Pakistan Air Force had hoped to maintain 110 F-16s but was disappointed as a result of the arms embargo. Meanwhile, the service tried to manage through the procurement of inferior quality aircraft such as the Chinese F-7s. Some second-hand Mirage IIIs were also acquired from Australia during the 1980s that were overhauled and upgraded later, but this was not sufficient to match the Indian inventory that consisted of top-of-the-line Russian aircraft such as the MiG-25, MiG-27 and the MiG-29. New Delhi has recently upgraded its inventory by obtaining the Su-30 from Moscow. In addition, it had the British Jaguars, Sea Harriers, and the French Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft. Extremely conscious of the technological gap between its self and its adversary, Islamabad desperately tried to procure the French Mirage 2000-5. This, however, was impossible due to the prohibitive cost of the aircraft. The entire package was to cost Pakistan over US $ 5 billion, which it could not afford. A similar effort to get the Swedish Grippens was unsuccessful due to the US instructing Sweden not to supply these aircraft, which were fitted with American engines. Sophisticated fighter aircraft is one of the most urgent requirements of the Pakistani Air Force. At present the PAF is operating sixteen squadrons (about 300 fighter aircraft) out of which two consist of the French Mirage IIIs and Vs. According to official estimates around 120 of these 135 aircraft will be mothballed. In addition, it has the Chinese F-6s, A-5s and F-7s. All of these aircraft have limited fuel endurance.

In the 1980s Islamabadís primary focus was to beef up the overall defenses - an objective that the decision-makers tried to achieve through strengthening the Air Force. Despite being the largest service, the Army did not receive anything substantial. The prime procurement for the Army was the TOW anti-tank missiles, Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, a few fire-control radar systems, Cobra attack helicopters, and second-hand, 1950s vintage, American tanks. The serviceís prime dependence was on Chinese tanks such as the T-59 to which were added the T-69, T-69II and T-85IIP. After the drying up of American aid the government felt the need to improve the Armyís capabilities and a deal was signed in 1996-97 with Ukraine for its T-80UD tanks. This acquisition, it was hoped, would provide the service with firepower and mobility. This was in addition to having a certain deterrence value. Although the increase in the number of tanks will bring the difference between Indian and Pakistani tank inventory between 1979-80 and 1998-99, it would not offset the gaps in other areas such as missiles, missile defense systems, gun ships, etc. Furthermore, Pakistan must improve its surveillance capacity. Comparatively, India has been working on that front through developing its RPV, the Nishant and other systems. According to the Director General (Combat Development) of the Army, the service would be interested in a number of kinds of hardware such as mortars, artillery equipment, vehicles, etc. from the East European.

The Navy, which is the smallest service, did not manage to procure major weapon systems from the first American aid package. In fact, it was neglected throughout 1980s. A few pieces of hardware were procured from Britain towards the end of the 1980s, albeit cheaply. It was in the 1990s, nonetheless, that the service managed to acquire weapons such as British frigates and French submarines and mine hunters. These were in limited numbers and do not cater to the Navyís requirement of at least 20 naval vessels per year to meet the growing threat from the Indian Navy. The adversaryís Navy, it must be pointed out, has a blue-water capability that Pakistan cannot match but needs to build a sufficient force to defend its territory, sea-lanes-of-communication (SLOCS), and EEZ. For this the Navy needs to add to its existing fleet of surface ships.

Arms Transfer Links with Russia and Other CIS Republics:
Traditionally, Islamabad has never procured weapons from Moscow. In the days of the Soviet Union some hardware was acquired in the late 1960s. These consisted of a limited number of tanks, helicopters and some other less vital equipment. Again in the 1990s 12 Mi-17 cargo helicopters have been obtained for US $ 32 million, but the prospects of getting weapon systems is still not bright.

It is after the collapse of the USSR and emergence of the independent states that Islamabad has started to look towards these countries for armament. In 1996-97 a deal was signed with Ukraine for the acquisition of 320 T-80UD tanks for about US $ 600 million. In addition, another contract for the procurement of a 1200 hp engine from Ukraine is being negotiated. These engines will be fitted in Pakistan's main battle tank, the Al-Khalid. Islamabad has found the Ukrainian offer financially viable and the cost is a major consideration. These engines are being offered for US $ 0.25 million against the American Perkins engine worth US $ 1 million. No serious arms transfer negotiations were conducted with any other CIS republic. This particularly includes the Central Asian Republics with whom Islamabad had hoped to build stronger ties both economically and militarily.

