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Croatia's cocked hammer

Despite sanctions, Croatia has been able to build up its air force.

Andrzej Jeziorski/ZAGREB

Croatian air force Col. Mladen Vaselic clearly remembers the moment when he realised that he would soon be a deadly enemy of many of his former academy colleagues.

It came in August 1991, when Vaselic was ordered to send a flight of four helicopters with special forces troops, to retake an area attacked by Serb partisans, who had captured a police station in the city of Knin, in the region of newly independent Croatia known to the Serbs as Krajina, stealing weapons and setting up road blocks.

As far as Vaselic was concerned, this was to be a domestic police action, maintaining order within the Croatian borders as defined in the 1946 Yugoslav constitution. Both Croatia and neighbouring Slovenia claimed that their June declarations of independence were constitutional and that federal Yugoslav authorities had no further business on their soil.

The Serb population of Croatia had been getting restive since independence, saying that they would refuse to live under a "fascist flag", recalling Croat support for the Nazis during the Second World War. Yet international support for the newly independent ex-Yugoslav states was generally strong, so Vaselic was stunned when his three Bell JetRangers and one Bell 212 were intercepted by Mikoyan MiG-21 fighters of the Yugoslav air force, launched from the now infamous city of Bihac in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Fraught negotiations followed between Vaselic and the Yugoslav commander in charge of the interception - Col. Bagic, with whom Vaselic had studied at the air force academy years earlier. The helicopters were forced back under threat of destruction.

"Then I knew there would be a war," says Vaselic, now leading the training department of a strengthened Croatian air force, bracing itself to face whatever the critical next few months will bring to the war-torn region.

POISED TO STRIKE

The early fighting left Croatia surrounding three Serb-occupied regions - the region around Knin, adjoining the western border of Bosnia-Herzegovina; the city of Vukovar and its surroundings on the Croatia's eastern border with rump-Yugoslavia; and a third region on the northern border of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Serbs refer to these geographically separate regions - now designated as United Nations Protected Areas (UNPAs) - as the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK). Since 1992, 15,000 UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) personnel have maintained a demilitarised zone 1km (0.6 miles) either side of their boundaries and ensured that both sides keep heavy weapons at least 20km away.

No major fighting has taken place in these territories since 1992, but the question of their future is nowhere near settled.

The uneasy peace since the cease-fire policed by UNPROFOR has given Croatia time to gather and organise its resources in preparation for the inevitable showdown, be it political or military. The republic has assembled a force which, even in its publicly declared (and almost certainly understated) strength, can at least be said to be respectable.

Having initially captured only three MiG-21bis fighters from the withdrawing Yugoslav air force - two of which have since been lost in action - Croatia has now accumulated a force of at least a dozen aircraft, including some MiG-21U two-seat training aircraft.

By international agreement, Croatia is obliged to make an annual declaration of its military strength to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Major General Imra Agotic, the commander of the Croatian air force, says that, in 1994, Croatia declared a force of six MiG-21s - he concedes, however, that the country has more.

"We are required to report the number of combat aircraft - that means aircraft which are armed - and we reported six MiG-21bis," says Agotic. "The others are not armed, or are used as training aircraft."

In November 1994, Croatia staged a public display of some of its military strength before an audience of international observers. At this exercise, known as "Poseidon '94", 12 MiGs were displayed being flown in formation and demonstrating their ground-attack capability.

It is unlikely that Croatia would have shown its entire MiG force publicly, say foreign military officials, and serviceability considerations would dictate that some aircraft were kept in reserve for this event.

Unofficial estimates of Croatia's MiG force go as high as 50 aircraft, although this figure is felt to be overblown by diplomatic sources in Zagreb. Agotic, however, declines to give the true number of aircraft at his disposal and the question of how Croatia acquired this force, despite an international arms embargo, is met with a standard response.

This is, that in Federal Yugoslav days, major aircraft-repairs and overhauls were carried out at the ZMAJ maintenance depot at Velika Gorica, near Zagreb - now known as ZTC Zagreb. This depot was certificated for work on a variety of types, including the MiG-21 and MiG-23 Flogger, and had a huge stock of spare parts. The Croatian authorities claim that all the Croatian air force MiGs, bar the one left over from the Yugoslav air force, were assembled from these spares - a claim greeted with a good deal of scepticism by foreign military observers.

