Failure of Israeli F-16 marketing in Syria and possible impact on Croatian fighters acquisition

Remains of the Israeli F-16 (photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

In December 2016, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović announced that the country's Air Force would select a new fighter by the end of 2017. In mid-July next year, the Croatian Ministry of Defence sent a letter to four countries stating that Croatia is interested in buying their combat aircraft and seeking their offers. The request has been sent to Sweden (JAS-39 Gripen), USA (F-16), South Korea (FA-50) and Israel (F-16 Barak).

The Ministry stated that offers could be received within the next two months, and they would then be evaluated by the Ministry's teams. The plans are being pushed forward by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Damir Krstičević, and the Ministry expects that the contract would be signed in 2018 and that the first few aircraft would arrive in the summer of 2020. Critics say they are too ambitious since previous Croatian governments have repeatedly prolonged the process.

Earlier plans

Although the MiG-21 was perceived as an outdated fighter by the Croatian Air Force even in the late 1990s, budget constraints have been continuously deferring any final decision on the acquisition of a new fighter type. By late 2002 all 24 MiG-21's were reaching the end of their service lives and it was decided that the fleet be overhauled and lightly upgraded in Romania.

A first squadron of 12 aircraft was therefore sent for 10-year life prolongation repair to Aerostar after which the second squadron was to follow. But after the first squadron arrived to Croatia, no further moves were made in order to revamp the second squadron. As the fleet of 12 overhauled MiG-21s was originally planned to remain active only until late 2011, Croatia was eyeing a replacement aircraft already by late 2008. It was projected that a new type be selected by late 2009 and that the first aircraft start entering service by 2011.

Such plans were put into question by the global economic crisis which severely affected the Croatian economy and in late 2010 it was officially unveiled that no new aircraft were envisaged to enter service. The Defence Ministry finally announced in June 2013 that the Ukrainian firm Ukrspetsexport will provide Croatia with eight single-seat and four twin-seat upgraded MiG-21 aircraft. Due to their condition only seven of these will be refurbished Croatian air frames and the remaining 5 will be "new" aircraft. These are to remain in service by 2020.

Received offers

On 3 October 2017, Croatia's Defence Ministry said it has received four offers in its tender to acquire 18 fighter jets, by the United States, Israel, Greece and Sweden. Americans were offering new F-16 Block 70/72 (also a former candidate for India's MMRCA competition), Israelis second-hand F-16 Barak (a mixed-fleet of A/B and C/D), Greeks second-hand F-16 C/D Block 30, and Swedish new JAS-39 Gripen. South Korea was expected to offer its FA-50 aircraft (a light attack version of KAI T-50 Golden Eagle), but Seoul did not place a bid in the tender, according to the ministry.

In late November 2017, the Croatian media announced the offers from Sweden and Israel variants had been shortlisted from the four received letters of intent, as the US bid was dismissed for being too expensive, and the Greek bid was dismissed for being too outdated. The unnamed government official said that new F-16s, with a price tag of about $120 million per aircraft, were evaluated as too expensive by the Croatian government. The planned acquisition is estimated to be worth between €500 million and €1 billion ($0.6-1.2 billion).

As for the finalists, the JAS-39 Gripen was a realistic choice because the Swedes have been offering it to Croatia for the last ten years. It's a new and very reliable plane, costing up to €60-70 million ($70-85 million), and cheaper to operate per flight hour comparing to F-16. This aircraft model can fulfill needs of the Croatian Air Force for the next forty years, and as part of the contract for the aircraft purchase, the Swedish industry offered offset cooperation with Croatian companies through Saab.

When it comes to the Israeli F-16, situation is far more complicated. Unlike Gripen, it has various Israeli modifications that don't comply with NATO standards, it's several decades old so it's cheaper price ($20-30 million) doesn't imply any advantage in the long term. The only argument in favor of F-16 is that it has been proven in wars. Apparently it sounded very pleasurable for the Croatian Ministry in late January this year, when the Israeli media victoriously announced that Croatia agreed to buy twelve Israeli F-16s for $500 million.

