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by Igor Tabak
(All photos accredited to contributor)

The Adriatic, as an enclosed part of the Mediterranean, has a long tradition of maritime commerce, shipbuilding and – more lately – tourism. In recent years, it has been a relatively calm area on the very fringe of the major transport or migrant routes, with most coastal countries in NATO and many also either in the EU or on the path to membership. This tranquillity has also allowed the coastal countries, especially the smaller ones, to avoid devoting significant attention or resources to all but the most basic maritime security needs. As a result, over the last 30 years, the eastern shores of the Adriatic have been home only to minimal naval forces.

Of all the republics that formed the former socialist Yugoslavia, Croatia has the longest coastline; some 5,835km in total split between 1,777km relating to the mainland and a further 4,058km of islands, of which there are some 1,244 of various sizes. Around 1.2 million (out of a total of around four million) Croatian citizens live along Croatia’s Adriatic coastline and the country earns almost 20 percent of its GDP from the tourism industry that is largely concentrated there. As this is an especially security-sensitive industry, Croatia has been fortunate to escape any major terrorist or ecological incidents in recent years. Also focused on the coast are several key industrial and infrastructural complexes that merit special attention, such as the new LNG terminal on Krk that became operational on 1 January 2021 and the EU-funded but Chinese-built built Pelješac Bridge that will connect the enclave of Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. This new infrastructure, as well as some of the more developed shipping port complexes, has attracted some interest from the likes of the United States, China and Russia but this has yet to translate into the achievement of any substantial influence.

Given the Adriatic is a relatively peaceful area, the most pressing maritime concerns are ensuring the security of shipping, commerce and tourism, including the critical infrastructure referred to above, offshore oil and gas platforms and port facilities. In order to meet its part of these naval security responsibilities, Croatia has established the Croatian Navy (the Hrvatska ratna mornarica or HRM) as a full branch of the Republic of Croatia Armed Forces. The Croatian Navy is small; out of total armed forces personnel of 15,605 the navy comprises just 1,534 (1,363 military and 171 civilian). Its main components are the fleet and the coast guard, whilst its main base and headquarters are located in Split, the largest city in the Croatian coastal part of Dalmatia. Operationally, the navy collaborates with both the Croatian Police and Croatian Ministry of Transport, both of which maintain around 50 smaller vessels in pursuit of maritime security within the waters bordered by country’s 12 nautical mile limit.

Boarding exercises on FAUST VRANČIĆ (BŠ-73) in the internal waters of the central Adriatic

Daily Challenges
A major challenge facing the Croatian Navy is the fact that the attention of the Croatian populace – politicians and the general public alike – is largely focused inland, valuing the country’s Central European identity more highly than its Mediterranean one. This results in a general lack of clarity with respect to the security situation in the Adriatic, most evidenced by the apparent absence of any publicly available analysis of the maritime security challenges and potential responses that would inform a national debate and lead to a focus on capability development plans. From a historical perspective, both during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also that of the socialist Yugoslavia, the focus was clearly on the defence of the coast and the possession of limited counterstrike capabilities. Subsequently, during the Croatian Homeland War, the emerging Croatian Navy focused on defeating its enemies and defending the emerging country from the sea. Afterwards, however, Croatia started on its journey towards NATO and EU membership and naval security disappeared from view amongst a general emphasis on military “streamlining”. After NATO entry in 2009 and EU membership in 2013, no clear new goals were set and Croatia somehow became stuck in a naval “end of history” scenario.

The second major challenge facing the Croatian Navy, compounding the lack of strategic focus, is the state of Croatian defence spending. Croatia, as a NATO member, has committed itself to the alliance’s goal of spending two percent of GDP on defence, as well as allocating 20 percent of that amount for investment in modernisation, both by 2024. Whilst the national defence budget has fluctuated significantly over the last decade, the stagnation in the country’s progress towards the two percent goal that is visible in recent NATO defence expenditure has only been achieved by an accounting trick, viz. the inclusion of veterans’ pensions into the overall defence budget count. A truer reflection of the real state of things is provided by NATO data with respect to Croatian investment into defence modernisation, which has recently plummeted towards the bottom of the alliance (the figure was the second worst in 2020, with just 9.5% invested). The budget for 2021, passed in late November 2020, suggests a further stagnation in Croatian defence spending but even this projection looks dubious. Official statistics released in February 2021 indicated that Croatia’s GDP fell 8.4 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic-induced economic shock. With such extreme pressures on the national economy, it is hard to expect that either the overall defence budget or its naval component will remain unscathed for long.

