Published in Nacional number 625, 2007-11-06

Autor: Eduard Šoštarić


Americans offering Croatia free F-16 fighter jets

NACIONAL REVEALS the outcome of a recent meeting between the head of the Croatian Air Force and US military officials in the Pentagon

THE CROATIAN military delegation that visited the USA from 10 to 19 September was led by Generals Slavko Baric, Mladen Kruljac and Vlado BagaricTHE CROATIAN military delegation that visited the USA from 10 to 19 September was led by Generals Slavko Baric, Mladen Kruljac and Vlado Bagaric The United States of America is ready to offer Croatia used F-16 fighter jets for free, and everything else depends on the Croatian side, Nacional learned mid last week from a source close to the military diplomacy in Croatia. The decision has significant political weight, because the USA is through it demonstrating the scope of the partnership and the alliance with Croatia, which has, after Serbia's recent rejection of closer cooperation with NATO, its spurning of the UN plan for Kosovo, and the open opposition of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislava Kostunica to the decisions of the High International Representative to Bosnia & Herzegovina Miroslav Lajcak, demonstrated itself to be the only stable and democratically mature country in the region.

As such it has for the USA become a guarantor of security in the Balkans, and Croatia has also show the USA's partners its readiness to accept a part of the refugees in the event of a possible repeat war in Kosovo.

A new war in Kosovo is not very likely and is the last option under consideration, but that possibility too must be planned for in time. Besides, top US military officials are exceedingly satisfied with all joint Croatian-American military operations in Afghanistan, especially with the capability of the Croatians who train and are mentors to the Afghan army in the frame of the OMLT teams, and with the announcement that Croatia will deploy another such team in the spring of next year and increase the Croatian military contingent to 300 members, 100 more than there are in Afghanistan at the moment. Croatia has over the past two years demonstrated consistency in its relations with the USA, and it has fulfilled what it promised, which has bolstered its credibility with American foreign policy officials. Nacional's sources in the military diplomacy consider the donation of F-16's to Croatia a real possibility, because something similar was offered a few years ago to the Czech Republic. This kind of an American move towards Croatia would have wide-reaching security significance. Croatia would as the guarantor of stability in the Balkans in the American perception also monitor a part of the former Yugoslavia with the F-16 aircraft, although not, of course, Serbia.

The reasons why the USA would give the used F-16 to Croatia should be sought not only within the scope of spheres of political interest, but also outside of them. The fact is, if Croatia decides to purchase new fighter aircraft, that Sweden's Gripen multipurpose fighter jet is a more affordable solution both in base price and on the long term. Besides, American companies are known for wanting to at all costs avoid any kind of offset program, which would encompass US investment into Croatia in a value greater than 4 billion kuna or that Croatia exports products to that value to the USA, because that is how much the project of acquiring new fighter aircraft for the Croatian Air Force will in fact cost. Unlike the Americans the Swedish are known for fulfilling all of their offset obligations towards Gripen buyers, so that it is hard to expect that any Croatian Government would opt to go for a more expensive and, on the long term, a more unfavourable purchase if both planes are of equal quality.

CROATIAN AIR FORCE COMMANDER Brigadier General Vlado BagaricCROATIAN AIR FORCE COMMANDER Brigadier General Vlado Bagaric Instead of that, the US "present" of the F-16's to Croatia would not be only politically significant but also profitable for US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The Americans will unload older, but still good aircraft, which in storage are not serving their purpose anyways, and Croatia will for the "donated" aircraft have to pay the US for pilot training, spare parts and their likely modernisation. Croatia will have to build new landing strips and airports for the aircraft, i.e. the complete infrastructure, so that the price will be significantly greater than that of the "free" aircraft. What is more, the production of the F-16 will be terminated in a few years and all of the technological know-how and upgrade possibilities will be turned to the F-22 aircraft, which costs from 120-130 million US dollars. In ten to fifteen years the price of the F-22 will be significantly lower. When Croatia is getting rid of the F-16, it will still because of all the these factors again have to opt for the American manufacturer, because the purchase of any other aircraft of European origin would lead to great outlays for the retraining of pilots and the changes to the infrastructure on the ground.

This unofficial American initiative has come two months after a meeting of Croatian Air Force Commander Brigadier General Vlado Bagaric with US military officials. Nacional has learned that high ranking American military officials told Bagaric that Croatia could enter a joint project of 17 NATO and Partnership for Peace member countries during an official visit by a Croatian delegation to the USA from 10 to 19 September of this year. The project involves the purchase of four C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft from US manufacturer Boeing targeted to the strategic transport of soldiers, weaponry, ammunition and armoured vehicles for NATO operations outside the country of origin.

As a counterproposal to this offer Bagaric asked the Americans to lobby to have the Zemunik airbase become a training centre for NATO member country pilot training, Nacional has learned from sources close to the Croatian negotiating team. There was no discussion on the acquisition of fighter aircraft for the Croatian Air Force at the meeting, so that the possibility of the purchase of the American F-16 fighter jet was not on the table. This is entirely understandable, as any discussion on the donation of the F-16 to Croatia is linked to the highest possible political level. The US idea that Croatia join the joint C-17 acquisition project with other NATO member countries comes at a moment when both Croatian An-32B transport aircraft are grounded with malfunctions, as a result of which an announced flight for Afghanistan coordinated with the American side has been cancelled. Setting up strategic air transport to distant NATO forces battlefields is one of the key goals of NATO military planners.

