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Balkan rebirth

IGOR SALINGER / SARAJEVO, BANJALUKA, BELGRADE AND ZAGREB

The states of the former Yugoslavia are picking up the pieces after years of conflict and building their air forces for a new role in Europe

Eight years after the end of the Balkan civil war and three years on from the downfall of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the newly independent countries of the former Yugoslavia are beginning to look outward and feel their way towards becoming members of the new Europe, with an eye to joining the European Union and NATO.

The four-year conflict saw the former Yugoslavia, once a unified federal state with an air force of nearly 1,000 aircraft and a reputable defence industry, torn apart into five mini-states (one, Bosnia-Herzegovina, effectively two territories), sliced up by borders and boundaries. The former Communist nation's pre-1991 assets were split among six air forces and each one shares common problems - lack of funding, shortage of spare parts, aircraft of questionable airworthiness and low flying hours, and an urgent need to modernise and re-equip to meet NATO standards.

The economies and armed forces of the emerging Balkan states have been exhausted by the succession of local conflicts. The desperate need for combat assets during a period of political turmoil resulted in a number of ad hoc purchases of air force equipment, often in violation of a UN arms embargo. Most of the former Yugoslav air force's aircraft were moved - only to deteriorate in terms of numbers and serviceability - to the union of Serbia and Montenegro, officially known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (or "rump Yugoslavia") from 1992 until this year, when the new state of Serbia and Montenegro was declared.

Slovenia: joining NATO

Slovenia was only former Yugoslav republic to be invited to join NATO during last year's Prague summit. Unlike most of the other countries in the region, it has been largely free of war damage and since the federal army withdrew this small independent state has been building its armed forces up from the scratch. Until the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia was lifted, the Slovenian air force operated a fleet of civilian-registered helicopters and basic training aircraft, with its pilots having dual civilian-military licences.

The Slovenian air force's flying assets are now gathered in a single unit, the 15th Air Brigade. This, Slovenia's sole air combat squadron, is equipped with three ex-US Pilatus PC-9s and eight PC-9Ms purchased directly from the manufacturer and locally upgraded and armed in collaboration with Israel's El-Op/Radom, France's Alkan and Belgium's Helstal. Bearing the local name Hudournik (Swift), Slovenia's PC-9/9Ms can carry a payload of up to 2,100lb (950kg) on underwing pylons and are fitted with new avionics, including hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) control and head-up display (HUD).

The training squadron has eight Zlin 242s, two Zlin 143s and three Bell 206L JetRangers. Two Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porters, used mainly for paratroop training, and a single Let L-410 UVP-E form the air transport flight. The multipurpose helicopter squadron has at its disposal eight Agusta-Bell AB412SP/EP/HPs and two new Eurocopter EC532AL Cougars that were delivered in April.

Apart from the flying units, the Slovenian air force and air defence headquarters in Kranj have one air defence brigade equipped with Soviet shoulder-mounted and light mobile surface-to-air missiles and 20/3 anti-aircraft guns, one air surveillance battalion and one logistic base. Last October, the Slovenian ministry of defence confirmed orders for two additional Cougars to be delivered in 2004, bringing the value of its Eurocopter deal up to €60 million ($70 million). It also has on order one A109 Power from AgustaWestland, with options for two more. The A109 Power will be used for border patrols, civil protection, search and rescue and emergency medical services, probably by the Slovenian police rather than the air force.

Slovenia's defence budget also included an order for a Dassault Falcon 900EX, but this was changed to the less-expensive Falcon 2000. As part of its international co-operation, the air force provides a detachment of aircraft to the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina for light transport and liaison duties.

Croatia: upgrading

Croatia's air force was formed during the conflict with federal Yugoslav forces in late 1991. The conflict, which Croats refer to as a homeland war, resulted in international recognition of the new independent state. However, one-third of Croatian territory is held by separatist ethnic Serbs, backed by Yugoslavia and Bosnian Serbs and their armed and paramilitary forces. The Croatian air force acquired its first combat aircraft in 1992 when three pilots defected from Yugoslavia with their MiG-21bis fighters, adding to Croatia's fleet of various light aircraft impounded from flying clubs and individuals, and a single captured Mil Mi-8.

