Romanian Air Force Modernization
The air force of 1989 had fifteen interceptor squadrons, three with fifteen MiG-23 fighters each and twelve with similar numbers of MiG-21 fighters. By 2022, MiG-21 fighter jets, refurbished with Israeli help by the Romanian Air Force, were taking part in the air patrol. The fleet of 110 fighters now had about 30 to 40 combat aircraft left. Romania received its first MiG-23s from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, nearly ten years after the plane entered service in Soviet and some other Warsaw Pact air forces. Soviet allies in Third World countries such as Syria, Libya, and Iraq had the MiG-23 in their inventories before Romania did. Romanian fighters carried the 1960s-era Soviet AA-2/ATOLL air-to-air missile.
The air force had six ground attack squadrons operating eighty-five 1950s-era MiG-17 aircraft made in the 1950s, which had been modified and transferred from duty as interceptors when Romania acquired the MiG-21, and thirty-five Romanian-built IAR-93 Orao ground-attack fighters. In 1989 the air force had an additional 125 Orao close air-support aircraft on order.
Transport, reconnaissance, and helicopter squadrons supported the ground forces by airlifting ground forces units, collecting intelligence on the composition and disposition of hostile forces, and conducting medical evacuation, mobile command, and utility functions. In 1989 Romania had eleven An-24, eight An-26 (both smaller than the United States C-130 transport), and several other Soviet transport aircraft, as well as four Polish Li- 2 and two American-made Boeing 707 transports. Using its total lift capability, however, it could transport only the men and equipment of one airborne battalion.
Reconnaissance squadrons operated twenty Soviet 11-28 aircraft built in the 1950s. Helicopter squadrons operated fifty-five IAR-316B Allouette III and forty IAR-330 Puma helicopters produced in Romania under French license and twenty-five Soviet Mi-4 and Mi-8 helicopters. Helicopter squadrons directly supported the ground forces by providing enhanced mobility and fire power for small units. The air force had a large pilot training rogram, which reflected an apparent intention to develop increased capabilities. In 1989 it had sixty Czechoslovak-produced L-29 and L-39 jet training aircraft, twenty older Soviet MiG-15 trainers, and a small but growing inventory of Romanian-built trainers.
The fourteen interceptor squadrons of the air force were the first line of defense in the country's air defense system. The air force also controlled the ground-based air defense network of 135 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, early warning radar, and command, control, and communications equipment dispersed among twenty sites around the country. The national military command authority in Bucharest and in the country's oil-producing region around Ploiesti were the areas best protected against air attack. In 1989 Romania still depended on the Soviet Union to supply all of its air defense weapons and equipment.
Romania’s Aerostar flew its upgraded MiG-29 Sniper demonstrator aircraft for the first time on 05 May 2000, at the company’s Bacau factory headquarters. DaimlerChrysler Aerospace’s chief test pilot, Wolfgang Schirdewann, was at the controls during the 42-minute flight.
Aerostar, DaimlerChrysler and Israel’s Elbit developed the Sniper as an upgrade for about 18 MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum-As’ in service with Romanian and other Eastern European air forces. The Sniper’s improved onboard systems will be fully compatible with NATO and ICAO standards. The redesigned cockpit features a far more efficient man-machine interface. A new on-board computer supports an expanded range of weapons options, as well as built-in growth potential for future radar, fire-control and electronic-warfare systems.
Given the security guarantees gained once Romania became a full member of the NATO Alliance, the number of fighting squadrons of the Romanian Air Force was diminished by two squadrons. Despite programs for upgrading the MiG-29, Romania decided to withdraw the MiG-29 from service and focus on the MiG-21 Lancer (the modernized version of the MiG-21M/MF) as its prime combat aircraft. This decision has been explained by Mr. Matache, a former State Secretary for the Department of Armament, who stated that ”after a deep analysis, the air force considered that the financial investment in the overhaul and upgrading [of the MiG-29] too big an effort for a small number of aircraft.”
The MiG-21 would be in service until they run out of technical resources. Until 2010, 50 percent of them would be unsupportable, while the rest of them would remain in service for another four years. The MiG-21 upgrade program has been a major element in the regeneration of the RoAF and the Romanian aerospace industry following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. It has allowed the RoAF to jump a generation of combat aircraft. Despite an over-30 year-old airframe, the MiG-21 Lancer is a fighter equipped with current sensors, avionics technology and modern weaponry. It has been modernized in two versions: the Lancer-A ground-attack version and the Lancer-C air-superiority version. In addition, 14 MiG-21 UM two-seaters were modernized to the Lancer-B standard for training purposes.
Romania began its search for a new fighter in the early 2000s, with the aim of replacing the LanceRs in 2010/11 with 48 new aircraft. The F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen were seen as the main contenders, but a lack of funds continually delayed any decision.
By 2006 Romania's decision would be based upon the underlying premise of "how we can adapt our armed forces to NATO standards." It was "clear" that Israeli-provided fighters "are not a solution" and Romania had "drawn a line through" the possibility of acquiring F-16s from Israel. Romania would choose between "new F-16s (from the US) or Dutch F-16s." The Dutch price was good, but there was uncertainty about the maintenance contracts for the Dutch-provided F-16s.
In 2007 Defense Minister Theodor Melescanu walked back the GOR from approving F-16s to replace Romania's aging MiG-21 fleet, in what many Romanian national security experts here (including one former defense minister and two experts in academia) saw as a blatant attempt to increase the chances of more lucrative offers from European-based aerospace industries like Gripen and Eurofighter. The Defense Minister put the Dassault Rafale on the table during the June 2007) CSAT meeting, catching everyone by surprise on an issue that already had been studied for two years. It is generally assumed within the uniformed services that Melescanu will recommend the Gripen over the CHOD's and President Basescu's stated preference to lease F-16s on the path to purchasing the JSF.
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