Widely accepted rumours persist that the flow of arms into Croatia has continued, despite the arms embargo. Many former Warsaw Pact countries now find themselves with too much ex-Soviet military hardware and too little money, and are searching desperately for somebody willing to buy their goods.

Buyers for aging Russian weapons systems are not easy to find and Croatia would certainly be one of the few countries interested.

Parliamentarian Josep Manolic, a former intelligence chief in Federal Yugoslavia, now a prominent figure in the Croatian National Democratic party - opposing President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community party - is blunt in his assertion that defence imports have continued in defiance of the UN embargo. The only difference the lifting of the embargo would make on Croatian defence procurement, he believes, is that the country would then be able to buy its weapons more cheaply.

HUMANITARIAN HINDS

Indeed, a visitor does not need to look far to find evidence that Manolic could be right. During 1994, Croatia introduced a force of Mil Mi-24V Hind helicopter gunships into air force service, three of which, it then displayed at Poseidon '94.

The helicopters were bought - ostensibly for medical-evacuation duties - from an unspecified country sympathetic to Croatia and were not declared to the OSCE. The air force insists that this represents no violation of the embargo.

Agotic says that the Mi-24 was chosen for removing casualties from the front line because of its damage-resistant armoured fuselage. After initially saying that the helicopters are not armed and so do not need to be declared, he later concedes that some carry weapons - but claims that they are not conventional Mi-24 armament and are used strictly for training purposes on the firing range, he insists.

The embargo, says Agotic, does not cover medical aircraft or "training means such as school aircraft, simulators or other means" - although whether this includes combat aircraft which just do not happen to have bombs or rockets attached at the time of purchase is open to question. Croatia is known to have an unspecified number of 9M114 (AT-6 Spiral) radio-guided anti-tank missiles - standard for the Mi-24, which can carry up to a dozen at a time. The republic also has some Vympel R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) air-to-air missiles, seen fitted to its MiG-21s. These can also be fitted to the Hind.

The air force claims, however, that it does not have sufficient weaponry to arm its Mi-24s fully and remains coy about the number of Hinds in its inventory.

At least six were spotted at a recent visit to the joint civil/military air base at Pleso, near Zagreb. A few displayed prominent red crosses painted on their flanks, clashing a little awkwardly with the turret-mounted Yak B-12.7 four-barrel 12.7mm cannon jutting out from under their chins. Some have had this cannon removed and it was clear that these were the only "red-cross" Mi-24s, which were to be photographed.

"UNCONVINCING' EXPLANATION

Diplomatic sources comment that the medevac explanation is "very unconvincing", although medical aircraft can carry limited weaponry for self-defence. Article 36 of the Geneva Convention defines medical aircraft as "...aircraft exclusively employed for the removal of wounded and sick and for the transport of medical personnel and equipment". It is hard to imagine how the Hind could convincingly be placed in this category, especially when air force personnel at Pleso admit that the aircraft could quickly be fitted for the battlefield.

Article 36 also states that medical aircraft "...shall not be attacked", making the necessity for armour plating and the meaning of the red-cross marking mutually exclusive, in theory.

One would therefore expect such an acquisition by a country under embargo at least to raise a few UN eyebrows. Apparently, it has not. Diplomats seem unsure, about who if anybody, is responsible for policing the embargo.

It is down to the individual UN member state, to stick to UN resolutions, they say, and it is difficult to prove that the equipment acquired is being used for anything other than its stated purpose.

"Until you see them going into battle, you can't actually say they are being used for anything other [than medevac]," says one official.

While the Hinds constitute the only confirmed purchase of military aircraft under the embargo, political sources claim furthermore, that Croatia has already succeeded in buying six MiG-29 fighters and is expecting six more in early 1995, while former defence minister, General Martin Spegelj, asserts that the country has bought MiG-23s rumoured to number as many as 14 for its arsenal.

Both these claims are categorically denied by the Croatian air force and are doubted by military observers, who question whether Croatia could afford such a huge capital investment. Yet with some 30% of the 1995 national budget going into defence, amounting to 8.9 billion kuna ($1.6 billion), such purchases could be possible.

