Yugoslav and Serbian MiG-29s (archived)

Yugoslav and Serbian MiG-29s (archived)


Yugoslav & Serbian MiG-29s
By ACIG Team
Nov 30, 2003, 10:13
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The former Air Force & Air Defence Force of Yugoslavia (Jugoslovensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo i Protiv-Vazdusna Obrana, “JRViPVO”) purchased a total of 14 MiG-29s and two MiG-29UBs from the USSR, in 1987.

MiG-29s were taken into service with the 127. Lovacka Avijacijska Eskadrila (127.LAE, Fighter Air Squadron), known as “Vitezovi” (Knights), part of the 204. Lovacki Avijacijski Puk (204.LAP, Fighter Air Regiment) based at Batajnica AB, west of Belgrade, in what is today Republic of Serbia.

In service with the JRViPVO the aircraft was designated “L-18”, with L standing for “Lovac” (Hunter) and 18 being the type designation. The JRViPVO, namely, had its own designations for different types and their versions, from which also serial numbers of all aircraft were developed (the same system was – under Yugoslav influence – introduced in the Iraqi Air Force, in 1987). Being L-18, the Yugoslav MiG-29s were consequently serialled in the range 18101 thru 18114, and the MiG-29UBs 15301 and 15302. The whole serial was applied in black, directly over the fin-flash, while the “last three” were repeated in white directly bellow the cockpit, and also on the upper side of the right wing. National markings were carried on the intake-sides, and on the upper side of the right, as well as the lower side of the right wing.

101 seen rolling during a show at Pleso IAP, near Zagreb, in 1988. This aircraft suvived the war in 1999. (source: unknown)
102 as seen at Batajnica AB, shortly after deliverey in 1987. This aircraft survived the war in 1999. (Tom Cooper collection)
104 as seen rolling past 102 and 109 at Batajnica AB, in summer of 1987. This aircraft was destroyed by NATO fighters on the ground at Nis airport, on 11 May, 1999. (Photo: M. Micevski)
105 as seen at Batajnica in summer of 1987. This aircraft survived the war in 1999. (Photo: M. Micevski)
108 as seen at an unknown date, probably at Podgorica, rolling by the line of G-4s painted in the colours of “Letece Zvezde” acro-jet team. This aircraft survived the war in 1999. (source: unknown)
109 seen at Batajnica AB at an unknown date. The aircraft was shot down by USAF F-16Cs while flown by Lt.Col. Milenko Pavlovic, on 4 May 1999. (source: unknown)
Another view of the 18109. (source: unknown)
112 as seen probably at Brnik IAP, near Ljubljana, sometimes in 1988 or 1989. This aircraft was shot down by USAF F-15C over Kosovo, on 24 March 1999, while flown by Maj. Ilijo Arizanov. Note the difference in camouflage pattern on the fin when compared to aircraft with lower serials. Namely, with exception of the 18101 all the other Yugoslav MiG-29s with lower serials had the dark grey shade applied on the rear of the fin. (source: unknown)
114 seen in flight with caracteristic armament for JRViPVO MiG-29s: “two each” of R-27Rs, R-73s, and R-60s. Although some rumours indicate that the Serbs have got R-73s only in the early 1990s, and from Hungary, this photograph, taken in 1989 or 1990 clearly shows that the JRViPVO had this weapon already at an earlier date. The 18114 was shot down by USAF F-15s over Bosnia, on 26 March 1999. (source: AFM)
302 as seen shortly after delivery, in summer 1987. This aircraft was destroyed on the ground at Batajnica AB, during Allied Force. (via Tom Cooper)

Combat Service
Yugoslav MiG-29s saw their first combat during the fighting between the federal Yugoslav Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, “JNA”) and the Slovenian Territorial Forces, in June and July 1991, when they flew CAPs along the borders to Italy and Austria, but apparently did not participate in any of the air-to-ground missions.

During the wars in Croatia, in 1991 and early 1992, as well as in Bosnia, 1992 thru 1995, they were used several times to deliver strikes against different targets along the Bosnian-Croat border, and also in the Zadar area (Zadar is in south-western Croatia), and the Croats, as well as – subsequently – the Bosnian Moslems and Croats were swift to claim at least two, and later four as shot down. Even some highly respected and “authoritative” sources later claimed that MiG-29s serialled 18103, 18107, and 18110 were destroyed during the fighting in 1992. In fact, the 127.LAE of what meanwhile became the Air Force of Yugoslav Federation (but was still designated JRViPVO) did not suffer any losses during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

On the contrary, all the 14 MiG-29s and two MiG-29UBs remained in service well into the 1990s, even if from around 1996 they started suffering from a latent lack of spares, which severely impacted the capability of the service to maintain them.