AMERICAN GIFT, a used multipurpose F-16 fighter jetAMERICAN GIFT, a used multipurpose F-16 fighter jet With the departure of transport aircraft to Afghanistan Croatia wanted to demonstrate its air transport capabilities, above all of equipment for the needs of Croatian forces in Afghanistan, and if need be of the capability for the transport of soldiers. Two crews led by squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Branko Suko, however, did not make the 5000 km long journey to get acquainted with Afghan airspace, the procedure when entering the country and the approach to airports. At the moment Croatia is completely bereft of the capability for air transport using transport aircraft, which is not at all encouraging on the eve of the arrival of a NATO commission at the year's end. It is quite clear that the An-32B can no longer be counted on, in spite of an overhaul, because it is frequently breaks down and is not reliable. A study of the acquisition of four C-17 transport aircraft was launched in June of 2005 with the aim of finding a long-term solution for achieving the capability of the kind of strategic air transport required by NATO, that would fulfil the requirements of those countries that do not have the need, or sufficient funds to independently develop the cited capability through the purchase of one or more of this kind of aircraft.

The international consortium of 17 countries that pools Lithuania, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Denmark, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Romania, the USA, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Finland, intends to close a deal with US aircraft manufacturer Boeing on the purchase of four of the company's C-17 transport aircraft. Negotiations between the interested countries are ongoing on the modalities of cooperation in financial aspects, personnel complements, command authorities and the deployment of troops. The price of a single C-17 aircraft comes to about 200 million US dollars, which means a total of 800 million dollars for four aircraft. The US plan has twenty countries coming on board the project. Five NATO member countries would have at their disposal one C-17 aircraft for their international mission needs or of their own national needs. The cost per country would in that case come to 40 million dollars for one aircraft, which is the price of one multipurpose Gripen or F-16 fighter jet, but without additional accessories, the cost of training and similar outlays.

In that case Croatia would get an aircraft capable of transporting as much as 77 tonnes of equipment, weaponry and soldiers at once to any part of the world, the flight range of the C-17 being effectively unlimited as it can be refuelled while airborne, and it would most likely share it with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Allies in the Balkans

THE SWEDISH GRIPEN would on the long term be the more economical option for CroatiaTHE SWEDISH GRIPEN would on the long term be the more economical option for Croatia A Croatian military delegation was on a two-week visit to top US military officials and the US Army joint chiefs of staff in early September of this year, where it found a very cordial welcome and the gratitude of US generals for what members of the Croatian Army were doing in peacekeeping operations. After Serbia recently rejected the idea of its joining NATO in the future, its spurning of the UN plan for Kosovo, and the open opposition of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislava Kostunica to the decisions of Miroslav Lajcak, the High International Representative to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia has demonstrated itself to be the only stable and democratically mature country in the Balkans that respects the international rules of play and which has not made a single decision that would contribute to inflaming the crisis shaking Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Croatia has become the chief partner to the USA with which it is hammering out all of the scenarios of possible crises in the Balkans and in which the Croatian position is taken into consideration.

NATO pilot training near Zadar

The US has proposed to Bagaric that Croatia be included in a project involving the joint acquisition of C-17 transport aircraft with another 17 NATO member countries, and Bagaric asked the US to lobby to make the Zemunik airbase a centre for the training of NATO pilots.

Multipurpose airborne giant

The C-17 GLOBEMASTER III is currently the largest military transport aircraft, and is in the world of military aircraft what the Airbus A380 is in the world of commercial airplanesThe C-17 GLOBEMASTER III is currently the largest military transport aircraft, and is in the world of military aircraft what the Airbus A380 is in the world of commercial airplanesThe C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft can at one go transport a 77 tonne payload, which means, for example, that it can hold three Patria armoured vehicles and a company of Croatian soldiers. Wherever it departs for there is no need to land for refuelling as the C-17 can be refuelled while airborne which makes its flight range unlimited. It costs about 200 million euro.
In the frame of NATO there is a club of sorts of twenty countries that are prepared to buy four C-17 aircraft to develop the needed transport capabilities. The intention is that one C-17 would be at the disposal of five countries closest one to the other so that Croatia would likely share a C-17 with Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. As a participant of the project Croatia would have to set aside 40 million US dollars, which is less than the price of a C-130 Hercules, and it would be used, along with NATO operations, for UN missions, EU missions and humanitarian catastrophe situations.
Countries that buy the aircraft would also have the option of renting it out.

A blow to the Swedes

The American proposal to donate F-16's to Croatia could hurt Sweden's Gripen, as its representatives have an aggressive marketing approach to Croatia, but one lacking transparency. They have taken on the services of a consultant in Croatia whom nobody even knows the name of, unlike, for example, Finland's Patria, which presented its consultant to the press three years before it won the tender. Of much greater concern, however, is their attempt to lobby Croatian military pilots.