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Royal Cambodian Air Force

Royal Cambodian Air ForceThe Cambodian Air Force virtually ceased to exist after the 1979 invasion by Vietnam, and any useable equipment was transferred to the Vietnamese Air Force. An embryonic air defense corps or air force was reconstituted in the mid-to-late 1980s, after having been defunct since the days of the Khmer Republic. Cambodian pilots and technicians were in training in the Soviet Union; some already had returned home. Pochentong International Airport near Phnom Penh is the largest airport; it also served as the main base for the renascent Cambodian Air Force. Cambodia opened a new Soviet-built airfield at Ream near Kampong Saom in late 1983.

The nucleus of the new air arm was formed around a few Mi-8/24 helicopters in 1985, while limited fast-jet flying resumed on Shenyang F-6s in 1986 and the first new fighter squadron, Unit 701, was declared operational in mid-1989. Unit 701 flew MiG-21 s; its pilots were trained in the USSR and Vietnam. Thai sources reported that about forty MiG- 21/FISHBED fighter aircraft were either on order or already in the inventory. The delivery or order of Mi-8/HIP transport helicopters was also reported. Occupying Vietnamese forces began a slow withdrawal in late 1988 and the last troops were removed during September 1989.

A number of transport aircraft were active by 1990. Five new Mi-17 Hip helicopters were received from the Soviet Union in early 1990. In January 1995 it was reported that Israel Aircraft Industries was to upgrade 15 Mikoyan MiG-21s of the Cambodian Air Force. The $80 million deal "was expected to be signed soon". The Israeli package was to include a new mission computer, cockpit avionics and a radar-warning system.

By 2000 IAI of Israel had upgraded at least six of Cambodia's MiG-21s. Although two aircraft were delivered in 1997, work on the other four was suspended, pending Cambodian payment to IAI. The MiG-21-2000 upgrade included a service life extension, a HUD, an improved weapons system and new cockpit, GPS-based navigation and Western communications equipment. The upgrade also included the Python 3 AAM and the Griffin LGB. There was speculation that the contract covered conversion of nine single-seat and one twin-stick MiG-21.

IAI also procured and modified six L-39 Albatros trainers for Cambodia: one was lost soon after delivery. Cambodia's difficulty in meeting the financial terms of its contract made it unlikely that the remaining MiG-21s, which were thought to be unserviceable, would be upgraded.

According to the 2000 Defense White Paper, while trainer aircraft may be equipped with weapons systems to provide fire support for ground forces, the maintenance of a significant air combat capability could not be justified. Developments in Air Force capabilities generally do not occur quickly. This reflects the high costs of acquiring fixed or rotary wing aircraft and the training and support required to introduce and maintain them in service. Air transport is, however, valuable in supporting the rapid deployment of troops and supplies, and providing access to remote areas. Cambodias limited national infrastructure strengthens their value.

In the new century, the costs and complexity of maintaining an operational helicopter force did not make this a priority, even though air transport may be very useful in the rainy season. Civil aircraft may be used where available, for rapid movement between the major regional centers in emergencies. However, the national civil capability is limited and movement will normally be by road or river. The disposition of forces to the various regions, and the more stable political environment should however, makes this need less frequent.

With economic growth in the future, the Air Force may consider the acquisition of a small number of short-range transport aircraft, possibly under a lease arrangement, including maintenance support. Resource expenditure on repairing the current fleet will, as with the case of the Navys patrol craft, only be considered after the costs and future operational effectiveness of those aircraft have been carefully considered.

Royal Cambodian Air ForceAs of 2000 the important decision that must be made was whether the existing squadron of utility helicopters can be repaired and maintained, and their operational availability assured, at a reasonable cost. If that is possible, available Air Force resources should be focused on achieving that operational output. The maintenance of pilot training skills is also important. Should existing equipment not be supportable, the purchase of new rotary wing aircraft and associated maintenance and support arrangements would be considered. Resources were, however, most unlikely to be sufficient to pursue such a purchase in the short term.

In the longer term, the demands of force mobility and the potential advantages of aerial surveillance suggested that Cambodia should consider the acquisition of a small number of short range, tactical lift, fixed-wing aircraft. These would be based on normal civilian specifications and may be equipped with surface surveillance radar to assist maritime patrolling.

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Page last modified: 28-05-2012 13:27:07 ZULU