During a ceremony on October 3 at the French military facility Mont-de-Marsan, the first Croatian two-seat multi-purpose fighter aircraft, Rafale F3R, was officially handed over to the Croatian Air Force. The Croatian government was represented at the ceremony by several individuals, including Defence Minister Mario Banoi.
After the unsuccessful execution of the MiG-21 modernisation programme in Ukraine, Croatia attempted to purchase new fighter aircraft in 2016. Zagreb was interested in purchasing used F-16C/D Barak aircraft from Israel, but the United States refused to allow the trade to go through.
In September 2020, Zagreb was presented with several different offers, some of which included used French Rafale F3Rs, Swedish Gripens, new American F-16C/D Block 70/72s, older F-16s from Greece, Israel, and Norway, or older Italian Eurofighters Tranche 1s. On the other hand, there was a possibility of failure this time due to COVID-19 and the attendant budget cuts.
In the end, Croatia decided in May 2021 to purchase twelve Rafale C aircraft, each of which had a single seat, and two Rafale B aircraft had two seats. The contract was finally put to paper in November of that same year. Under the contract terms, Rafale fighter jets will be delivered to the French Air and Space Force (Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace) that are ten years old and have previously served with that organisation. In exchange, the French Air and Space Force would acquire twelve brand-new Rafale F4 fighter jets between 2026 and 2027.
Additional French and Croatian agreements concern the training of pilots and technicians, the production of simulators, and the supply of ammunition. Zagreb will be given a three-dimensional simulator, a basic armament package, spare components, a one-year guarantee and three years of technical assistance for the aircraft. In France, roughly 65 Croatian technicians and 25 Croatian pilots will receive training. The training for the first technicians began a year ago, while the training for the first pilots began in January of this year.
The aeroplanes are reconditioned and brought up to the F3R standard before being delivered to the customer. There have been 3,800 flying hours logged on the Rafale aircraft owned and operated by Croatia. After that, their lifespan can be extended to 9,000 hours with substantial refurbishment, enabling Croatia to operate the aircraft for at least 30 years with an average annual flight time of approximately 175 hours per aircraft.
The Ministry of Defence of Croatia has announced that Croatia will get three additional Rafale aircraft before the end of this year. The first six Rafale aircraft are scheduled to arrive in Croatia in May of 2024. This will enable Croatia to secure its airspace with two Rafale aircraft immediately upon their arrival. The remaining eight will trickle in during the following year and the first part of the year 2025, respectively.
The Rafale aircraft will operate at the Pleso Air Base in Zagreb, where extensive infrastructure preparations are presently underway, including the construction of new hangars. The Croatian Air Force will eventually retire some of its remaining obsolete MiG-21 aircraft upon the arrival of the initial six aircraft.
However, this year, a portion of MiG-21s must be retired. Therefore, Defence Minister Banoi announced plans for the short-term protection of Croatian airspace by Italian and Hungarian aircraft, conceivably commencing in the new year.
Taxpayers in Croatia will pay €1.155 billion, including VAT (25 per cent). The VAT is returned to the state budget, bringing the actual cost to approximately €999 million. The payment schedule spans the years 2021 to 2026.
The Croatian government has not yet disclosed contract details, including weapon information. It is, therefore, uncertain how the Croatian Air Force intends to use the Rafale aircraft. Unofficial reports indicate the delivery of an undetermined quantity of MICA (Missile d’Interception, de Combat et d’Auto-défense) air-to-air missiles with radar (RF) and infrared (IR) guidance and a range of up to 50 kilometres. It appears that the Croatian Air Force will initially use the Rafale for air policing.
About the acquisition, Croatian President Zorana Milanovi mentioned a figure of €1.5 billion, including VAT. The government did not respond to his statement, and the president did not specify the purpose of the additional €400 million. Could it be used for upkeep, ammunition, or infrastructure? The figure of €1.1 billion is not definitive by any means.
Including VAT, the total is nearly 1.5 billion euros. President Milanovi stated that the country is spending a fortune on something beautiful and modern but extremely complex and costly to maintain. According to the president of Croatia, the absence of large and aggressive neighbours is a significant civilisational advantage for this Adriatic nation. According to him, however, the nation must not become complacent.