An Assessment:
Pakistan is becoming increasingly interested in procuring weapons on the Eastern European market. This interest, nonetheless, is not equally shared by all the three services. The Navy is the least interested in Eastern equipment. It signed a deal with China for transfer of technology and indigenous production of missile boats in Pakistan but is less inclined to obtain major weapon systems such as surface ships, etc. The service's team of five officers that were interviewed for this article expressed interest in the airborne early warning technology, close-in weapons, surface ships and other equipment, but it is highly unlikely that they would diversify due to two factors: (a) Navy's traditional bias for European equipment, and (b) the cost factor. It is believed that if the service starts procuring from East Europe it would have to re-do its maintenance and weapon support systems, and that in the end would escalate the overall cost of equipment . The chances for acquiring sub-systems were also ruled out due to the difficulty in marrying these with the existing platforms. In addition, fitting eastern sub-systems to these platforms would require serious cooperation between the Pakistani Navy and suppliers' engineers; a possibility that was ruled out due to the nature of the current diplomatic relations particularly between Pakistan and Russia. Skepticism in the East European states' ability to provide logistic support was also expressed. These reasons, however, were to camouflage the fundamental decision not to acquire Eastern equipment. One conclusion that could be drawn from the interview with the Navy's top brass is that despite the reservations the Navy may be tempted to procure Eastern equipment if nothing else is available, or major weapon systems are seriously offered for sale.

On the other hand, the Army and Air Force have revised their earlier policy not to procure from sources other then the West. The most interested is the PAF searching for the new, sophisticated fighter aircraft that it desperately needs. The Army also wants to enhance both the number of weapons and its quality. Whatever the motive, the main interest of both the services is to procure from Russia. The main explanation being Islamabad's realization that despite the breakup of the USSR it is Moscow that dictates terms as far as arms transfers or major policies are concerned. Therefore, the armed forces do not desire to buy weapons from a source that would not be able to guarantee after sale support. Tanks were acquired from Ukraine due to the supplier's industrial capability to provide completely manufactured units and spare parts to keep them running. The various Central Asian Republics offered their old weapons, an offer that does not interest Pakistan because of the suppliers' inability to provide spare parts.

For the Pakistani military the Eastern European market is limited in terms of sources of supply. Although Islamabad would be happy to procure from the non-CIS states, the greatest problem relates to these countries' technological limitations. The Pakistani defense forces are as technology minded as any other military and would not want to invest in inferior systems. This narrows down the search to one producer: Russia. This is certainly the perception of the Air Force that is interested in the Su-27 series of Russian aircraft. According to the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, more then thirty sources were contacted to help PAF obtain the aircraft . The service is also interested in Russian air-to-air missiles. It was in search of these aircraft that people from the Russian mafia were contacted but the efforts have not borne any fruits yet.

Currently, the PAF is evaluating three options: (a) procure directly from Russia, (b) acquire through a third party such as one of the other CIS republics, and (c) obtain these aircraft from China. It was said that the Chinese are engaged in negotiations with Moscow to allow Beijing to supply the Su-27 aircraft indigenously manufactured in China to Pakistan. The Air Force considers the first option as most difficult. It is felt that Moscow might find it hard to directly sign a deal with Pakistan due to the Indian lobby. This was allegedly the reason that killed a prospective deal for the Su-27 in 1994-95 . However, there are others who were of the view that a deal could not be struck due to PAF's interest in the French Mirage 2000-5 at the time . What appears more likely is that until 1997 the PAF was certainly interested in buying the French aircraft and it would not have purchased any other aircraft had the President Farooq Laghari not interfered. His order to cancel negotiations with the French due to lack of funds left the service with the only option: acquire aircraft from a cheaper source. In this context the Air Force wants to obtain fighter aircraft at cheaper rates without compromising on quality. The other two options seem more plausible because it might save Moscow from any diplomatic embarrassment as far as India is concerned. An additional attraction for the PAF is that at this juncture about 70 percent of its fighter aircraft inventory is of Eastern origin.

