Romanian Air Force / Fortele Aeriene ale Romaniei
By Paul van der Linden
Romania has a long and proud aviation heritage. Its airforce dates back to 1910 when a small flying corps was established. After the second world war Romania became a Socialist country and as such, fell under the influence of Moscow.
Shortly after the dramatic events from December 1989 the name of the Air Force was changed into its current name Fortele Aeriene ale Romaniei. Very little changed during the first half of the 90s beside the country licking its wounds imposed by the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. In 1990 Regt.49 at Ianca was the last unit within the Romanian Air Force to retire the MiG-15. The large number of aircraft which was still in storage gradually decreased during the course of the 1990's when most of the aircraft were scrapped. Deliveries of the original batch of MiG-29s had been completed just before the revolution which saw the fall of the Ceaucescu regime and operational flying of the Fulcrum commenced in the spring of 1990. Production of the IAR-93 was terminated in 1992 following the outbreak of the civil war in Yugoslavia.
By 1 June 1995 the Forţelor Aeriene Romaniei dropped its communist era regimental system in favour of a system consisting of Air Bases, Groups and Squadrons. Two Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Defence Corps - Corpului Aviatie si Aparare Antiaeriana were formed under the Air Force and Anti-Aircraft Defence Staff - Statului Major al Aviatiei si Apararii Antiaeriana in Bucharest. Tactical fighter units were designated as Baza Aeriana de Aviatie Vânâtoare si Vânâtoare Bombardament - Fighter and Fighter Bomber Air Base in control of all assets including the Grupul Aviatie Vânâtoare - Fighter Air Group with one or two Escadrila - squadrons assigned to it. Fighter-Bomber units were designated as Baza Aeriana de Aviatie Vânâtoare Bombardament for the base and Grupul Aviatie de Vânâtoare-Bombardament for the group. In this time all the units reported to their respective Baza Aeriana which has the same number as the Grupul.
Due to financial constraints and unable to buy new fighter aircraft the Romanian AF decided to invest in the upgrade of the most numerous fighter in its inventory being the MiG-21 Fishbed of which over 200 were still around by 1990. The tender was issued in 1992 and after a competition in which several companies were involved Elbit of Israel was contracted as the systems integrator. The program originally dubbed as the 'DD program' being a tribute to the Romanian poet Doru Davidovici who was also a MiG-21 pilot and killed in a crash with a MiG-21UM, was later named 'Lancer'. In Romania the Lancer is designated as LanceR with a capital 'R'. Among the available aircraft the MiG-21M and MiG-21MF were selected as the airframes to be upgraded. The contract initially included 75 Lancer-A air to ground conversions, 25 Lancer-C air-to-air versions and 10 Lancer-B trainers. The number of Lancer-Bs later increased to fourteen while the number of Lancer-A's decreased to 71 conversions. The remaining MiG-21PFM, R and US versions were all retired by the time the Lancer program was completed in 2003. Following the first flight of the Lancer-A prototype on 22 august 1995 the first squadron of Grupul 95 at Bacau completed conversion on the MiG-21 Lancer on 8 May 1997. The unit had operated the MiG-21PF until 1993 and the MiG-21PFM and M until conversion to the Lancer commenced in 1997. The unit at Bacau has at that time a combined training and combat role. In its training role the unit received both graduates from the Air Force Academy at Boboc as well as experienced pilots for type conversion. In 1998 Grupul 86 was the second unit to receive the Lancer. This unit operated both the MiG-21PFM and MF and the last MiG-21PFM's were disposed off by 1999. At Timisoara Escadrila 31 Cercetare retired its MiG-21Rs in 1998 after which the squadron was disbanded. The MiG-21MF squadron of Grupul 93 started conversion to the MiG-21 Lancer-A in 1999 and by 2000 the squadron had completed conversion. Grupul 93 is the only unit to exclusively operate the Lancer-A ground attack version but despite this, the squadron employs this version also in the air defence role.
Another type which did not make it into the new century was the IAR-93. After numerous incidents throughout its career and a non-fatal crash in April 1998 the type was grounded the same year and since then large numbers of IAR-93s remain in open storage at their former home base Craiova. Following the demise of the IAR-93, Grupul 67 received a small number of IAR-99s from its sister unit, Grupul 49 at Ianca. The latter had disposed off its IAR-93 a few years earlier and had received twenty L-39ZAs from Boboc as a temporary solution for the lack of aircraft with the unit. By 1998 the Albatrosses had returned to Boboc leaving Grupul 49 and Grupul 67 with fourteen IAR-99s divided between the two bases. In 1999 Grupul 57 at Mihail Kogalniceanu ceased operating the MiG-23 and about ten of the fourteen Flogger B/Cs that were still assigned to one of its squadrons were transferred to Timisoara the same year leaving a few non-airworthy aircraft behind at Mihail Kogalniceanu. The units two squadrons continued to operate the eighteen MiG-29s into the new century with the aircraft rapidly running out of flying hours and in need of a major overhaul.