Rumours aside, Agotic says that the Croatian air force also has unspecified numbers of Mil Mi-8MTV helicopters for transport and medevac; Antonov An-2 biplanes for transport, medevac and parachute training; and Yugoslav-built UTVA-75 light piston trainers for pilot selection and basic training - although it was not so long ago that the latter two types were themselves seeing service as front-line combat aircraft.

Today's Croatian air force is certainly a far cry from the ramshackle gaggle that fought against the rump-Yugoslav army at the outbreak of war in September 1991. The Serbo-Montenegrin Yugoslav National Army attacked from six directions in an attempt to divide the country.

MUSEUM PIECE RESTORED

On 3 September, 1991, Croatian authorities began a check on all aircraft then available to them - it quickly became clear that they would have to rely mainly on light aircraft and agricultural machines to fulfil their military needs. Everything was mobilised, down to microlights and vintage aircraft. A Bell 47 helicopter from the Zagreb technical museum was restored and efforts were even made to restore Second World War vintage machines.

Old 80l boilers and gas containers were filled with explosives and turned into bombs, frequently pushed out by hand from the fuselage of An-2s. This technique was regularly used, by an Osijek-based Croat air unit to bomb Serb positions around Vukovar, even after the fall of the city in November.

Croatian UTVA-75s, were adapted by other units, to become ground-attack aircraft, with bombs or four OSA anti-tank missile launchers mounted under the wings. Cessna 172s and 188s, Piper Pawnees and Super Cubs and Polish PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromaders were also adapted to light bombing duties.

The first real military aircraft acquired by Croatia was a Mi-8, shot down and captured by Croat forces. This was later followed by the defection of three MiG-21bis pilots, from the Yugoslav air force, who handed their aircraft over to the Croat side.

Towards the end of 1991 and early in 1992, air bases were established at Pleso and Lucko, near Zagreb, as well as at Divulje, Pula and Zadar. When fighting broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Croatian air force was involved in shuttling supplies and evacuating casualties and civilians from the front line.

CRY "HAVOC"?

Since the beginning of 1993, however, the Croatian air force has concentrated on consolidation and growth. The withdrawing Yugoslav National Army and the air force took the bulk of their equipment with them, destroying as much as they could of what was left behind and leaving the Croats a mammoth task to build up a force of aircraft, a support infrastructure and a radar umbrella, which now covers some 90% of the country.

It is clear from the level of defence spending that the country still feels far from secure, and is doing its utmost to ensure that it will be prepared for any renewal of the conflict.

Agotic has no doubts about the task facing his air force. He says that the Croatian air force "...is here to protect the integrity of Croatia as a state, as well as to clean up the areas which are now designated as UNPAs". With the withdrawal of UN forces apparently inevitable now that President Tudjman has refused to renew the UN peacekeeping mandate, which expires at the end of March, many fear that the dogs of war are soon to be let slip.

It is clear, in any case, that, until the question is settled and further bloodshed is ruled out, then Croat ambitions to acquire Western defence technology and join NATO or the Partnership for Peace seem condemned to remain pipe dreams. If the USA blocked a potential Lockheed F-16 sale to the Czech Republic, then Croatia appears to have little chance of beating US Government export restrictions.

Agotic concedes as much, but stresses that a new war is not inevitable. The Government will endeavour to find a political solution to the problem of the "occupied territories", he says - although what Croatia is prepared to concede to the Krajina Serbs in this intensely bitter conflict remains to be seen. Diplomats say that Croatian authorities appear to be prepared to discuss limited autonomy for the RSK territories, but are not prepared to accept a link between the regions.

If the worst does come to the worst, however, then Agotic is confident of the Croatian air force's superiority. He estimates that the RSK air force has at its disposal four MiG-21s, eight to ten Yugoslav-built Soko J-22 Orao close-support aircraft and eight J-1 Jastreb ground-attack variants of the Soko Galeb.

Agotic also estimates that up to ten Mi-8s and a few licence-built SA.341 Gazelles are now in service.

Whether Croat air superiority will be maintained if Serbo-Montenegrin Yugoslavia is dragged into a new conflict, however, could depend in the end on just how understated the Croatian air force's strength really is.

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