Why Is Croatia "Rejuvenating" Its Fighter Jet Fleet with Old Aircraft?

By 1 March 2018

Israeli airplanes, which are reportedly about to be bought, are just ten years younger than the current MIGs and about as old as the MIGs were when, in the middle of last decade, the government began to publicly and seriously consider buying a new fleet.

Austria has launched an investigation against former minister for the purchase of planes, says a HINA news item published on Monday. Just one hour later, Jutarnji List published an article about a meeting of HDZ presidency, which included this sentence: “Defence Minister Damir Krstičević reported on the purchase of fighter jets and said that Israel had sent the best offer and that the decision would be made soon,” reports Novi List on March 1, 2018.

This sequence of events certainly does not suggest that sometime in the future the state prosecution will launch an investigation against the current minister. But it does make it clear that the deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars is something which should be done in a transparent and cautious way. However, the story about the acquisition of a squadron of fighter jets is something entirely different.

It is a fact that MIGs 21, which are currently used by the air force, are at the end of their operational life. Their resources have been extended by political decisions since the time of the government led by Ivo Sanader because the decision to invest in the purchase of a new squadron has never been politically simple.

There is a general agreement that the MIGs currently used are simply too old. Most political parties, and seemingly most voters, agree that the option for Croatia to remain without an air force and to have its sky patrolled by one of the neighbouring countries is not acceptable.

However, the rest of the story is less straightforward. The first issue is something which has been in the news often during the last two years, and this is an allegedly disastrous overhaul of MIGs, which are supposed to be almost useless. Still, some of the pilots flying them say that the situation is being exaggerated and that the planes are not so bad.

Still, there is no doubt that they are too old and need to be replaced. And here we come to the issue of the tender for new aircraft and the fact that just two bids have seen seriously considered: the Swedish Gripen and the Israeli modified version of F-16.

Sweden has offered new planes, and the price is allegedly just over 700 million euro. The Israelis offer used planes for a little more than 400 million euro. But, Israeli aircraft are thirty years old, which means they are just a decade younger than the current MIGs. In about 10-15 years, the F-16s will be roughly as old as the MIGs which are now being replaced.

It seems quite logical that new Swedish planes are better than old Israeli ones. However, Defence Minister Damir Krstičević very loudly and openly advocates for the Israeli bid. Rumours are that this is one of the reasons for recent conflicts between President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s government since the president allegedly believes that Gripen would be a better choice.

To make things more interesting, a former company in which the defence minister worked – and he is the one advocating for the purchase of used aircraft – has now founded a new company for – aircraft maintenance. And not only that: another company in which the defence minister used to work has now registered drone operations as one of its areas of business, and the Israeli side, in addition to aircraft, also offers cooperation on drone development.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this is just an inconvenient combination of circumstances. What is crystal clear, however, is that there is no transparency in the process, as well as a convincing explanation of why it would be better for Croatia to replace old planes with another set of old airplanes and to pay for the “fleet rejuvenation” hundreds of millions of euros.

Translated from Novi List (reported by Jasmin Klarić).