Croatia’s deal to acquire former Israeli F-16s hangs in the balance, as Vladimir Trendafilovski explains.
In an effort to find a replacement for its dwindling fleet of MiG-21 Fishbed fighters operated by the Hrvatsko Ratno Zrakoplovstvo (HRZ, Croatian Air Force), Croatia accepted an Israeli offer of 12 second-hand F-16C/D Block 30 Barak aircraft in March 2018 (see Israeli F-16s for Croatia, AFM, May 2018, p6).
Ahead of the official signing of an agreement between the two governments for the sale of the aircraft – worth around US$500m – three Israeli Air Force F-16Ds paid an official visit to Croatia last August (see Israeli Air Force F-16s visit Croatia, AFM, October 2018, p12). However, the first sign of trouble became apparent when signature of the deal was postponed indefinitely.
The reason behind this became known as early as last November and was finally confirmed by US officials at the beginning of December. In what was an expected turn of events, as part of the Third Party Transfer (TPT) process, the US requested Israel remove all its indigenous modifications installed in the aircraft before transferring them to Croatia.
As the final step in the TPT process, at the end of December the US Congress cleared the transfer of the aircraft to Croatia in a configuration in accordance with US technical specifications (with US avionics instead of the Israeli avionics currently installed in them). Israeli diplomatic efforts to try and soften the US position in this matter at the start of January were apparently unsuccessful and the US expects Israel to confirm whether it will accept its conditions for the transfer.
This, of course, is unacceptable for Croatia since Israel won the bid to supply the aircraft based on their current configuration and any serious changes would therefore lead to cancellation of the deal – this has been stressed by high-ranking Croatian officials on more than a few occasions, including by the prime minister, Andrej Plenković, on January 3.
As result of all this, on January 3, the Croatian Ministry of Defence issued a formal request to the government of Israel to submit an official answer by January 11, stating whether it would be able to supply the aircraft in the configuration in which they were originally offered and accepted by Croatia. If a negative answer is received from Israel, Croatia will be forced to cancel the deal.
A delegation from the Israeli MoD was expected to arrive in Croatia yesterday (January 9) and deliver an official statement the following day.
While it seems that the fate of the Israeli-Croatian F-16 deal is now sealed, the latest rumour suggests that Washington will now step in and provide Croatia with the 12 F-16C/D it requires. This would be a donation of newer Block 40 airframes, with Croatia paying for their SLEP and a custom upgrade. All of this is expected to provided at the same cost as was earmarked for the acquisition of the Israeli aircraft. For now, however, this remains unofficial conjecture.