Revolutionizing Pakistan's defense diplomacy through civil-military partnership
Pakistan is situated in a neighborhood replete with security threats. The country has a continuous hot border both in the east with India and in the west with Afghanistan. Even the border environment with Iran hasn’t been conducive for stability. The maritime domain is always open to new challenges, particularly as Pakistan’s coastal waters stretch from the troubled Persian Gulf region in the west to the Indian Coast in the east. Such a heightened threat environment warrants the development of a comprehensive defense regime that can mitigate and counter the threat spectrum, and also project credible deterrence to keep the balance of power stable.
There are two key components of such a defense infrastructure. One remains the industrial level production of the relevant weapons, ammunition and equipment — also including the relevant research and development entities that can help in the indigenization of the sector without much reliance on external actors. The other one has been the acquisition of advanced military hardware and technology from nations that have much more developed and sophisticated defense sectors.
The defense sector in Pakistan remains relatively developed, but as the nature of threats changes and intensifies, procuring foreign defense equipment and weapon systems remains a necessity. A rather defense-related diplomatic approach while engaging with foreign nations is complementary to achieving this end.
In the past, Pakistan’s political and security alignment with the United States helped it to acquire modern defense equipment. Until recently the main stay of the Pakistan Air Force has been the F-16 fighter jets bought from United States. Similarly, defense relationships with the United Kingdom and France helped the country enhance its naval and land forces.
But acquiring modern weapon systems from these western partners has been increasingly difficult. The reasons for this drying up of western arms export market towards Pakistan range from exponential costs of new defense platforms to a reluctance by the industries involved to initiate technology transfer. Another key roadblock has been the trend to link up arms sales with political issues within Pakistan by key western governments and leveraging the defense card to pressurize Pakistan into giving political concessions. During the Kargil war in 1999, the Pakistan Air Force lacked Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capabilities and that gave Indian Air Force a decisive edge and thereby total air superiority in that theatre.
The Pak-US defense partnership got back to normal only after 9/11 as both sides political re-engaged with each other and emerged as key partners in the fight against terrorism but since 2009 Pakistan’s arms imports from US have again taken a nosedive.
Within European defense markets the situation has remained gloomy as well. Owing to a US veto, Pakistan has been unable to acquire a modern fourth generation fighter jet from various European producers to replace its aging fleet of Mirage III/5 and F-7P/PG fighter jets.
For Pakistan’s defense diplomacy, the choice of potential partners has become significantly narrower and this poses a major problem for the country's attempts to remain afoot with changing defense trends and security environment.
This scenario shows that defense development and acquisition has become problematic from a Pakistani perspective since the end of the Cold War and remains contingent to the episodes of Pakistan’s strategic prominence for western producers. Pakistan’s growing engagement with China is also bound to create further hurdles in this regard.
The most obvious option for Pakistan now remains and as the development of JF-17 thunder fighter jet program shows this strategic cooperation between the two sides will only grow even further. It is expected that Pakistan will be either buying or developing under license Chinese acquired defense equipment.
Fortunately, Turkey that remains a key political ally for Pakistan has also made huge strides within the field of defense production and remains a partner willing to not only sell its products but also transfer technology.
Still, however, Pakistan cannot limit its defensive engagement to only a group of countries. Therefore, it is important that those involved in defense procurement, understand political trends and narratives within prospective defense partners and then develop strategies to engage with them. A key theme here must be to develop synergy between political and defense compartments both within the policy making domain as well as on the diplomatic front to engage foreign companies and defense officials. At the end of the day bilateral political and economic partnerships play a key role in opening up doorways to such cooperation.
Recent political developments within Europe, particularly in Italy and Spain, have brought in political forces that may not see arms sales to countries like Pakistan as essentially problematic. Additionally, the economic crunch within Europe in the wake of COVID-19 may as well open up some venues. Pakistan’s defense engagement with Italy is already on the rise and only in the year 2018 the country’s defense import bill vis-a-vis Italy was $762 million.
For Pakistan’s defense diplomacy, the choice of potential partners has become significantly narrower and this poses a major problem for the country's attempts to remain afoot with changing defense trends and security environment. A comprehensive defense strategy that brings together defense and foreign policy experts alongside policymakers can offer viable solutions to this predicament.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.