This state of affairs – a lack of both strategy and funds – is clearly visible in the current “Long term development plan for the Croatian Armed Forces 2015-2024”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the document’s naval section is its least ambitious. Most of its stated strategic priority projects have either completely stalled or are severely delayed as the practical focus has shifted just to the retention of existing capabilities, with only cosmetic levels of modernisation achieved. A good example of the problem relates to the delayed but still ongoing attempts to reinvigorate domestic naval shipbuilding, which is currently focused on coast guard patrol vessels. With this effort moving at a painfully slow pace and most of the broader fleet modernisation programme seemingly stalled through lack of funding, much of the Croatian Navy is on the brink of block obsolescence and left to its best to utilise scarce resource against a backdrop of official neglect.

Naval Resources
The mainstays of the HRM fleet are five Fast Attack Craft (FACs) primarily armed with SAAB RBS-15 Mk1 rockets; three produced in Croatia, and two acquired second-hand from Finland in 2008. In addition, the HRM has an amphibious squadron with two multipurpose transport vessels. In service since the early 1990s, they enjoyed their international premiere in October 2015 when they transported Croatian forces across the Mediterranean to participate in the “Trident Junction 15” exercise in Spain. After a pause of several years, a company of marines is being reformed as part of the HRM fleet in Ploče, whilst the fleet’s naval divers platoon has also recently became more prominent due to their active cooperation with the US Navy.

The prototype patrol vessel OMIŠ (OOB-31) during its maiden cruise on 8 December 2018.

The Croatian Coast Guard, an integral part of the Croatian Navy, was established in November 2007. It relies on nine ships for performing its duties in conjunction with four Mi-8 MTV1 helicopters and two PC-9 aircraft from the air force. Amongst these vessels are four patrol craft of the former Yugoslavian MIRNA class, the former hydrographic vessel ANDRIJA MOHOROVIČIĆ (BŠ-72), the old rescue vessel FAUST VRANČIĆ (BŠ-73) now used as an OPV and OMIŠ (OOB-31), the prototype for a new class of patrol vessels that are being built domestically by the Brodosplit shipyard in Split. OMIŠ was finally delivered in December 2015 after delays and modifications to the initial project. A contract for the four vessels that will comprise the rest of the class was signed in February 2020; two of these were laid down in September 2020 and the other pair in mid-November. The completion of the first of these is expected in March 2022, with the other vessels to be completed by September 2023. This construction programme ended a prolonged pause in domestic military shipbuilding stagnation, raising hopes that a class of bigger OPVs may be built in Croatia in future.

The Exclusive Economic Zone Conundrum
This regional security framework was seriously disrupted in late November 2020, when neighbouring Italy decided to change its views on the delicate topic of the proclamation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Mediterranean (and the Adriatic). After spending years discouraging Croatia from adopting such a measure, it initiated the process for proclamation of an EEZ of its own. Consequently, on 18 December 2020, the Croatian Parliament (Sabor) gave the Croatian Government authority to reach a trilateral agreement – with Italy and Slovenia – on the implementation of a Croatian EEZ in the Adriatic in the course of 2021.

This new legal regime in the Adriatic will upgrade the existing rights and duties enjoyed by Croatia under the existing Ecological and Fisheries Protection Zone proclaimed in 2004. Moreover, the new legal regime will place new emphasis on the naval resources and capabilities required to police the Croatian side of the Adriatic, with potential benefit for the Croatian Navy in general and the Croatian Coast Guard in particular. Given the limited current resources and capabilities referenced above, this new limelight – and the additional funding that might come with it – could be a most welcome boost to Croatian maritime capabilities.

 Igor Tabak is an analyst based in Zagreb, Croatia