Serbia Air Force
By Marijn van der Burgt, with special thanks to Zivojin Bankovic
In 2012 the Serbia Air Force and Air Defence (Vazduhoplovstvo i protivvazdušna odbrana - V i PVO) celebrated its 100th anniversary. It originated from the Yugoslav air force.
New Yugoslavia was born in and right after the Second World War under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party. Tito was The Marshal, The President, The Great Leader and Commander in Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Armed Forces. For the time of his rule the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relative modern armed forces, especially the Air Force.
The country was neutral between NATO and Warsaw Pact and had a very good strategic position. Most of the time SFR Yugoslavia had good relationship equally with West and East and balanced between two enemies of the Cold War. But leadership knew that neutral position could only been defended with modern Armed Forces. Air Force and later Air Defence had special attention from the end of WWII until the break up of the SFR Yugoslavia in 1991-1992.
We can divide the evolution of the Yugoslav AF & ADF in several parts:
- building of the AF with the USSR help and support (1945-1948)
- break up relations with USSR and Warsaw Pact, good connections with USA and NATO (1948-1957)
- rebuilding USSR support (after 1957)
- evolution in relatively stable situation (1962-1980)
- period after Tito’s dead (1980-1992)
- Civil Wars (1991-1999)
- After the Civil War (1999-present)
At the end and little after WWII Yugoslavia had great number of aircraft types, both Western, Soviet and also domestic. Western aircrafts like Hawker Hurricane Mk IIC/IVRP, Supermarine Spitfire Mk VC/IX were acquired earlier in 1944. Also Soviet Yak-1/1M/3/7/9, Pe-2, Il-2, Po-2, and American C-47, B-24, P-38. There were also German trophies like Ju-87D, Me-109G, Fw-190, FL-167, Do-17, Ju-52, Italian CA-313, G-50, S-79 in service. In all Yugoslav AF could count on 182 fighter aircraft and 240 pilots. There was chronically shortage of spares, fuel and soldiers, very low serviceability and bad maintenance.
In 1944 some airmen were sent to USSR for conversion, education and they were trained under Soviet rules and tactics. Pilots from the RAF units formed in Northern Africa were trained differently. Great problem was also shortage of officially rules, literature, and technical support for maintenance. Organization was similar to the Soviet Union with Divisions, Regiments and Squadrons. With several arrivals of trained pilots and spares the situation was little better. Test and evaluation Center (VOC) was formed in 1945 and Air Force Technical Institute in 1946.
In 1948 USSR and countries of Inform Bureau economically, politically and military isolated Yugoslavia. It left bad consequences on Air Force power. No more trained cadets, no more spare parts and new airplanes. But Yugoslavia drawn a lot of lessons from this situation and it looks like this was the generator of domestic aircraft industry evolution. Western Alliance decide to help and save Yugoslavia from possible Soviet attack and control. At this period, domestic aircrafts were acquired. Mostly it were school, school-combat, reconnaissance and fighter aircrafts with limited capability compared with the modern airplanes. The best fighter was Ikarus S-49A/C with performance similar to WWII combat aircrafts. Training aircraft were Aero-2, Aero-3, 212, 213, 214, 215, 522.
In 1951 Yugoslavia started to receive Western help in aircrafts, spare parts and other equipment. Also the Air Force Academy was established in 1952. The first airplanes were British Mosquito’s Mk 3/6/38 and US P-47D Thunderbolt. In 1954 Yugoslavia received its first helicopter, a US Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly. First jet aircraft was a US Lockheed T-33A trainer in 1953. Also attack jets F-84G Thunderjet were received.
But there were still difficulties. Equipment was delivered behind schedule which caused problems in creating fighter units, conversion units and maintenance units. Aviation industry started to produce reserve parts for most of the equipment and started to make modifications in accordance with needs.
Behind schedule F-86E Sabre were acquired in 1956 and F-86D Sabre Dog in 1961. The first Yugoslav pilot to fly faster then the speed of sound was Colonel Nikola Lekic, which happened in Batajnica on 31 July 1953.
In 1957 Yugoslavia again connected with USSR and started to make steps into a new era. Supersonic aviation became reality in September 1962 with the arrival of interceptors MiG-21F-13 Fishbed-C. 1959 was the year of amalgamation, because Air Force and Air Defence became one force. In the sixties Air Force and Air Defence received several versions of MiG-21 amongst them PFM, U, US, R. First domestic jet, the training and combat G-2 Galeb first flew in 1961 and entered service in 1966. In the seventies there were no significant changes in improving air power and Air Force was in period of stagnation. No new aircraft types entered in service. There were just new versions of the MiG-21 (M, MF, UM, bis) and the J-21 Jastreb single seat attack version of G-2. But the local aviation industry launched, in cooperation with Romania, fighter-attack aircraft Orao under the project YUROM. The Orao first flew in 1974 but entered in service only ten years later. According to the Yugoslavian side the problems mainly arose on Romanian side because they did not have enough experience in building combat aircrafts. UTVA-75 training aircraft first flew in 1975. In 1978 the G-4 Super Galeb made its first flight and this was relatively successful. Transport capability grew with acquirement of the An-26.