The new millennium
After the turn of the century fierce reorganisations struck the Romanian AF hard. One of the first units to be disestablished was the former Esc.38.Av.Cc at Borcea flying the Hong 5s. From 2000 the squadron was assigned to Grupul 86 at its home base Borcea as the Escadrila 862 Recunoastere. The unit was scheduled to fly all reconnaissance platforms in the Romanian Air Force being the H-5, MiG-21 and An-30. However before these plans could materialize they were abandoned following the grounding of the H-5 after two aircraft crashed within a year including 310, which had just emerged from a costly major overhaul at Bacau. The last sortie took place on 27 August 2001 when the sole remaining HJ-5 was flown from Mihail Kogalniceanu to Borcea following the Romanian International Air Show 2001 where it participated as a static exhibit.
During the air show at Timisoara a year earlier in 2000 it became clear that the end was near for the MiG-23. Three of the four remaining aircraft participated during the air show after which they were grounded for several months. The following year, a MiG-23UB put up an appearance again during an air show at Ianca followed by RoIAS 2001 at Mihail Kogalniceanu where the same three aircraft as the previous year at Timisoara participated in the air show. The final MiG-23 sortie was flown in September 2001 after which their squadron was disbanded. More aircraft to disappear in 2000 were a number of L-39s and IAR-823 that were sold to the USA.
Another major reorganisation was the disbandment of all but one of the tactical helicopter bases. In 2001 Grupul 94 Elicoptere at Alexeni was disbanded and the base closed. A small number of Mi-8s was transferred to Otopeni but the majority was withdrawn from use and put into storage at Ianca. Also in 2001 Grupul 60 Elicoptere at Tecuci was disbanded with some of the helicopters being reassigned to Baza 95 Aeriana at Bacau by 1 May 2001. By the end of 2001 the same happened at Tuzla where Grupul 59 Elicoptere was disbanded after the helicopters had departed to Mihail Kogalniceanu and at Caransebes where Grupul 73 Elicoptere was disbanded with the helicopters taking up residence at Timisoara-Giarmata. Also in 2001 Escadrila 132 Elicoptere at Someseni was disbanded and its personnel transferred to Câmpia Turzii where they were assigned to Escadrila 713 Elicoptere which was formed in early 2003 after also Grupul 59 Elicoptere at Sibiu was disbanded and their helicopters and staff moved to Câmpia Turzii. Shortly after these changes the Romanian Air Force started to withdraw the IAR-316s from service while also the number of IAR-330s in service was drastically decreased with only five or six being assigned to a squadron today. The only helicopter base that initially survived was Grupul 61 Elicoptere at Titu-Boteni equipped with the eventually 24 strong IAR-330 SOCAT fleet of which the first were delivered in 2001. Also the structure of the various units changed once again in 2001. By 15 December of that year all Grupuls were disbanded and from that date onwards all Escadrila's which were previously assigned to the Grupul were placed under direct command of the Baza Aeriana.
The first two years of the new century also saw the conversion of the two Escadrila of Baza 71 Av.Vt. to the Lancer being the last unit to do so. The unit had operated the MiG-21M/MF before it started its conversion. Fixed wing units to cease operations in 2001 were Baza 49 at Ianca which operated a very small number of IAR-99s after the unit had subsequently lost its MiG-15s, IAR-93s and L-39ZAs during the 1990s. Following the disbandment of Baza 49 Aviatie de Vânâtoare-Bombardament, the IAR-99s were transferred to Craiova after which Ianca became a storage base and since 2002 a temporary home for the L-29s and L-39s from Boboc. 2002 also saw the end of the last non-Lancer MiG-21s in service with the FAR. Baza 91 at Deveselu operated the last mix of non-modified MiG-21s in Romanian service. After operations ceased at Deveselu the base was closed with some two dozen MiG-21s of various types remaining grounded at the base. The disbanding of so many units with the subsequent closure of their home bases also resulted in the disbanding of Divizia 2 Aeriana at Timisoara around late 2002/early 2003. Also the training units received their share of reorganisations. In 2002 Grupul 19 Aviatie Scoala de Legatura at Focsani was disbanded. The IAR-823s of the unit were already withdrawn from service and the units IAK-52s were transferred to Brasov-Ghimbav where they share the base with the IAR-Eurocopter company. Following this move the unit was designated as Escadrila 21 Aviatie Scoala. At Buzau the based Grupul Aviatie Scoala Elicopteresi Transport (GASET) moved to nearby Boboc where its An-2 and IAR-316 element became part of the Scoala de Applicatii a pentru Fortelor Aeriene. Note that by this time Boboc had lost its Baza 20 Aeriana designation and the same had happened at Bacau where Baza 95 Aeriana was redesignated into Centrul 95 Trecere pe Avioane Supersonice or 95 Supersonic Jet Training Center in 2001. At Craiova Grupul 67 Aviatie de Vânâtoare-Bombardament was redesignated into Centrul 67 Pregatire Operationala Avansata si Incercari in Zbor or 67th Advanced Operational Training and Flight Test Center, flying the IAR-99 however in 2002 also this unit was disbanded. The test flight of the unit remained active for some time as the Centrul de Incercari in Zbor (CIZ) operating a small number (probably four) of IAR-99. The planned move to Boboc finally took place after many delays in the spring of 2004. It is likely that also the CIZ moved to Boboc together with the active IAR-99s. A number of aircraft remained behind at Craiova where they are stored with the Centrul de Mentenara 322 Aviatia awaiting funding for maintenance and modifications.
