MiG-21 Tactics in the Operation Storm

MiG-21 Tactics in the Operation Storm

Croatian MiG-21s had utilized numerous different tactical moves during the Operation Storm – some of which were new for MiG-21 pilots. Even though these were really old tactics by global standards, they had completely redefined usage of MiG-21 aircraft.

Through liberation of Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoč in BiH, as well as mobilization of its forces, Croatian military had forced the Serb forces to push Bihać into the second plan, and instead face the threat of Croatian attack against the so-called Serb Republic of Krajina. Once the operation Storm had started however, Serb forces melted away much more quickly than expected considering their strength of 40 000 men. Main Serb problem were their commanders: command and control system was nearly nonexistent, while command cadre was insufficient in both numbers and education.

Operation Storm was a classical ground campaign with air support. Offensive tactics based on NATO model were used, with high degree of coordination between the infantry, armor, artillery and the air force, with goal of creating a forceful and fast advance with goal of keeping the enemy off-balance. This was the classical NATO Air-Land Battle, in which the Croatian Army among other things displayed the powerful artillery operations in depth, accurate usage of air forces against strategic targets, with developed propaganda activities and logistical support.

During 1994., Croatian Air Force helicopter Mi-24 equipped with thermovision equipment mapped dispositions of Serb air defences. Croatian MiGs also helped in mapping Serb air defences: flying at night at altitudes of 1500 to 2000 meters, Croatian pilots would provoke Serbs into turning on their air defense radars. After that they would “cancel” the mission and drop to the deck. Since many Serb air defense radars were fixed installations, this information was incredibly valuable.

Before the Operation Storm itself, Croatian pilots trained to perform multiple types of combat tasks, including the ground attack operations deep behind the enemy lines. Croatian Air Force had prevented operations of Serb aircraft from Mahovljani air base near Banja Luka as well as from the Udbina airport, thus reducing the Serb air force to a footnote.

Serb forces had expected to withstand the Croatian attack for some 15 to 20 days, which would give time for units of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian Army to intervene. But this did not happen. Serbian command had made numerous mistakes, including the assumption that Croatian troops will focus their incursion towards Drvar and Mrkonjić Grad. But the Croatian offensive had encompassed the entire territory of RSK, and already by the end of the first day, Croatian Air Force had fulfilled 80% of planned tasks, while ground troops had advanced between 5 and 15 kilometers on the first day.

Serb air defence had consisted of small, medium and large calibre anti-aircraft guns, mobile SAM systems 9K32 Strijela and 9K38 Igla for low-altitude defense, KUB mobile SAM systems and even mobile antiair Bofors guns. And of course, literally every last granny in Krajina had an AK-47, though these were not dedicated air defense systems. Weapons had been provided by the Yugoslav Army, and more advanced systems had also been manned by the Yugoslav Army personnel.

MiG tactics

What was new was usage of MiG-21 fighter aircraft. MiG-21 was by design a point-defense interceptor, and while it was being used for ground attack missions in other wars, this was done exclusively from high altitude, where its high speed and high stall speed were not a disability.

But in the Operation Storm, Croatian Air Force MiG-21s were used in a completely irregular way – flying at low altitudes of between 25 and 50 meters, using terrain masking to approach the well-defended targets. This was extremely dangerous, as flying at low altitudes and speeds of over 900 kilometers per hour meant that MiGs faced the danger of not only Serb anti-air defences, but also the terrain, houses, trees and transmission lines. Towers of transmission lines could be seen, but the lines themselves could not.

Projectile (bomb or a rocket) would be launched from low altitude and short distance, and attacking aircraft would immediately pull to the left or the right, at the limits of aircraft’s g and Angle-of-Attack capability, in order to avoid the shockwave of the explosion while remaining below the enemy air defense coverage. Remaining low was especially important since Croatian aircraft had neither jammers, chaff or flares – altitude and maneuvers were their only defense.

Croatian MiG’s were reaching targets completely unnoticed. But this also meant that targeting had to be done in two to three seconds at most, from aircraft that was flying 250 meters in a second. MiG-21s didn’t have targeting settings for ground attack weapons – targeting had been practiced with schemes on millimetre paper.

Attacks from low altitude had many effects. MiGs in flight were nearly touching tops of the trees. This allowed them to sneak up to targets – and hit them with nearly 100% accuracy. Attacks against Serb command and communication posts were so precise that they were initially ascribed to USAF precision munition attacks. Yet this accuracy was achieved with unguided (dumb) weapons: unguided rockets 57 mm, 128 mm and 240 mm, 23 mm GSh-23 cannon, and dumb bombs of 250 and 500 kg (550 and 1100 lbs).

But these flights were difficult. Threat of enemy air defences was always present, and antiquated air surveillance equipment was an issue: surveillance of the airspace was not possible below altitude of 500 meters, and aircraft could not receive guidance below 1 000 meters. This led to 11 MiGs being damaged, but with no permanent losses.

Main airborne problem were NATO aircraft which were unannounced crossing the Croatian airspace on their way from Aviano air base to Bosnia, and back.

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