Shortly after that, despite an international arms embargo, Croatia purchased its first batch of four Mi-8MTV-1 Hips on the civilian market and about 25 MiG-21bis Fishbeds, nine Mi-24D/V Hind D/Es and further Mi-8/17s from former Eastern bloc sources, providing it with much-needed firepower.

Today, the air force is in urgent need of modernisation and the first step was to upgrade four recently purchased MiG-21U Mongol-As and eight MiG-21bis Fishbed-Ls in an $8.2 million deal with Romania's Aerostar. The first two were delivered in mid-May. The upgrade includes a general overhaul and fitting of avionics - instrument landing systems, VOR/DME, GPS, transponders, identification friend or foe and other equipment compatible with NATO standards. The Croatian air force commander-in-chief, Brig Gen Viktor Koprivnjak, says it was decided not to invest in a weapons upgrade because the MiGs have about eight more years in service, and in the meantime a decision will be made on a new combat type.

The modernisation programme will give Croatian combat pilots much-needed instrument flight rules and NATO-compatible training. The country hopes to be invited to join NATO in 2007. Koprivnjak says one idea is to upgrade some of the Pilatus PC-9Ms serving at the Zadar air force academy with new avionics, including targeting systems - but not wire for weapons - to enhance combat training capability. Croatia is implementing an unusual combat pilot training system. Without the use of an advanced jet trainer, and after completing primary training on an Utva 75 aircraft, air force pilots convert to the PC-9M and, after several hundred flight hours, they are ready for the MiG-21. Although there were some doubts about such a method, turboprop to supersonic jet conversion proved a real success, says Koprivnjak.

The air force intends to replace Yugoslav-produced Utva 75s with a new type for primary training and estimates that up to eight aircraft are needed. Helicopter pilots are trained on Bell 206B-3 JetRangers, also in Zadar. Croatian interior ministry fire-fighting aircraft were integrated into the air force two years ago and the fleet now comprises two Air Tractor 802Fs and four Bombardier CL-415s, the last one delivered this year.

Koprivnjak says that with overhauls and modernisation in progress, the serviceability goal is to keep about 50% of the combat aircraft (MiG-21s) airworthy, while seven Hinds are scheduled for overhaul later this year or early 2004. The Mi-8T/MTV Hips are also being overhauled gradually, he adds. The recently formed electronic warfare and reconnaissance squadron is yet to be equipped and will be based at Pula in the north Adriatic, with its main task maritime and border patrol.

"We are seeking more of a maritime patrol and border surveillance type than a classic reconnaissance aircraft," says Koprivnjak, adding that the squadron will comprise fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. This year should also see the introduction of Lockheed Martin FPS-117 air defence radars, and the early warning system to operate along Croatia's vast Adriatic coast is based around MSC Falcon II Enhanced Peregrine coastal radars. The Croatian air force has 2,900 mostly professional staff, although some minor positions are filled by conscripts on their six-month service.

With NATO membership in mind, air force pilots have been involved in several squadron exchanges and visits to Croatian airbases by US Navy and USAF pilots and have taken part in a number of Partnership for Peace (PfP) exercises.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina incorporates two semi-independent mini-states, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by a Muslim Bosnian and Croat population, and the Republika Srpska, inhabited mostly by Serbs. Each has separate armed forces, and the federation armed forces are still in the process of merging their Bosnian and Croat components. Bosnia is looking to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme and eventually become part of the Alliance. However, NATO has made it clear it does not want two armed forces within a single country.

Last month, under heavy international pressure - from the USA in particular - both governments agreed to form a unified ministry of defence, which is seen as the first step towards unified (or composite) Bosnian armed forces. Although politicians still disagree over the level of integration and the Republika Srpska's official stance is that only the ministry and the supreme command should be merged, both air force commanders have said they could easily lead the way. In fact, a national search and rescue centre has already been set up at Banjaluka by the department of civil aviation. Both air forces keep one helicopter on standby for emergencies and they can cross boundaries if necessary.

