Procurement: How Much Does "Free" Cost?


November 21, 2007: The United States has offered Croatia a dozen used F-16 fighters, to replace the same number of late model MiG-21s Croatia purchased a decade ago. Croatia has, for centuries, been one of the most pro-Western nations in the Balkans. Most of the region looks east, to Russia, for support. Thus it makes sense to be nice to Croatia.

While the U.S. still have about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units), over 4,200 were produced, and America has hundreds in storage. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and an ally that it would like to beef up militarily.

F-16s are still produced for export, and these cost as much as $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. So Croatia is being offered a $100 million gift. There will still be costs, however. Pilots and ground crew will have to be trained, and maintenance equipment, weapons and spare parts will have to be purchased. Thus Croatia will have to spend a few million dollars per aircraft just to get these fighters operational. Croatia may also want to upgrade them with more recent electronics. But for that investment, Croatia will have one of the more potent fighter forces in the Balkans. Greece operates about 150 F-16s, and Italy has about 30 on lease.

The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record, and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is a formidable bomber.


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