Croatia’s plan to procure fighter jets to replace its ageing fleet of MiG-21 aircraft has been plagued with delays, from dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic alongside rebuilding areas in Zagreb and Banovina devastated by earthquakes. These external factors will affect the government’s financial capacity for the fighter jet acquisition project, however the Croatian government are planning for the final decision announcement in 2021. The acquisition will consist of 12 multirole fighter aircraft, 10 one-seat and 2 two-seat platforms, to be operational for the next 30 years.
Vera Lin, Associate Analyst at GlobalData comments: “Despite delays, prompt decisions will be necessary to align deliveries of the new fighter with the retirement of the MiG-21 by 2024. Existing issues in the Croatian public procurement process may further slow down due to limited administrative capacity in the Directorate for the Public Procurement System. At present, details have not been disclosed regarding the platform recommended by the Interagency Commission in the Feasibility Study, as part of the bid evaluation process.”
Four ‘best and final’ offers have been made to the Croatian government for the acquisition since the Croatian Ministry of Defense first announced its intentions to acquire fighter aircraft in 2017. Bidders include the US, Sweden, France and Israel, offering the new F-16 Block 70, new JAS-39 C/D Gripen, used Rafale F3-R and used F-16 Block 30 respectively. Croatia’s previous fighter jet procurement attempt fell through in 2019. The prospective contract with Israel had an estimated value of US$500 million, for 12 used F-16 Barak. It was denied Third-Party-Transfer approval by the US State Department due to upgrades in the electronic and radar systems, which made the variant more competitive than the US-produced aircraft. The re-emergence of the Israeli bid suggests that measures have been taken in order to comply with the US’ demands, which involved the removal of the Israeli systems from the F-16.
In a statement published 21 December 2020, the Croatian Government announced the submission of the Feasibility Study by the Interagency Commission. The best bid was evaluated within the strategic, capability and financial domains. Essentially, the final decision will depend, first, on the resolution of technical requirements before financial costs and the political aspect, as stated by Defense Minister Mario Banozic in October 2020. Other important criteria that will affect the Interagency Commission’s bid evaluation will be the “number of flight simulators, the weapons package, pilot training, the repayment plan and cooperation between the countries”. Reducing procurement costs and delivery alignment with the retirement of the MiG-21 will also have impact.
Lin continues: “The politics behind the fighter jet acquisition is a key external factor. The Croatian government will consider the potential of developing strategic relationships through defense cooperation according to its foreign policy and security goals. The Croatian government has continually iterated its commitment to NATO, particularly in its role in stabilizing security in the Western Balkans along with consolidating its position in the European Union, with the European Union Defence Fund providing financial support.
Croatia is aiming to increase European defense collaboration through research and development initiatives as a project partner. Meanwhile, the US is a long-standing financial partner of Croatia’s military modernization goals for acquisitions and personnel training. Approximately US$700 million have been allocated for Croatian military acquisitions including the UH-60 Black Hawk, OH-58 Kiowa helicopters and the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles. The bids also include undisclosed levels of defense cooperation, although the Gripen offer includes an investment of half the total price of the Gripen aircraft into the Croatian economy which will make the bid more attractive to the Croatian government, it remains to be seen whether potential offsets will be able to outcompete the French Rafale and the commercially successful US F-16 bids which are strong contenders based on political grounds.”