The federation armed forces air force has Bosnian and Croat components, originating from the Bosnia-Herzegovina army and Croatian units respectively, both forged during the 1992-5 civil war. On paper, there are still separate Bosnian and Croat flights, but air force commander Col Erdin Hrustic stresses that they operate as a single force. In the air force inventory, only nine Bell UH-1Hs are operational out of 15 that were received under a $100 million US "train and equip" programme. The remaining Hueys and all six remaining Mi-8/17s are awaiting overhaul, and a Mi-34 Hermit is also in storage. Stored in a "friendly country" (reportedly Turkey) are five Mi-24 gunships that were never delivered to Bosnia. The only fixed-wing aircraft operated by the air force is an ultralight.

Thanks to international support, as well as US-sponsored training, a number of Bosnian pilots have been trained in Croatia, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan Turkey and the USA, among other countries. Locally produced freighting water buckets have been procured for the Mi-8/17. Hrustic says the Bosnian federation has "no adequate armament for air defence", but "personnel are being trained for future prospective units".

Republika Srpska air force aircraft are based around Banjaluka, the administrative capital. Seven J-22 Oraos, one G-4 Super Galeb and nine J-21/NJ-21/IJ-21 Jastrebs, respectively in attack, reconnaissance and training configurations, are based at Mahovljani airport. The air force is headquartered at Zaluzani, which is also the base for seven Aerospatiale SA341H/342L Gazelle combat helicopters and a fleet of 11 Mi-8 Hips and 14 Gazelles for light transport and liaison duties. Two Utva 75 basic trainers operate from a grass runway at Zaluzani.

Air surveillance units are based around an S-600 radar at Mount Kozara which SFOR allows to operate 12h a day. Air defence units are equipped with former Yugoslav SA-2, SA-3, SA-6, SA-7 and SA-13 SAMs and various AAA guns. The Republika Srpska air force used to receive maintenance, logistics, staff training and funding support from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but is now seeking support from other sources, sending personnel to Greece, Estonia, Serbia and Montenegro for training.

SFOR concern over what was described as a "violation of international obligations" focused on Gazelles, known locally as Gamas, built under licence in Yugoslavia before the 1991 war and armed locally with AT-3 Sagger anti-tank and SA-7 Grail anti-aircraft missiles and targeting systems. The air force says the helicopters were disarmed following the conflict, but "due to a lack of exact arms removal procedures requested by the international community, weapon installations has been left in helicopter airframes. But cables are disconnected and insulated, weapons and targeting systems pylons removed and hatches sealed." The air force says the disputed installations will be removed and it hopes to see the disarmed Gamas back in service this summer.

Serbia and Montenegro

The government that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic is much more co-operative toward the West and has declared its goals of European Union and NATO membership. Radical changes have been made in all areas of government, most notably in foreign policy and defence, with frequent contacts with EU and NATO officials, declared compliance with international obligations, civilian control, and reform of the armed forces making them more compatible with NATO standards.

Newly appointed defence minister Boris Tadic describes one of his main goals as "Euro-Atlantic integration". His aim is to join the NATO PfP programme as soon as possible, perhaps next year. Most of the former Yugoslav air force aircraft found their way to Serbia and Montenegro, but the inventory and airworthiness of the aircraft have been drastically reduced. This is due to involvement in local conflicts, trade and arms embargoes, constant funding shortages and the scrapping of aircraft to comply with the treaty signed in 1996 that allowed Yugoslavia to operate 155 fighter aircraft and 53 combat helicopters. The biggest single blow came in the spring of 1999 during NATO's Operation Allied Force.

"On the ground and in air combat, we have lost almost one-third of our air force," says Maj Gen Vladimir Starcevic, aviation corps commander-in-chief. "However, we remained operational after aggression had ended." According to official sources, 434 installations have been destroyed and 601 damaged. Air bases at Batajnica, Golubovci, Kovin and Ladevic have been returned to operational status, and those at Nis, Ponikve and Sjenica are being repaired. The federal government approved a project to convert most of the aircraft for mixed civilian-military operations and to partly privatise the service to attract investors.

