Sep 9, 2014

Serbia's MiG-29s return to flight ops

Serbia's fleet of three MiG-29 'Fulcrum' fighters returned to flight operations on 2 September after an urgent delivery of batteries from Russia ended a three-month grounding.
Speaking on 31 August, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said: "We published a tender for procurement of batteries but on the personal insistence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, these batteries have been donated to us. Our planes will be fully operational again in 36 hours and we will have full sovereignty over Serbian skies".
Problems with logistical support for MiG fighters also occurred in 2013, when Vucic was Minister of Defence, with Serbian MiG-29s grounded for a few months due to a slow, bureaucratic logistical system that often caused a lack of simple but crucial spare parts such as ejection seats explosive charges, tyres, and other consumables, including fuel.
The three MiG-29s returned to service are a pair of single-seat MiG-29B and a sole MiG-29UB twin-seater aircraft. The single-seat aircraft perform Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties out of Batajnica air base, near Belgrade.
The battery problem arose from Russia's objection to the possibility of India-made batteries being installed on the aircraft, after India won the tender for the purchase with an offer two-thirds cheaper than the Russian one. Faced with possibly losing other critical Russian maintenance and logistical support services for Serbia's MiG-21 and MiG-29 fighters, the Serbian Ministry of Defence stopped the procurement. As a result the Serbian Air Force and Air Defence was left without batteries. The last airworthy Serbian MiG-29 ceased flying on 24 May.
After Serbian Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic made an urgent appeal in Moscow to borrow batteries, Putin agreed to donate them instead.
Serbia depends on Russia when it comes to its small fleet of operational MiG-21 and MiG-29 fighters. With significant Russian assistance in 2007 and 2008, the local Aeronautical Plant 'Moma Stanojlovic' started a general overhaul, a 750 hour/10 year life cycle extension, and limited modernisation on all five Serbian MiG-29s that survived NATO bombardment of 1999.
Four MiG-29s have been upgraded so far with one of them, a single-seat MiG-29B, lost in a fatal crash in 2009. The final single-seat MiG-29B, still being overhauled at 'Moma Stanojlovic', may never fly again because of serious structural problems with its airframe.
The small MiG-29 fleet is supplemented by an outdated life cycle-expired fleet of 19 MiG-21bis and 9 MiG-21UM 'Fishbed' fighters. Of these only a pair of MiG-21bis and a single MiG-21UM are still fit for service, although only one of them is usually airworthy at any given moment.
These obsolete 30-year-old airframes are kept operational with Russian help, in the form of scheduled inspections and time-limited on-condition life cycle extensions by Russian engineers.
Serbia's plans to use a recently announced Russian loan of almost USD1.5 billion for the procurement of MiG-29M/M2 fighters, Mi-17/171 helicopters, 3D-surveillance radars, and S-300PMU2 or S-350E and Pantsir-S1E air defence systems turned into fiasco when, during a visit to Moscow, Gasic revealed that the Russian loan for modernising Serbia's Armed Forces had been frozen and that a planned purchase of new fighters had been delayed.
This has raised questions about the future of the supersonic element of Serbia's Air Force, given its few remaining MiG-21s will soon be unserviceable and its MiG-29s will reach the end of their service lives in 2018.

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