Central European F-16 Deals Facing Political Hurdles

 - January 9, 2019, 5:59 AM
Three Israeli F-16D Block 30 Barak fighters, supported by a Boeing 707 Re'em tanker, visited Croatia in early August 2018 following the type's selection but in advance of the final contract signature. On their arrival they were escorted in by Croatian MiG-21s. (Photo: Ministarstvo obrane Republike Hrvatske)

Despite a strong will in the armies of the Central Eastern Europe (CEE) region to replace obsolete Soviet/Russian-made equipment with up-to-date Western aircraft, a number of political obstacles have emerged, both internally and internationally. These issues have affected three ongoing programs to procure F-16 fighters in Croatia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria.

On January 3, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkov raised the option of annulling the deal to buy 12 second-hand F-16C/D Barak aircraft from Israel unless both the U.S. and Israel make final and clear statements about the acquisition of the aircraft. The tentative $500 million deal is the largest since Croatia regained independence in the early 1990s and comes amid an unfolding arms race between Zagreb and Belgrade, with the latter having received six second-hand MiG-29s from Russia.

Israel has upgraded the F-16s with sophisticated electronic and radar systems of indigenous origin, which were crucial elements in Croatia’s decision to buy F-16s from Israel rather than from the U.S. Recently, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in Brazil but failed to agree on the U.S. issuing the third-party technology transfer (TPT) permission needed to seal the Croatian deal. In this case, Croatia is the third party, the Croatian news agency HINA quoted PM Plenkov as saying. He added that the Israeli and the U.S. government had almost two years to agree on the TPT. The issue of aircraft sales was “stuck in deep bureaucracy,” Israeli sources said. The Croatian MoD expects an answer from Israel by January 11. Israeli media reported that the defense ministry's director-general, Udi Adam, would travel to Zagreb to discuss the issue.

Last year Slovakia contracted for the delivery of 14 new F-16C/D Block 70 aircraft from the U.S. in a deal worth approximately $1.8 billion, but deliveries are not scheduled to be completed until the end of 2023. In the meantime, the service life of Slovakia’s MiG-29 fleet comes to an end in 2019, leaving the nation with a serious air defense capability gap. Sources in Bratislava told AIN that, to overcome the hiatus, the MoD is considering an offer from the Czech Republic to provide interim air defense support with Gripen fighters, while also studying an offer from Poland.

An alternative would be to extend the service life of the MiG-29s by agreeing with Russia or a third party to supply the necessary spare parts. This option has created political uproar in Slovakia, with opposition parties Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and the Movement of Freedom and Solidarity (O─ŻaNO) calling the extension of the contract for the operation of Russian MiG-29s a “bad solution.”

In Bulgaria political fighting has spread among parties and politicians over the country’s planned F-16 acquisition. On December 22, President Rumen Radev said that the plan to buy eight F-16 Block 70/72s is sound, but “the way the F-16 was chosen is not transparent.” Defense minister Krasimir Karakachanov countered by asking, “Who is the lobbyist for the F-16?” GERB, the ruling party, defended the decision but accused the president of corruption. The opposition Ataka Party leader and chair of the United Patriots parliamentary group (the third largest in the National Assembly), Volen Siderov, attacked the planned F-16 deal and thus brought into question the smooth passage of the decision through parliament. At the end of December, the Sofia government proposed the start of negotiations with the U.S. government and supplier Lockheed Martin.