Background of Israeli F-16

During the Israeli aviation ceremony on 26 December 2016, the General Dynamics F-16A/B "Netz" (Hawk) has been retired after 36 years of service, and Israel put 40 of the jets up for sale. These fighters were ordered by Israel in 1978 under the Peace Marble I program, and the first Block 5 and Block 10 (later upgraded to a common Block 10 configuration) jets outfitted with Israeli modifications and desert camouflage arrived Ramat David AFB in Israel in July 1980. The Iranians who bought these F-16 jets for a total of $3 billion, but following the Iranian Revolution early in 1979, the new Iranian Government cancelled all the massive arms contracts. Israel, as an alternative, originally procured the type more as a response to the high cost of the F-15 Eagle.

A total of 125 F-16A/Bs were delivered to the IAF between 1981 and 1994, in two distinct lots. The initial 75 aircraft were delivered by the end of 1981. A second lot, dubbed Peace Marble IV, saw the introduction of the F-16C/D "Barak" (Lightning) into IAF service in the late 1980s. Another batch of F-16A/Bs was delivered to Israel in 1994 as thanks for staying out of Operation Desert Storm, i.e. not responding to the Iraqi Scud missile attacks. A total of 50 US surplus Block 5 and Block 10 F-16s made up the Peace Marble IV program. More F-16C/Ds and eventually the advanced F-16I Sufa (Storm) would round out the IAF's F-16 inventory. In recent years the oldest A-models have been retired, and other remaining A/B models were transferred to the aggressor role with the famed Red Dragon Squadron, or were used as advanced trainers for IAF pilots and weapon systems officers.

As the IAF's first F-35As arrived and the M-346 Lavi filled Israel's advanced jet trainer role, the F-16 Netz have been pulled from service. With a massive aid package from the US going into effect, F-35's beginning to arrive, upgrades on newer fighters underway, and with the F-15 fleet of all generations still going strong, Israel put some of its flyable F-16A/Bs up for sale, along with other surplus hardware: Israel's Defense Ministry has announced that it will try to sell the aircraft to foreign forces. Specifically, the ministry's Defense Aid Branch has advertised that 40 such planes are up for sale, noting that in the IAF they served in a variety of missions and are especially recommended for attack forces.

Failure of marketing in Syria

Selling forty old F-16 Fighting Falcons would be highly profitable and lucrative for Israel, estimated to be worth between $1.5-2 billion. However, it still remains unclear exactly who may be a customer for these aircraft. Jordan, an ever-closer military ally of Israel, was one possibility. In addition to Croatia, other countries in the region that are pursuing programs to replace their aircraft include Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Jordan and Romania have bought second-hand European F-16s, the Czechs and Hungarians leased 12 Gripens from the Swedish Air Force until 2027, and Slovakia and Bulgaria are still considering the purchase of new warplanes as a replacement for Russian-built MiG-29s. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia rely on a foreign help under NATO command and don't have plans to develop fighter capabilities. No one seems to have a serious interest of buying old Israeli F-16s.

Without any doubt, Israel lobbied in Croatia and elsewhere for the purpose of selling its old jets, using an argument about "experienced planes with a superior technology." At the same time, a war-torn Syria proved to be a useful playground for proving their claim, and Israel has been perpetrating airstrikes against targets in Syria for several years. The Israeli government claim its all about reducing an Iranian influence there, and Syrians argue that Israel is trying to help rebels. Israel is unlikely to achieve either, but was clearly sending a marketing message: "With buying our old F-16 upgrated with our technology, you get reliable aircraft which can freely attack a country equipped with the Soviet-built surface-to-air missile systems, without any fear of being shot down." But then, on 10 February 2018 the Syrian Air Defense Force has proven the very opposite.

Croatia's turnover

Even before an incident on the Syrian-Israeli border, Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenković denied that a final decision to buy the Israeli warplanes has been made. His statement came after the Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a press release saying the two leaders have agreed to move forward on the sale of Israeli F-16s to Croatia. According to Plenković, the Ministry's team was still considering offers and long-term solution. The real reasons for Croatian prolonging decision-making process are unknown, but some reported that Zagreb had come under pressure from the US embassy and Lockheed Martin company. This means an American offer is still on the table, along with Swedish and Israeli. Still, the only argument in favor of the Israeli bid has been irretrievably lost ten days ago. Some argue that Israeli loss was negligible considering the fleet size, while others were saying Israel totally lost its reputation. The truth is, they are most likely to lose $1.5-2 billion worth of deals.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.