Air force headquarters has been disbanded and two corps-level formations, the aviation corps and the air defence corps, are under the control of the Serbia and Montenegro armed forces general headquarters. One year into the new set-up, there are signs that both corps will merge again into a single air force corps. The aviation corps comprises fighter-bomber squadrons of Orao and G-4 Super Galeb aircraft, training units with Utva 75 basic trainers and G-4 Super Galebs, transport, observation and combat Mi-8 Hip and licence-built SA341/342 Gazelle helicopters. One reconnaissance and one transport squadron have Oraos, MiG-21s and Antonov An-2s at their disposal. The two remaining MiG-21bis/UM Fishbed-L/N and MiG-29A/UB Fulcrum A/B fighter squadrons are integrated in the air defence corps. Also under air defence corps command are rocket units armed with upgraded S-125/125M Neva SA-3 Goa and Kub-M SA-6 Gainful SAMs, and an air surveillance brigade. Target acquisition and early warning radars include modified Soviet-era P-12 Spoon Rest, P-15 Straight Flush and PRV-11 Side Net, in addition to the western TPS-70, TPS-63 and S-600.

Starcevic says only about 40% of the state's aircraft are airworthy. Five surviving MiG-29 Fulcrums are kept partly operational by selective repairs: none of the type has been generally overhauled since delivery in 1987. Despite the poor economic situation, Serbia and Montenegro is evaluating its re-equipment needs. Starcevic says the air force "urgently needs" one squadron [24 aircraft] of air superiority fighters - "modern multirole aircraft" to be joined in due course with another squadron of the same type in fighter-bomber configuration. Purchases seem unlikely, with leasing schemes more probable. The first new squadron could be operational in six to eight years.

Contenders are still to be selected, but the Lockheed Martin F-16A/B is likely to be among them. "When a decision is made, the first step is sending out for training six to eight pilots and ground staff and leasing at least four two-seaters to continue conversion training in the country," says Starcevic. "With at least four new aircraft a year, we could have operational squadron in about four years. It is important to catch a streamline now." He says there is also a need for 10 to 15 "modern propeller-driven training aircraft".

Serbian and Montenegrin pilots convert directly from indigenous Utva 75 basic trainers to G-4 Super Galeb advanced jets, further stretching an overloaded budget. One option is to revive the Lasta advanced trainer programme at Utva in Pancevo, but only if a foreign partner is found. According to the Serbian press, talks were held with Embraer earlier this year about possible co-operation. Serbia and Montenegro's aviation corps has about 7,000 formation positions, most filled by professional soldiers, but more cuts are expected.

Macedonia: co-operating

The Macedonian air force initially operated light aircraft and four "civilian" Mi-8MTV helicopters procured in Ukraine during the UN arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, but expanded drastically during the conflict between Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents in 2001. Soon after larger-scale fighting started between the Macedonian army and police and the ethic Albanians' National Liberation Army, Ukraine swiftly delivered four Mi-8MT Hips (out of the Kosovo-based KFOR contingent) and two Mi-24V Hinds. More deliveries followed and by year end, the Macedonian air force's inventory included seven Mi-8MT/17s, 10 Mi-24V Hind-Es, two Mi-24K Hind-G2s, three Sukhoi Su-25Ks, one Su-25UB two-seater and two UH-1H Hueys donated by Greece. Three Zlin 242Ls are used for pilot training.

The Macedonian air force is organised in single brigade-level formations (known as battalions by Macedonians) comprising four undersized squadrons (called companies) with four to 12 aircraft each. The air force also commands a special forces unit, the parachute detachment Falcons that became operational last April. Although defence minister Buckovski has previously announced on a number of occasions that An-74 Coaler transports would be procured in Ukraine for transport and paratroop training, no agreement has been signed and an An-2 Colt has been leased locally to fill the gap.

The future of the Macedonian air force's most potent aircraft is in jeopardy because the government is under international pressure to abandon its Su-25 Frogfoots, which are considered "too offensive". Local reports indicate a new airbase is being constructed near Sveti Nikole. Until it is operational, air force aircraft are based at the military side of Skopje-Petrovec international airport.

To boost its chances of being invited to join NATO in 2007, Macedonia has begun to co-operate closely with Croatia and Albania on defence and diplomatic issues to achieve a common goal for all three countries.

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