A familiar, delta-winged dart descends to a smooth landing at Aerostar's Bacau base, with the Carpathian mountains forming a hazy backdrop to this once improbable scene. It would have been unthinkable as recently as seven years ago that a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 (NATO code-name "Fishbed") - the most widely-used fighter the Soviet Union ever produced - should be fitted with state-of-the-art avionics and weaponry from Israel. Yet this has become the Romanian air force's way of maintaining a credible, affordable, fighter force into the 21st century, and it is Romanian manufacturer Aerostar's way of striking up industrial links which could prove the key to its own future.
Aerostar was established in 1953 as the URA - a repair and overhaul base for Romanian air force Yakovlev Yak-18s and Yak-23s, and later also for the MiG-15 and MiG-17. Other types still maintained by the company include the Ilyushin Il-28 and its Chinese-built equivalent, the Harbin H-5, and the Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-29 and L-39 jet trainers.
The company says that it has also manufactured some 1,700 Yak-52 primary trainers since licensed series production began in 1979. In 1989, over 150 were produced in Bacau: orders for this year are down to a little over 20. Plans for a Lycoming engine-powered version aimed at the Western market have been abandoned as too expensive, and Aerostar says that production of the aircraft is now coming to an end.
The key programme at Bacau is that of the MiG-21. Aerostar technical director Grigore Filip claims that the company is the only one in the world which offers overhaul services for all variants of this aircraft type and, as such, is in a strong position to take on upgrades.
There certainly seems to be strong potential for work: about 12,000 MiG-21s were manufactured after the aircraft first flew in 1955, and at least 2,000 remain in service with 50 air forces around the world. Apart from Romania, Cambodia, Ethiopia and India are already interested in upgrade programmes, and Israel Aircraft Industries and MIG-MAPO are offering rival upgrade packages.
The Romanian upgrade is called the MiG-21MF Lancer, and is an Elbit Systems-led package, with Aerostar as the main subcontractor to the Israeli firm. The Romanian Ministry of National Defence (MoND) wants to modernise 110 aircraft in three versions at a cost of $300 million. Of these,25 will be interceptors, 75 ground-attack variants, and ten will be designated as two-seat trainers. The upgraded aircraft are expected to stay in service until around 2010, by which time Aerostar believes that the Romanian Government, strapped for cash today, will finally be in a position to look seriously at a modern fighter purchase.
Deliveries of the Lancer began in 1996, and eight had been handed over to the air force by the beginning of March, with an expected delivery rate of about three aircraft a month.
When the aircraft arrive in Bacau, Aerostar removes the Tumansky R-11 or R-13 turbojet and carries out any necessary structural repairs. All redundant equipment, including much of the old analogue avionics, is removed, although the original Russian-made radar altimeter, autopilot and radio compass are retained.
The old on-board computers are replaced by an Elbit Modular Multi-Role Computer with two 1553 databuses: one bus is used for weapons, the other for avionics. A GEC-Marconi air-data computer is fitted, along with a Mason Electric hands-on-throttle-and-stick system and a Litton Italiana strap-down gyro, based on the LISA 4000. This is coupled to a global positioning system, providing back-up navigation data. AlliedSignal provides the instrument landing system and VOR/DME equipment.
Elbit also contributes two multi-function displays (MFDs), one colour and presenting flight and navigation data; the other a monochrome unit, displaying radar data in the fighter and trainer variants. The trainer and ground-attack aircraft have an Elta Electronics EL/M-2001-B radar, while a multi-mode pulse-Doppler EL/M-2032 is fitted in defence variants.
The head-up display comes from Israel's Elop, while Elbit also contributes its advanced display and sight helmet (DASH). Missile seekers are slaved to the helmet, allowing the pilot to designate any target in his line of sight - within the limits of the seeker's look-angle.The aircraft can engage up to eight targets simultaneously, says Aerostar.
The on-board defensive-aids subsystem (DASS) consists of an Elisra SPS-20 radar -arning receiver, and a chaff/flare dispenser from IMI fitted on the lower rear fuselage. The aircraft is to be capable of carrying an Elta electronic-countermeasures (ECM) pod, as well as an Elbit reconnaissance pod - now under development - and the Rafael Litening laser designator pod, already procured by the MoND.
The aircraft's pylons will be capable of carrying both Western and Russian weapons systems. The aircraft is able to deploy laser-guided bombs and UB-32 unguided rockets. The first test launch from the Lancer of Rafael's Python 3 short-range, infra-red (IR)-guided air-to-air missile is scheduled for mid-1997, while the Vympel R-73 (AA-11 Archer) IR-guided missile is also being integrated with the DASH helmet. There are suggestions that Romania may also be able to purchase the Python 4 missile.
Test pilots on the programme freely admit that the MiG-21 airframe cannot compare with today's fighters in a dogfight, but point out that the Lancer's avionics are better than those in some variants of the Lockheed-Martin F-16.
Avionics, the pilots say, are a decisive factor in beyond-visual-range engagements - although for this type of engagement, the pilot will certainly need more capable air-to-air weapons. Israel is about to complete development of an active radar-guided beyond-visual-range missile, and this could eventually be supplied. At close range, the DASH helmet's capability will provide some compensation for the aircraft's limited manoeuvrability.
While hardly a long-term solution to air force modernisation, such upgrades do provide a cheap compromise for countries with weak economies. There could also be potential for similar upgrades of other aircraft types, says Filip. "We think that, in future, Aerostar could be a major centre for upgrades, primarily - but not exclusively - of Soviet-designed platforms. All Russian platforms need upgrades, but it remains to be seen which platforms deserve them,"he says.
Beyond the Lancer programme, Aerostar is negotiating to set up an avionics joint venture with Elbit, and a separate one specialising in communications equipment with France's Thomson-CSF. Filip says that talks aimed at importing technical knowhow and should lead to avionics production at Bacau.
Elbit and Aerostar are also working together on avionics for 24 IAR-330 Puma combat upgrades for the Romanian armed forces, and the Israeli company is also proposing an avionics package for the AH-1RO attack helicopter, derived from the Bell AH-1W Supercobra. Both programmes are to be led by helicopter manufacturer IAR in Brasov.
CUTBACKS AND DIVERSITY
With 4,500 employees - already cut back from 9,000 in 1990 - Aerostar has attempted to compensate for the dramatic changes in its market by diversification. It now has six "profit centres" - overhaul; avionics; light aircraft; landing gear, hydraulic and pneumatic equipment; engines and reduction gears; and special (non-aeronautical) production.
Despite not having "a happy financial position", the company claims that it is making "a very small profit". Plans to privatise the 70% state-owned company are being discussed, but no details have yet been announced.
In the longer term, the company intends to maintain its activities in military aircraft, and hopes that it will one day find a niche as a supplier to an integrated European industry.