MiG-29s delivered to Yugoslavia, namely, were some of the first ever built. Originally, they were all manufactured in 1983 and 1984, used by the Soviet Air Force for few years, and then stored, until reconditioned and sold to Yugoslavia, in 1987. By 1996 their resources were about to end. Would it have been according to original plans for the development of the JRViPVO, not more would have been needed any way: in the 1980s the Yugoslavs were developing a new fighter in the class of the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen, designated “Novi Avion”. Namely, before purchasing MiG-29s, the Yugoslavs were considering also a purchase of Dassault Mirage 2000; after some test-flights and a serious study, a JRViPVO-commission actually brought a decision in favour of the French fighter. At the time, the JRViPVO was actually looking for an aircraft that would bridge the gap between MiG-21 and the “Novi Avion”, in the early 1991s, and help the force (but also the whole country) introduce modern technology. Novi Avion was to have a first flight sometimes between 1991 and 1993, and enter service around 1995. However, the Mirage proved too expensive to purchase, while the Soviets were offering MiG-29s in replacement for their debts. Consequently, the number of MiG-29s purchased for the JRViPVO was low, and it was to remain low – later foremost because of subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Eventually, the cancellation of the development of Novi Avion resulted in MiG-29s remaining in service with the JRViPVO until the late 1990s, and well past their resources. To make matters worse, the corrupt regime of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was more concerned with own survival and to reinforce riot-police and similar services, or finance the aggression war in Bosnia but with the maintenance of MiGs. Consequently, when Serbia found itself confronted with the NATO, in 1998, the condition of the MiGs with the 127.LAE was very poor, and its pilots were flying barely 20 hours annually.

Nevertheless, the unit prepared for a war, and the JRViPVO developed a doctrine according to which the air defence of the Federation of Yugoslavia (meanwhile including only Serbia and Montenegro) would be heavily dependent on SA-3 and SA-6 SAM-sites, while the MiG-29s would be given an opportunity to fight in the opening stages of the war, and then preserved to re-enter the combat at the time of a NATO invasion on the ground.

Eventually, this was a mistake, then the NATO had no intention to invade Serbia or Montenegro: the original NATO-plans called for a limited air offensive that should have convinced the Serbian dictator that the West was serious in regards of the crisis in Kosovo. But then the higher echelons of the Yugoslav military did their next mistake by ordering the pilots of the 127.LAE to disregard the most logical combat tactics of low-level operations with a subsequent attack-climb, and instead operate at medium levels. Eventually, this order was to cause severe losses of the unit.

On the first night of the war, the MiGs of the 127.LAE were dispersed on several airfields around Serbia. As only few aircraft were considered operational (they were actually merely flyable) the JRViPVO had to deploy them so to cover as much airspace as possible. Therefore, two were at Nis, and two at Batajnica AB, while one was at Ponikve AB. Remaining aircraft were unserviceable.

When the NATO attack finally came, on the evening hours of 24 March 1999, the MiGs went into action, being scrambled one after the other. The two fighters that took off from Nis and were vectored to intercept targets over southern Serbia and Kosovo, were swiftly dealth with by NATO fighters: the MiG-29 flown by Maj. Dragan Ilic was damaged – either by an AIM-120 fired from a Dutch F-16AM fighters, or by a Serbian SA-6 SAM, in a case of fratricide fire. The second MiG that scrambled from the same airfield was flown by Maj. Ilijo Arizanov, was shot down by an USAF F-15C. The pair from Batajnica experienced only a slightly better fate: first to launch was Maj. Nebojsa Nikolic, who was shot down shortly after take off. Maj. Ljubisa Kulacin evaded several missiles fired at him while fighting to bring his malfunctioning systems back in working order. Eventually realizing that he could not do anything, and with Batajnica AB under a severe attack, he diverted to Belgrade IAP, and landed safely. Kulacin’s experience was not much different to that of his three other colleagues, all of which experienced immense problems with weapons and navigational systems on their aircraft: on the 18112, flown by Maj. Arizanov, both the radio and SPO-15 malfunctioned; on 18104, flown by Maj. Ilic, the radar failed; on 18111, flown by Maj. Nikolic, both the radar and the SN-29 missile guidance systems were inoperative, and apparently the SPO-15 also did not function properly.

The fifth and last MiG-29 to get airborne on that night was 18106, flown by Maj. Predrag Milutinovic. Immediately after take-off his radar failed and even the electrical generator malfunctioned. Shortly after, he was warned by SPO-15 of being acquired, but he evaded the opponent by several evasive manoeuvres. Attempting to evade further encounters and searching for an airfield where a landing was possible, he finally ended over Ribarska Banja, when his RWR warned him of acquisition by a ground-based radar. Seconds afterward the aircraft was hit and Milutinovic forced to eject.