Similarly, the Army is ready to obtain East European equipment. The service's major weapon systems and defense industrial infrastructure is geared towards Eastern hardware. Most of the American M-48A5 tanks in the Pakistan Army are not in active use. Almost all the tanks are Chinese, that is basically Soviet technology. The major tank production facility, Heavy Industries, Taxila, manufactures the Chinese T-series tanks and it is believed that with the facility's experience it would not be difficult to learn how to overhaul, re-build and manufacture new tanks of Russian origin.

The Foreign Office officials do not think that it would be easy to procure these things directly from Moscow . Their view can only be interpreted in the light of the history of Islamabad-Moscow relations, and problems that infest bilateral terms between the two countries. During the fifty years of Pakistan’s history, its relations with Russia have been less friendly, if not altogether hostile. The Russian leadership’s bias for India after the independence from the British in 1947 and the Pakistani leadership’s tilt towards the West always hindered the establishment of good relations. The premature death of the founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948, that deprived the country of his sound leadership accompanied with the Western influenced leadership that followed, did not allow the authorities and the military to re-think diplomatic relations with states other then that of the West. Moreover, with the growing threat perception the successive governments were too focused on getting equipment from the first world. In this respect America was one of the favorite choices of the leadership. Unlike Great Britain, the USA was seen as a land of opportunities that could provide Pakistan with military hardware to fight India. Jinnah who had tried to get armaments from Washington started this policy. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that weapons procurement and military security have been the raison de etre of Pakistan’s foreign policy and relations with other states.

It was to meet the military needs that Islamabad decided to join American sponsored security arrangements such as SEATO and CENTO in the 1950s. The idea was not to harm Soviet interests but to secure weapons from the USA. Indeed, this proved to be a good strategy because Washington transferred a large number of weapons free of charge. This strategy was again adopted in the 1980s when Islamabad collaborated with Washington to exaggerate the implications of the Soviet troop deployment in Afghanistan. The American CIA assisted by the Pakistani ISI planned insurgency operations against Soviet forces. This resulted in an eight-year long struggle that finally culminated in the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Whatever Islamabad’s intentions may have been, its involvement in the Afghan crisis added to the differences between Pakistan and the USSR. Moscow showed its wrath by bombarding Pakistani northern territory. The military developments during the 1980s formed perceptions that were inherited by Russia after the collapse of the USSR, and intensified Islamabad’s skepticism of Moscow. During the 1980s there were people in the policy-making circle that believed or projected the Soviet invasion as collusion between Moscow and New Delhi to destroy Pakistan. One may debate the perception but it is true that people from Pakistan’s decision-making circle are conscious of Russia’s continued disenchantment with Islamabad based on the Afghanistan affair. It is believed that the memories of the 1980s would cloud the prospects of any improvement of links between the two countries. Officials at the Foreign Office do not consider arms transfers as the main issue. For them and for the government it is more important to improve bilateral terms in an overall manner. Unlike Pakistan-US ties, weapons procurement has never been the crux of Moscow-Islamabad links, and it is believed that unless good relations are established it will be difficult to benefit from the new Russian arms exports policy. In making such an argument the Foreign Office officials do not attach any significance to Moscow’s desire to sell weapons or to the economic imperative of arms exports. Interestingly, this is not the approach that was adopted in dealing with the USA. The government believed that Washington would be forced by its arms production lobby to sell armament to Pakistan. It was with this thinking that the government continued to hope for the American equipment for which partial payment had been made to Washington.

From the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s standpoint there are three factors that have and will continue to pose problems for Pakistan in acquiring armament from Russia. First: The popular notion is that Moscow would not be willing to supply major weapon systems unless it decides to change the fundamental policy on Pakistan. The major impediment in the formulation of a new policy is felt to be the political chaos in Russia, and inability to assess South Asia as a region but as one of Indian influence. The people in charge of decision-making are those that made policies during the Cold War and these personnel are not likely to view Pakistan differently from how they are used to doing. Second: One of the greatest impediments to establishing good diplomatic or arms transfers relations is felt to be Moscow’s skepticism regarding Pakistan. Islamabad is viewed as a country that played a major role in the Afghan crisis, and continues to play a role in Afghanistan against Russian interest.

