U.S. Preps $2B in Gear For Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - At last week's U.S-Pakistan strategic dialogue, officials discussed American military aid, counterinsurgency strategy and flood relief for Pakistan. It was, however, the mention of a $2 billion security assistance package that caught analysts' attention.

The package would be spread over five years, and includes "helicopters, weapons systems and equipment to intercept communications, Pakistan Army officials said, confirming initial reports by the APP and CNN.

Army spokesman Brig. Azmat Ali said negotiations were underway for "transport and attack" helicopters, but declined to provide further details. He said the package was "still in the stages of finalization. It will take some time."

U.S. defense officials at the embassy here declined to comment.

South Asia analyst Brian Cloughley said the only thing he was sure of "is that the assistance package will have conditions attached - although these may well be kept under the counter, and not publicized."

The Pakistani army has long been short of utility helicopters and gunships. The need for attack helicopters is particularly keen, but Pakistan's attempts to get additional ones from the U.S. have not succeeded. Past efforts to obtain AH-64 Apaches have been rebuffed.

Defense officials at the U.S. embassy have discounted the possibility of acquiring AH-1Z Vipers to replace Pakistan's well-worn AH-1F Cobras until the initial order for the U.S. Marine Corps is fulfilled in 2015. The U.S. State Department's "Pakistan Assistance Strategy Report," published last December, raised the possibility of some Vipers being diverted to Pakistan.

Ali confirmed a recent order for 30 Bell 412 utility helicopters. The deal is in addition to and separate from the security package currently under negotiation.

Some doubt that the Bell 412 is suitable for Pakistani operations, which often take place at high altitudes and in warm climates.

Cloughley noted the Canadian military's problems in Afghanistan with its Canadian-built variant, the CH-146 Griffon, and the political debate over its suitability. But he concluded that the Bell 412 was a "good enough aircraft, but it has its limitations, especially in hot and dry" environments, and said, "On balance, the PA [Pakistan Army] could do worse."

The Army has made no public criticism of the Bell 412.

The military's need to disrupt communications was first publicly recognized in the initial campaigns against the Taliban in the Swat valley, where the inability to block the Taliban's FM radio propaganda broadcasts hindered operations.

That such equipment may be included in the U.S. aid package came as a surprise, however.

"It is my understanding that there is already a quantity of U.S.-supplied electronic equipment in service, especially in the field of [improvised explosive device] detection and neutralization," Cloughley said. "Intercept technology has also been provided, and I had thought that jammers were already in use."

The announcement of the package comes during a difficult time in U.S.-Pakistani relations, in the wake of a NATO crossborder incursion that resulted in the deaths of three Pakistani soldiers.

Washington wants to equip the Pakistan Army to eradicate Taliban hideouts in North Waziristan. However, the Army is still involved in flood relief operations, something the dialogue also addressed.

To clear the Taliban out of North Waziristan, the Pakistan Army would need from the U.S. "surplus/retired artillery guns and also smart artillery munitions," plus night-vision goggles "for infantry and helicopter pilots," said Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank.

The Bell 412, which has night-vision technology, has been used extensively by units such as the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) during nocturnal operations. The SOTF was raised with American help to hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban elements along the Afghan-Pakistan border.