Croatia chooses fighter jets amid US pressure and political friction

WARSAW, (BM) – The Croatian Ministry of Defense announced the receipt of four bids for 12 fighter jets for the country’s air force, learned citing Polish news agency Defence24.

Read more: New try of Croatia to buy new or second hand fighter jets

They concern brand new machines from the USA and Sweden and used aircraft from France and Israel. The decision to select new machines to replace the worn-out MiGi-21 is to be made no later than December 12 this year. This is another approach to this purchase, previously torpedoed by the US, which has now become a pretext for a media clash between the President and the Minister of Defense of Croatia.

In January this year. Inquiries were sent to seven of the thirteen countries that expressed an interest in supplying machines to Zagreb. Sweden with a Saab Gripen offer, France with a used Dassault Rafale, Italy with a used Eurofighter, and the USA with a brand new F-16 offer, and Norway with Greece and Israel offering a used F-16. By the deadline until September 9 this year. Only four offers were received: French, Swedish, American and Israeli. Therefore, only they will be processed.

It is worth recalling that it was the Israeli offer for the deeply modernized F-16 Barak that won the previous tender, which ended in 2018. However, the transaction was torpedoed by the USA, not allowing the machines to be resold to a third country.

The Israelis say that the Americans did not like Israel’s proposition of equipping the F-16 with advanced electronic systems, which were to tempt Croats to choose these machines over the competitive but more expensive offer of factory-new Lockheed Martin F-16V [Block 70].

The breakdown of negotiations with Israel put Zagreb in a very difficult situation, both military and political. Some Croatian politicians directly spoke about choosing the US offer. Others, including the defense minister, protested against this type of “succumbing to pressure” but also against the unfair practices of the US administration.

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The conflict also spilled over into the present proceedings. In a televised interview, Defense Minister Mario Banozic stated that it was highly inappropriate for Croatian President Zoran Milanovic to say that American machines should be the “first choice”. According to Banozic, this is a kind of unfair lobbying, with no factual support as “no member of the president’s office is a member of the independent commission evaluating offers.”

In his opinion, the committee composed of experts should not succumb to this type of pressure or other activities of lobbyists operating, for example, in social media. He emphasized that such practices, although highly unethical, appeared, inter alia, shortly before the deadline for submitting bids and will increase as the deadline for the award of the procedure approaches, i.e. in the first half of December.

This time the decision must be made because time is pressing. The new fighter planes are to replace the MiGi-21bis-D / MUD in Croatia, modified at the beginning of the century to a standard partially compatible with NATO to a lesser degree than in the case of the Romanian MiG-21 Lancer-R aircraft. Officially, the air force has 8 single-seater and 4 two-seater fighters, but less than half is actually airworthy. These machines should end their service in 2024, but this deadline will certainly be extended until at least some of the new machines are operational.

Interestingly, a similar situation to 2018 is very likely. The finale includes the offer of used French Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen, American F-16 Block 70 and used F-16C / D from Israel. It is not known whether the Israelis managed to solve the problem of allowing the US administration to sell the F-16, but it is also difficult to say what the administration’s decision will be after the presidential election in the US.

The French offer will probably turn out to be quite expensive, which may outweigh the scales on the side of the Swedes who offer not only attractive repayment terms but also fast delivery of Saab JAS39 Gripen planes.

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The decision of Slovakia and Bulgaria to purchase the F-16 Block 70 is certainly in favor of the Americans, but the problem may be the delivery date, which will not be shorter than 3-4 years. Given the recent substantial orders for the new F-16s, it could be even longer. Croats may also perceive the possible choice of the US offer as succumbing to pressure from the previous proceedings, especially after President Milanovic’s declaration.

This creates a situation somewhat similar to the stalemate in Bulgaria caused by the conflict between the lobby of Portuguese F-16 supporters and President Rumen Radev, who was accused of lobbying for the offer of new Swedish Gripen, which led to the cancellation of the tender and the purchase of the F-16 Block 70.

Croatia’s situation is complicated by several factors. Firstly, deliveries of Russian and Belarusian MiG-29s to Serbia, which thus gained a significant advantage in combat aviation. This could force Croats to use, like Slovenia, the help of Italian and Hungarian fighters to protect their airspace.

This topic appeared in the media statements of the Minister of Defense, Mario Banozic, who emphasized that such aid would cost, and that this money would translate into nothing but the ongoing patching of gaps.

The neighborhood with Hungary, which operates Swedish Gripen fighters, and the recent fairly strong offer of cooperation from Saab may outweigh the scales in the tender. Especially with the politically complex problem of the offers of Israel and the USA. The situation is complex, but it is undisputed that Croatia decided to terminate it categorically in December in order to be able to sign a contract in early 2021 and shorten the waiting time for new machines.

This is important because the entire process of searching for a successor to the MiG-21 has been going on for several years. However, he stood in the way, among others. the 2008 crisis, followed by the political turmoil and finally the U.S. torpedoing the 2018 deal with Israel. On the other hand, the crisis of 2020 caused by the pandemic, which has hit the aviation industry the most, may be a good time for Zagreb to negotiate good conditions.

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