Serbia’s long-term plans for its helicopter fleet include three main elements, deputy defense minister Nenad Miloradovic said in an interview granted to the tangosix.rs portal at the end of June. They comprise the procurement of more Airbus H145M helicopters; keeping the Aérospatiale Gazelle (manufactured by the Serbian company SOKO under license) in service, with maintenance being performed by the recently Airbus-accredited Moma Stanojlovic facility; and retaining and expanding its fleet of Russian-made Mil helicopters.
In 2019, Russia is expected to supply Serbia with seven Mi-35 (“Hind-D” export versions) and three Mi-17 helicopters—as agreed earlier this year by the two countries’ presidents. Additionally, Russian companies are upgrading all of Serbia’s 14 MiG-29s, equipping them with modern radars, among other elements. According to Belgrade, talks are ongoing to deliver Russian BUK-M1, BUK-M2 missile and 2K22 Tunguska gun and missile systems to Serbia for air defense.
Belgrade is going to integrate domestic guided air-to-ground weapons systems onto its helicopters. In the case of the Airbus H145M, the Serbian-made guided weapons would be integrated with the H145M’s electro-optical system—a component of the Hforce weaponization kit supplied with the helicopters. An unspecified new guided air-to-ground missile (developed from the 128-mm Munja unguided rocket family, the M 74 and M 80), as well as the Pauk and the 2T5 guided anti-armor missiles, are to be integrated onto H145Ms and Mi-17s, the deputy defense minister added.
Miloradovic indicated that the 10 helicopters ordered from Russia are expected to be delivered two months earlier than scheduled. The Serbian Army would then develop a new capability to conduct SAR (search and rescue) and CSAR (combat search and rescue) missions. Miloradovic confirmed that upgrading the Soko J-22 Orao domestically-manufactured fighter-trainer jet (called Orao 2.0) is a priority program for the country’s defense industry.
Meanwhile, on July 16 President Vucic announced that Serbia will buy 18 Mistral 3 short-range air defense systems with 50 missiles from MBDA. The announcement came during a visit to Belgrade by French President Macron. Out of 22 bilateral agreements signed during the visit, five are defense-related. The Serbian MoD said that the Mistral agreement involves integration of the MBDA system into Serbia’s PASARS system. Separately a technical agreement, related to the Mistral deal, was signed in Belgrade.
Serbia has one of the strongest air forces and air defenses in the Balkans. “Since the fall of Yugoslavia, Serbia has built up the largest rotary-wing aircraft fleet,” the country’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency TASS. The country’s advantage is a relatively strong background in aircraft manufacturing and MRO work. Neighboring Croatia, a NATO member, which recently failed with the procurement of U.S.-made second-hand F-16s, views Serbia’s efforts to upgrade and strengthen air assets with anxiety.
Belgrade follows the tradition of the “third way” approach to arms procurement adopted by the former Yugoslavia and keeps a delicate balance between Russia and the West. The country’s declared goal is to join the European Union, while at the same time maintaining good relations with Russia, one of its major arms suppliers. As regards neighbors, a number of them NATO members, Belgrade has good relations with Budapest and Bucharest, but the same cannot be said regarding ties with Zagreb or Sarajevo. The relationship between Belgrade and Pristina (Kosovo) is extremely rocky, and there is a risk of an imminent military confrontation due to Serbian claims concerning the way Kosovo treats the Serb minority living in the northern part of the country.