Saab has submitted a formal proposal for 12 new-build Gripen C/D multi-role fighters to Croatia. The proposal is a government-to-government deal, and was handed over on September 9 by representatives from Sweden’s FMV (defense material administration) and the country’s embassy in Zagreb. The proposal also includes a parallel strategic cooperation package that is tailored to the development of Croatian industrial and technological capability.
“Sweden and Saab are offering a comprehensive and long-term solution for Croatian homeland security that will protect Croatia’s people and borders for decades to come,” said Jonas Hjelm, the head of Saab’s Aeronautics business area. “If Croatia chooses Gripen, Saab is ready to transfer know-how and technology and establish a Regional Aeronautical and Support Service Centre in Croatia. This would develop long-term cooperation with local defense industry as well as the academic sector, generating some 500 high-tech jobs.”
Since the late 2000s Croatia has been seeking a Western fighter to replace its fleet of 20 aging MiG-21bis/UMs. Half of the fleet underwent a limited life extension in Romania in the early 2000s. From 2013 seven of them subsequently received further refurbishment and basic NATO compatibility upgrades in Ukraine, which also supplied five additional aircraft to a similar standard from its own stocks. Comprising eight MiG-21bis and four MiG-21UMs, the survivors operate from Zagreb-Pleso with the Croatian air force's 191 Eskadrila Lovačkih Aviona fighter squadron, but serviceability is low.
An effort to procure a fighter of Western origin was launched in 2017, resulting in bids from Saab for the Gripen, and from Greece, Israel, and the U.S. offering F-16s. A batch of 12 ex-Israeli Lockheed Martin F-16s was selected in March, but this deal foundered in January 2019 due to U.S. objections regarding third-party technology transfer.
This led to a new fighter requirement being raised in July 2019, with new-build Gripen C/Ds and F-16 Block 70/72s being offered, along with various second-hand aircraft, including F-16s and Typhoons. A decision was expected in August 2020 for service-entry in 2022, but in early April 2020, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković announced that the fighter procurement program would be postponed while the government concentrated on handling the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the March 22 earthquake that damaged parts of the capital.
While Saab has concentrated its development efforts on the Gripen E/F, the C/D remains an important part of its export offerings, and in its latest Meteor missile-capable MS20 software iteration represents a very capable fighter that is ideal for countries with limited budgets and with defensive military requirements. In 2017 Saab announced that it had begun production of a batch of long-lead items so that it could respond rapidly to any orders, promising an 18-month contract-to-delivery timescale. The Gripen C/D is in service with neighbor Hungary, with whom Croatia established a number of defense co-operation agreements—including air policing—in April 2019.