Third, the issue of the Russian prisoners-of-war. In 1990-91 Moscow had sought Pakistan’s help in getting back its POWs but Islamabad failed to deliver because of lack of control of the political situation in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. The Russian government, nonetheless, did not understand Pakistan’s limitations. Such a perception is understandable considering the Pakistani army’s involvement with the Afghan fundamentalist group and its past performance in dealing with other factions. Different Pakistani sources were of the view that the issue cannot be resolved because most of the POWs do not want to return to Russia. However, a solution can be found through providing Moscow with information as to the whereabouts of these POWs. As easy as it may sound the idea embarks upon major policy re-structuring by Islamabad. For one, the political government has to form a new and sound policy on Afghanistan, and take it entirely from under the ISI's control to its own. Also, it may have to consider a Russian solution to the existing Afghan crisis, of course, with concessions from Pakistan. This itself is not an easy task. It would require sustained political stability, and an intelligent and talented leadership to bring about such major changes. Despite the desire to improve relations with Moscow the present government in Pakistan does not seem to have formulated a solid policy pertaining to its own priorities or issues on which it would be willing to compromise.

This argument is presented despite the claims made by the various Foreign Office officials and confirmed by military sources that Islamabad has been trying hard for the past two years to improve relations with Moscow. Benazir Bhutto followed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to visit Russia - a proposition that does not seem to be welcomed by the Russian authorities. Is it because the well-entrenched Indian lobby influences policy-makers in Russia? Or is it due to the fact that Moscow has not thought of taking official claims, made by Pakistani authorities, seriously?

Islamabad recently acquired 12 Mi-17 cargo helicopters from Russia but this sale does not denote Moscow’s willingness to transfer equipment to Pakistan that would enhance the latter’s military capabilities. According to the military sources a prospective deal for the MiG-27s was cancelled due to Indian pressure. Hence, it is felt that Moscow would be unwilling to sell major weapon systems. For example, in 1995 the visiting Director General, Joint Staff Headquarters took a shopping list with him but it was not entertained . This conforms to the view of the Foreign Office. On the other hand, the Director General (ISPR) said that Moscow would be willing to sell any equipment provided it was paid in hard currency . In his view, one of the major issues was the cost factor. He added that contrary to the common belief that Russian equipment was less costly it was found to be relatively expensive. In this he cited the example of the Russian T-72M tanks that were offered for sale in the early 1990s for a price that was found to be more then the T-80UD tanks provided by Ukraine.

Conclusions It is clear from the above analysis that Pakistan's interest in Russian equipment is growing. This is due to two factors. First, Pakistan's increased requirement to upgrade its weapons. Second, unavailability of a Western source of arms procurement that Islamabad would prefer under ideal conditions.

A combination of these factors have made the armed forces look at the possibility to acquire weapons especially from Russia, which is considered the only country capable to provide weapon systems and after sale support.

The presence of a strong pro-Indian lobby in Moscow, and lack of smooth diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Russia, nevertheless, presently mar the possibility of procuring arms from Russia.

The political chaos at both ends is a prime reason hindering a change in policy regarding establishment of better diplomatic ties. Without an improvement in relations it would be difficult for Pakistan to try procuring Russian equipment and for Moscow to transfer major weapon systems to Islamabad. The government in Pakistan is making moves, albeit slowly to build relations with Russia. This in itself may send incorrect signals to Moscow. The Russian leadership could consider the slow pace as Pakistan's inability to revise its earlier anti-Moscow approach or seriously discuss arms transfers and other matters. The fact is that to develop an arms trade linkage, Islamabad would have to prove its credibility as a serious partner. In any case, neutralizing the pro-Indian lobby in Russia may not be an easy task. Considering the Pakistani military's pressing weapons requirements one wonders how long it would take Islamabad to speed up and attain a break-through. Similarly, Moscow would have to weigh its options for supplying weapons to a Pakistan that is traditionally hostile to India - a country which presently denotes a major market for Russian military hardware. By reaching out to Pakistan Moscow would have a better chance to play a more significant role and a balancing act in South Asia.