Following the crash of a MiG-21 fighter jet, Croatia debates if it should partner with another nation as part of NATO's Smart Defence programme, or reinvest in its military.
By Selena Petrovic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 22/08/14
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (right) greets General Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, in Zagreb on March 18th. [AFP]
Croatia is weighing options for its air force (HRZ), keeping in mind financial restraints, the need for modern equipment and the best possible protection of its airspace.
After one of HRZ's five presently operational MiG-21 fighter jets crashed on August 5th in the Velika Gorica area, 16 kilometres south of Zagreb, the debate over the future of the country's aging fleet was launched again. The question is whether to buy new fighters, engage in a co-operative effort to defend airspace together with partner countries or let an ally provide complete protection of Croatia's sky.
A decision should be made by 2016, officials said.
Croatia's Defence Ministry told SETimes that, from a standpoint of military expertise, the best solution would involve new, modern airplanes to ensure airspace protection and allow for participation in the Alliance's air operations.
But, they added, all possibilities are being considered and none is to be favoured until the final decision is made.
Professor Vlatko Cvrtila, a national security expert and Zagreb-based VERN University dean, believes the issue should have been solved seven or eight years ago to allow for further independent development of the air force, potentially based on aircraft that are neither new nor expensive.
"But, we have obviously missed that opportunity," he said.
Referring to presently available directions for the military's aircraft fleet, Cvrtila suggested it is in Croatia's interest to keep its air force.
"This could be achieved through joint projects with some partner country in our neighbourhood. It seems to me this is the only realistic option for accomplishing what was written in our strategic documents and would meet our interests."
A NATO official who would not allow his name to be used told SETimes that Croatia "at the moment has the capability to police its own air space, which is part of NATO's air space, and it is using that capability."
"Decisions on national capabilities are for national governments to take. However, we know that in these tough economic times, one way in which Allies can improve the effectiveness of their defence spending is by working together. That is the Smart Defence principle, which NATO Allies agreed on at the Chicago summit. But this is for Croatia to decide how to deal with this issue," the official said, referring to ways Alliance could assist Croatia if it decides to renew its fleet.
Within the aforementioned NATO's Smart Defence framework, Alliance members are encouraged to acquire, maintain and operate capabilities together. This is an especially attractive option in this time of a weak global economy.
Cvrtila said Croatia would have to find at least one more partner country in order to establish joint airspace protection.
"I believe we should work seriously towards this direction, as time goes by fast and our airspace protection capabilities are nearing the expiration of our resources," he said.
According to the Defence Ministry, it is not possible to determine the exact difference in costs between the fleet renewal and partnering with allies based only on financial indicators.
"Every option has several modalities and arrangements, defining not only the costs and cost sharing, but also participants' obligations, staff training, investments in infrastructure and so on … which finally results in a wide price range for both options."
Licenses for several of Croatia's 12 MiG-21 fighters going through an overhaul procedure in Ukraine are to expire in 2024, and an optimal financial and security related solution has to be agreed on by 2016.
The MiG-21 which crashed earlier this month because of technical failure, and started this whole debate, was not among the jets recently refurbished in Ukraine. The pilot ejected and survived the accident.
Igor Tabak, Croatian military analyst and editor at Obris (Defence and Security), an internet portal covering military issues, wrote this is not the first time the future of the HRZ has been triggered by an event involving its airplanes.
"The result was the same every time. After all the data was placed on the table, it was determined that having an air force makes sense, while disbanding it does not bring the costs down and such a move would also widely affect the whole spectrum of activities in the state [for instance, aeronautics studies and certain jobs would become unnecessary]."
President Ivo Josipovic said the decision should have been made earlier, adding that a national consensus is needed regarding the HRZ.
"This is a big and important financial and political decision, which, in the end, should be made by the Croatian parliament (Sabor)," he said on national TV, HRT.
Josipovic announced a meeting of the National Defence Council in September to consider future directions for the HRZ.
What changes should Croatia make to its Air Force? Add your thoughts in the comment area below.