In total, the 127.LAE launched five MiG-29s on that night, of which three were shot down, one badly damaged, and one returned in unserviceable condition. The only positive aspect was that not a single pilot was killed – even if it would take few days until one of them was recovered. Closer examination of available evidence indicates that Maj. Arizanov was shot down by USAF Col. Rodriguez, while Majors Nikolic and Kulacin were engaged by USAF Capt. Showers, who eventually shot down Nikolic. Maj. Milutinovic’s aircraft was probably shot down by KLU F-16AM, while it remains unclear who damaged Maj. Ilic’s MiG-29, even if it is possible that the 311. Self-Propelled Air Defence Missile Regiment, equipped with SA-6s and deployed in the area where his aircraft was hit, was responsible.

On the morning of 25 March, Maj. Slobodan Tesanovic flew the MiG-29 18110 from Batajnica to Podgorica, with intention of scrambling from there when the next NATO attack would come. However, before he could get airborne, in the following night, his MiG was damaged by NATO fighters. The ground crews repaired the aircraft and Tesanovic then evacuated it back to Ponikve AB, on the morning of 26 March.

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of 25 March, two MiG-29s, flown by Maj. Peric and Capt. 1st Class Radosavljevic, were scrambled from Batajnica AB to intercept a high-flying NATO aircraft – probably a Mirage IV on a reconnaissance mission over north-western Serbia. While pursuing their target their aircraft again suffered several malfunctions: their radars failed, and then also the SPO-15 on Peric’s aircraft. The GCI first directed them north, then turned them towards south-west, and eventually both MiGs ended inside the Bosnian airspace. Once there, the GCI advised them that both were detected by the NATO aircraft, but would not indicate the kind of a threat. This was a tragic mistake: Maj. Peric led his wingman into a climb, and straight into three AIM-120 missiles fired by two USAF F-15Cs that were on a patrol over Tuzla. Two missiles hit home, destroying both MiGs: after evading one AIM-120, Maj. Peric’s aircraft was hit and he ejected safely, but Capt. Radosavljevic was killed.

After a series of fierce disagreements between the surviving pilots of the 127.LAE and the High Command JRViPVO, which went so far that the Commander-in-Chief JRViPVO, Col.Gen. (equivalent to a 3 or 4 stars rank in the West) Ljubisa Velickovic test-flew MiG-19 18105 in order to see with his own eyes if the aircraft was permanently malfuncioning, in the late March the personnel of the 127.LAE worked feverishly to return several inoperational airframes into operational condition. 18101 was the first to be made flyable and Maj. Bora Zoraja flew a single mission with it on 5 April, but he again experienced several malfunctions and returned safely, without engaging any opponent. The engineers stripped the damaged 18104 for spares to repair 18101, but on its next mission, two days later, the aircraft continued suffering similar problems, and the pilot Maj. Milenkovic, returned to base without engaging in combat.

In the meantime, on 6 April, Maj. Ermeti flew MiG-29 18109 – repaired by spares taken from 18105 – into a single mission north of Belgrade. After experiencing similar problems with different systems, he failed to engage any of USAF aircraft operating in the area. His aircraft was subsequently declared unfit even for training purposes.

After a pause of almost a month, on 4 May finally Lt.Col. Milenko Pavlovic scrambled on MiG-29 to intercept a NATO strike in the area of Valjevo, his home-town, which the previous night was first hit by an earthquake and then by a heavy NATO-strike. Appearing too late on the scene and experiencing one malfunction of the weapons and navigation systems on his aircraft after the other, Lt.Col. Pavlovic was eventually intercepted by two USAF F-16Cs. Both US fighters were flying on the end of the NATO-formation, and had to be turned around by the E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft in order to engage – while simultaneously also attacked by the Serbian air defence units. Lt.Col. Pavlovic was shot down within a short period of time, and killed. Even if the Serbs subsequently found fragments of a Strela-2M MANPAD in the wreckage of his MiG, this kill was officially credited to a USAF pilot from the 78th FS.

With this the war was over for the 127.LAE, which by the time lost six MiG-29s in air combats, and had one badly damaged. Four additional fighters – including the two-seat MiG-29UB 15301 – were subsequently destroyed on the ground, while one crashed during a test-flight.

The unit continued flying – on a very low rate – its remaining five MiG-29s after the war as well, even if it had to replace the losses by MiG-21s that were evacuated from Pristina after the war. In spring of 2004, however, news appeared that what is now the Vazduhoplovni Korpus Vojske Srbija I Crna Gora (VKVSICG) – i.e. the flying component of the former JRViPVO – ceased MiG-29-operations, because the aircraft could not be maintained any more.

Recommended Bibliograhpy
– Gallant Knights, MiG-29 in Action during Allied Force, by Mark Nixon, AirForces Monthly magazine, January 2002.

– MiG-29 Fulcrum in Action, by Hans-Heiri Stapfer (Color by Don Greer, illustrated by Joe Sewell), Aircraft Number 112, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1991

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