Despite earlier plans to upgrade about twelve MiG-29s to NATO standard the Romanian Ministry of Defense decided on 21 January 2003 to withdraw the MiG-29 from service. Grupul 57, the Fulcrum unit at Mihail Kogalniceanu converted to the Lancer-A shortly afterwards and was based at Borcea. The unit however suffered from an exodus of pilots who resigned following the decision to abandon the plans for the Fulcrum upgrade and retire the aircraft. With the closure of Mihail Kogalniceanu in April 2004 Baza 57 disbanded with the Lancers being reassigned to other units. The jet training escadrila from the S.A.p.A. at Boboc is currently based at nearby Ianca. In the autumn of 2003 the Escadrila 21 Aviatie Scoala was transferred to Boboc where it was absorbed into the S.A.p.F.A. In addition in late 2003 all An-2 Patrulas disbanded and all An-2s have now taken up residence at Boboc.
In early 2004 it was announced that Baza 93 Aeriana at Timisoara was scheduled for disbandment in August 2004 under the 'Objective Force 2007' with the majority of the aircraft moving to Câmpia Turzii which until then almost exclusively operated the Lancer-C. Also the assigned Puma squadron was placed under command of Baza 71 Aeriana but remained based at Timisoara. Also the last major helicopter base, Baza 61 Elicoptere de Atac at Titu-Boteni became a victim of the restructuring plans of the Romanian air force. The base closed on 31 August 2004 with the IAR-330 SOCATs being relocated to Otopeni where the will be assigned to Baza 90.
On higher levels Divizia 1 Aeriana with its headquarters in Ploiesti also disbanded on 25 June 2004. All units are now reporting directly to the Statul Major al Fortelor Aeriene (SMFA), the air force headquarters. Also restructured in 2004 was the jet training. Centrul 95 Trecere pe Avioane Supersonice became an operational unit again and was renamed Baza 95 Aeriana on 1 July 2004.
Partnership for Peace, NATO and the future
In 1994 the Romanian Air Force was the first East European former WarPac country to sign the Partnership for Peace treaty expressing the country's anxiety to cooperate with and learn from other countries with the eventual goal to join NATO in a later stadium. To achieve all this it started participating in many exercises and sending aircraft abroad to participate in many airshows with great enthusiasm Long before joining NATO and even without being certain that it would be able to, it started to convert one of its core units, Grupul 86 at Borcea, into a NATO compatible unit by making improvements to the base's infrastructure, allowing a part of its pilots to fly a fair amount of training hours and work according to NATO procedures.
Among other types Romanian MiG-21 Lancers started participating in PfP exercises in 1998 in exercise 'Cooperative Change' at Sliac (Slovakia). More Lancers attended 'Cooperative Key' in Turkey in 1999 at St. Dizier (France) in 2002 and at Graf Ignatievo (Bulgaria) in 2001 and 2003. In 2000 the Romanian Air Force was the host country for 'Cooperative Key' when this exercise was organised at Mihail Kogalniceanu. In addition Lancers, IAR 330s and C-130Bs could be seen at various bilateral exercises and air shows in France, the Netherlands, Turkey, Austria and the UK but exercises also took place on Romanian soil with Dutch F-16s in 2001 and French Mirage F1s at Timisoara and RAF Harrier GR7s at Mihail Kogalniceanu in 2003. Earlier this year four Lancer Cs deployed from Câmpia Turzii to Colmar for an exercise with the based Mirage F1CTs. In addition two Lancer-Cs and three SOCAT Puma's participated in the NATO Air Meet in Konya in september 2004 and in the same month RAF Jaguars and Lancers participated in exercise 'Lone Cheetah' at Mihail Kogalniceanu.
On 1 April 2004 Romania became part of NATO together with six other former War Pac countries. Currently the Romanian Air Force is reorganising drastically under the 'Objective Force 2007' programme to reach sensible levels of aircraft and personnel. In the foreseeable future the Romanian Air Force has to rely on its fleet of heavily modernised MiG-21s as well as the IAR-330 SOCAT. For its transport needs the Air Force hopes to be able to acquire additional C-130s while the MiG-21 needs to be replaced before the end of the decade. The Romanian air force hopes to be able to acquire 48 new fighters between 2008 and 2012. In addition funds for four more C-130s are sought as well as twelve medium size transport aircraft and twelve helicopters. In addition the IAR-99 Soim is expected to re-enter service soon providing the Air Force with a modern jet trainer which is also capable to carry out light attack tasks.