Fighter Fleets in the Balkans Undergoing Renewal

 - September 27, 2018, 12:09 PM
One of Romania's ex-Portuguese F-16s undertakes refueling practice with a U.S. Air Force tanker earlier this month. (photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Balkans countries (a number of them belonging to NATO) are on the threshold of replacing their older fighters of Soviet/Russian design with newer, Western aircraft. Serbia alone, a Russian ally, has opted for more Russian-made aircraft, although the country recently ordered nine Airbus Helicopters H145M multi-purpose rotary-wing aircraft with the HForce weapons kit.

Another feature of the current state of affairs—at least in Romania and Serbia—is an effort to boost domestic aircraft industries by reviving the production of somewhat older indigenous light attack aircraft to be used either as advanced trainers or to upgrade them to fly missions such as close support/light attack. At the same time, these countries face difficulties in funding the procurement of new aircraft, and for converting pilots and ground personnel to fly and service the new, Western aircraft with their advanced avionics, weapon/fire control and electronic warfare systems, and the weapons themselves. There are also persistent servicing issues to resolve.

Combining efforts to locally produce some parts of the new aircraft might seem a logical way of keeping down costs, but unfortunately, cooperation (joint procurement, joint servicing) between countries fielding the same systems is practically non-existent. Even the more developed Visegrad-4 group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—all NATO-members) have not managed it.

As for fighter procurement, Romanian secretary of defense, Mihai Fifor, announced in September that talks with Portugal about buying a second batch of used F-16s (five aircraft) are in an advanced stage. At the same time, Romania is in talks about procuring additional 36 F-16s. Moreover, Fifor said that the existing 12 F-16s acquired from Portugal are scheduled to reach full operational capability (FOC) early next year.

Romania, a key U.S. ally hosting elements of the Ballistic Missile Defense system, will be the first in the northern and western Balkans region to field an up-to-date Western fighter. In June this year, the secretary also announced the upgrading of the domestically developed IAR-99 Soim advanced trainer/light attack aircraft (until now used mostly as trainers for the F-16 pilots) for close air support.

With regard to Bulgaria, Lockheed Martin (LM) arranged a presentation of its newest F-16V (Block 70/72) fighter in September. The demonstration, held by top-level Lockheed Martin executives in Sofia, strengthened the company’s position in the race for Bulgaria’s order. Sofia plans to procure up to 16 new or used fighters to replace its aging MiG-29 fleet. The country's parliament approved the decision to buy the aircraft in June, and in July an RfP was sent to seven countries (United States, Portugal, Israel, Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden).

Both Bulgaria and Romania seem intent on buying F-16s, but they are in need of funds. Neither the Bulgarian government nor Lockheed Martin officials have excluded the possibility of an offset deal. At the same time, however, doubts were raised on the Bulgarian side concerning Lockheed Martin’s capability to keep to the two-year delivery deadline (due to India’s still unclear role in joint production, and also the relocation of the F-16’s final assembly line from Fort Worth, Texas, to Greenville, South Carolina). Another option mentioned in the Bulgarian capital is a deferred payment (excluded from sales under FMS terms) to be negotiated by the two governments, with the U.S. paying the entire sum to Lockheed Martin on behalf of Bulgaria, with Sofia paying back in yearly installments as provided for in the decision of the Bulgarian National Assembly.

Meanwhile, on August 21 the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense invited bids from Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and Belarusia’s 558th Aircraft Repair Plant (ARP) to overhaul its Su-25 fleet. The estimated value of the contract is BGN41 million ($24.2 million). The overhaul of the 14 Su-25 ground attack/close support aircraft is already 10 years overdue, ministry sources noted. 

Earlier this year, Croatia agreed to buy a dozen used F-16C/D Block 30 fighters (10 single-seat C and two tandem-seat D aircraft) from Israel. Delivery of the aircraft is expected to start in 2020 and be completed in 2022. The ex-Israeli aircraft are scheduled to undergo a service life extension program (SLEP), after which the aircraft (average age approximatively 30 years) will have a 3,000-hour service life. According to Croatian sources, the fighters are expected to fly 100 hours per year. The price of the 12 aircraft could reach $500 million. A flight simulator, and training for six to eight pilots and 45 ground crew (including five maintenance technicians) in Israel is included. The aircraft to be delivered to Croatia are being upgraded with Israeli electronic equipment and are NATO-compatible. The composition of the armaments package has not been announced.

In October 2017, the Russian Federation donated six used MiG-29s to Serbia. The west Balkans country took delivery of the first two on August 21, 2018. According to the deal, Serbia is going to pay around $213 million for the overhaul and maintenance of the aircraft. The Russian MiG-29s were produced between 1989-1991 and are somewhat newer than the four existing airworthy MiG-29s of the Serbian Air Force.

In the spring of this year, Belarus also donated four MiG-29s to Serbia. These four aircraft will have the same upgrades as the six from Russia, the MoD in Belgrade reported. Serbian sources told AIN that some of the weapons to be integrated onto the MiG-29s are to be of Serbian origin.