After the dead of Tito, new leadership continued to make attention to the Armed Forces. Orao and Super Galeb were put in service. Finally in 1987 the MiG-29 was delivered. The aviation industry started to prepare for construction of Yugoslav supersonic, multipurpose fighter. There were also plans for light helicopter and transport aircraft. But civil war and break up of Yugoslavia stopped this advanced development. Also some sources suggests that Yugoslavia intended to buy more MiG-29s and Mi-24 attack helicopters.
Civil Wars 1991-1999
On 25 June 1991 Slovenia declared its independence from the Yugoslav Republic, followed by Croatia. Both countries came under attack in a attempt to save the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from breaking up. Also in Bosnia and Herzegovina a three year civil war started. Macedonia broke away rather peaceful. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed on 11 April 1992 as the self-proclaimed successor to the Socialistic Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It is formed by the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.
In the civil war Yugoslav Air Force suffered heavily losses mainly because of the very complex situation on the fighting lines of the front. We can say that a front even did not exist. Pilots had to find targets mostly alone, rarely they were guided from the GCI. Aircrafts that were in combat did not have homing missiles and bombs. They were attacking from the low altitude and they also lacked sophisticated electronic equipment and radars. Croatian, Slovenian and Muslim Forces were very experienced in using shoulder launched systems like Strela-2M, Strela-3 and FIM-92 Stinger. They also had a lot of AAA 20, 30, 40 and 57 mm. Victims of the separatist forces were MiG-21s, Oraos, Super Galebs, Galebs, Jastrebs, Gazelle and Mi-8s. During the civil war almost all the units and its aircraft that were based in the ‘breakaway’ countries were withdrawn to Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining republics of Yugoslavia. A small part of the inventory was transferred to the Bosnian Serbs who were fighting Croat and Muslim forces in Bosnia.
In 1995 the Dayton Peace Accords were signed ending the three years of war. This threaty limited the Ygoslav forces to 155 combat aircraft and 53 attack helicopters. As a result most of the J-1 Jastreb, G-2 Galeb and the older MiG-21 types (PFM, U, US) were withdrawn from use before the end of 1996 and handed over to the aviation museum in Belgrade. But this was not the end of the fightings. Because of the crisis in the Yugoslav province Kosovo, Yugoslavia came under NATO attack during “Operation Allied Force” in 1999. Eleven MiG-29s were destroyed in the air and on the ground. At least 24 MiG-21bis and one An-26 were bombed on the ground. Also 26 aircraft (G-2 and G-4) were destroyed inside the tunnel complex at Golubovci, including all the G-2s used for training and the seven G-4 Super Galebs of the “Flying Stars” aerobatic team. In return the AD forces shot down a USAF F-16C and F-117. Although NATO claimed a total secured air space, combat operations were conducted at extremely low level in order to avoid detection. Yugolavian Air Force and Air Defence Force (RV i PVO) flew 31 secret combat missions against Albanian rebel forces in Kosovo. Not a single aircraft was intercepted.
After the civil war
During the bombings a lot of infrastructure was destroyed. Nevertheless, normal flight activities had resumed at all peace-time airbases within one year of the war ending.
On 27 February 2002 the RV i PVO ceased to exist as an independent force, and was incorporated as two Corps into the Army. In March 2003 the special operations unit of the Serbian Ministry of Interior was disbanded. Only a small number of serviceable aircraft is available because of the lack of money, fuel and spare parts. The last MiG-21R was withdrawn from use during December 2003. In April 2004 it was decided to cease flights with the five remaining MiG-29s until money was found for their maintenance and upgrade.
In 2003 the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was disbanded and its two republics formed the new republic Serbia and Montenegro. The air force was renamed to Air Force of Serbia and Montenegro (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo Srbije i Crne Gore - RVSiCG). Again, in 2006 Montenegro voted to secede from the republic. All but a squadron G-4 and Gazelles/Mi-8T were on the Serbian soil and were inherited by Serbia.
Shortly after the separation, the structure was changed into squadrons reporting to Air Base units. The training school was transferred from Kovin to Batajnica. Former MoI special operations Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters were transferred to the air force in a non-airworthy condition. The remaining MiG-29s were overhauled and returned to operational service by RSK MiG and Moma Stanojlovic aircraft repair plant. In 2010 Serbia bought ‘back’ six G-4 Super Galebs from Montenegro. The year 2011 marked the first delivery of a new aircraft type to the air force with the delivery of the first Utva Lasta 95 trainers, followed in 2012 by a single Piper Seneca for multi-engine training and aerial photography missions. As the remaining MiG-21s almost run out of flying time, and only five MiG-29s will remain in the air-defence role, the air force is still looking at new or second-hand fighter aircraft. Time will tell how the MiG-21 will be replaced.