Serbia Benefiting from Russian Interference in Regional MRO Activities

 - November 7, 2018, 6:05 AM
The Macedonian Ministry of the Interior has had two Mi-171s upgraded in Serbia. (photo: courtesy of www.tangosix.rs)

As most countries of the Balkans and Central/Eastern Europe are completing the transition period from operating Soviet/Russian-made aircraft and air defense missiles to more advanced Western types, redundant repair/overhaul capacity has emerged and competition is increasing to handle the remaining “eastern” air and missile assets. For Russia, it provides an opportunity to remain present in the region by supporting allies (Serbia) and interfering in the repair activities of other nations' facilities handling Soviet/Russian types, as they require a certificate from the manufacturer.

Backed by Russia, Serbia is set to become a regional hub for the repair and overhaul of Soviet/Russian military aircraft and air defense assets. Most of the countries in the region have such capabilities, and the country with the largest capacity is Ukraine. Tensions between Kiev and Moscow exclude the possibility of Russians agreeing to the conduct of MRO activities in Ukraine.

Slovakia provides a typical example of Russian interference. The country’s defense minister, Petr Gajdos, undertook a working visit to Moscow in October 2018 asking for Russia’s permission to overhaul up to 36 Mi-17 helicopters of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) at the LOTN facility in Slovakia. The Mi-17s were bought by the U.S. for the South Asian country at the beginning of the decade. Talks have been ongoing for more than two and a half years, so far without success. In 2016 Slovakia won a NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) tender for overhauling up to 36 Mi-17s of the Afghan Air Force. LOTN completed overhauling the first AAF Mi-17V-5 in August 2018, but a month later the OEM, Russian Helicopters (RH), disclaimed all liability for the safe operation of the aircraft, stating that the overhaul was unauthorized.

Another issue concerns the extension of an agreement concluded with Russia to service MiG-29s of the Slovak Air Force in Slovakia beyond the current 2019 end-date. If there is no agreement with the Russians, Slovakia is likely to have to ask NATO to provide airspace protection for the country as the new F-16V fighters bought by Slovakia to replace its MiG-29 fleet are not scheduled to be delivered before 2023, according to the Slovak MoD.

Meanwhile, Serbian aviation factory Moma Stanojlovic completed the overhaul of the first of two Mi-171 multi-role helicopters for the Macedonia (North Macedonia) Ministry of Interior through an agreement concluded in 2017. Test flights of the overhauled aircraft are being conducted at the Batajnica military airport. After last year’s meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Serbian prime minister Aleksandr Vučić, media in Belgrade quoted Serbian defense minister Zoran Dordević as saying that a new center (with supposed Russian support) is planned for the modernization and overhaul of helicopters. Serbian sources (the T6 portal), however, warned in October 2018 that Moma Stanojlovic still lacks the experience to properly overhaul helicopters as similar tasks had hitherto been conducted jointly with others.

Yugoimport SDPR, a company representing the Serbian state in defense-related matters, was included as the main contractor. Nevertheless the said portal believes that Russian technicians have been included in the repair team and the presence of Israeli specialists cannot be excluded, as Israeli technicians executed earlier some modifications (for example, Elbit’s night-vision ANVIS/HUD) on the two aircraft, making it the most advanced version in service with any of the region’s armed forces. The official website of Yugoimport SDPR mentions only the Mi-8 helicopter (not the more advanced Mi-171 derivative) among the types of aircraft that it can overhaul.