02 September 2019

Romania’s fighter jets – from MiG-21 to F-16

Stefan Danila

“I want to pilot the MiG-21 until I retire.” – And his wish was fulfilled! In 1989, at the Deveselu alarm cell, the second-grade pilot was Virgil Florea, who had recently returned from the “firing squad” in Astrakhan. As any lieutenant who just passed his graduation, who had flown less than two hours the entire year, I saw him with veneration. With the wisdom of the pilot who carried out the most difficult mission of that period, he asked me: “What aircraft would you like to pilot”. “F-16”, I responded without hesitation. “Are you nuts? They can hear us! Maybe you want to say MiG-29!” “No, F-16! I read somewhere that it is the best plane in the world!” “Well, I want to pilot de MiG-21 until I retire.” And his wish was fulfilled.

Image source: Mediafax

At the end of military school I wanted to pilot the MiG-23, not only because it had a wing with variable geometry and was bigger and newer than the MiG-21, but also because the direct transition was being made that year, after successful experimentation two years earlier, with two very good pilots. And because there were spots only at Mihail Kogalniceanu. I was not among the “chosen ones”.

In the meantime, in 1989, MiG-29s were already arriving. The newest, easiest to fly, but also the most performant in battle. Comparable to the F-16, and even better as many colleagues stated. But no assessment was actually made on mission types; it was rather an exaggerated wish to present things other than reality.

There was a part where the MiG-29 was better at the time, dog fights… and that was all. And this only for a short while, until the Westerners, followings tests made with the 29 in firing ranges, were able to understand the advantage of using the navigation system for the warheads of dog fight missiles (R-73 and R-60) with the help of helmet equipment. This system was copied and developed later by the Westerners until it achieved today’s performances, incomparably better than those of 29 … But up until the dog fight you must pilot precisely, join de air tanker, manage the air space from other rules, execute the missions in a totally different tactical scenario, know how to use intelligent munitions and many, many others which the 29 lacked…” as Titus Stefancu says.

Initially, there should have been two squadrons, but their number was reduced along the way.

After the official dissolving of the Warsaw Pact in July 1991, the future of Romania’s national security could be thought from a different perspective. For the first time, after 45 years, Romanians could think their own future. Their fear of the Eastern neighbour persisted, but events in Moscow that year favoured the hope of liberation and aligning with the “free world”, with the West.

The IT technological revolution also happened in that period, and the air forces were among its first beneficiaries. Dashboard computers, avionics, intelligent missiles were introduced through modernization programs. The MiG-21 was made in several variants, starting with the F-13, and later the PF, RFMM, M, MF (the options available to Romania) or Bis.

MiG-21 LanceR – The first program to modernize Romania’s military technique

The modernization of the Romanian Air Forces’ fighter jets was decided in 1991 by the Army’s Endowment and Logistics Directorate and the Military Aviation Command.

Modernizing the jets implied digitalizing them and the process was revolutionary. The three types of aircrafts we had: MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-29 were analysed. Most of them, number-wise, were the MiG-21s, in all of their variants. MiG-23 did not have aerodynamic characteristics and flight performances way better than the MiG-21.  The newest were the MiG-29s, which were competitive with the most modern fighter jets at the time. The missiles on them were also the most performant. But, just as the MiG-23, their number and, especially, their limited flight resource, which could not be regenerated/extended within the country, were setbacks hard to overcome. Aircrafts have a number of flight hours recommended by the manufacturer, named total flight resources, and also a resource between “capital repairs”. This “flight resources” is also quantified in years of use, like in any vehicle. When one of the limits is reached, revitalization through capital reparations could only be done in facilities which had a licence granted by the manufacturer. For the MiG-21 we had everything necessary to control the resources, a decisive factor in choosing this type of aircraft. Firstly, AEROSTAR had the necessary technical documentation for any program of this type. Replacing some equipment and installing new one could not be done without this documentation, which is an essential request.

Offers to modernize the fleet came from Israeli companies Elbit Systems LTD and IAI, as well as from the Russian Federation. The contract was signed in 1994 with Elbit Systems, a company with experience in such operations. The program started with some syncope, with comments more or less approved, distrust from some, hope from others, even with changes in the program’s leadership, inherent to the first modernization program carried out by the Romanian Army. Romania was the first Eastern European state which was making its military technique compatible with that of NATO. And the credit for this mainly belongs to the two generals who had this idea, Stefan Voian and Dan Zaharia.

The program was titled DD, in the memory of pilot and writer Doru Davidovici, and the aircraft LanceR, shortened from “Romanian Lance”.

The first prototypes were finished in 1996. A variant equipped with a modern radar and two multifunctional displays and a simpler one, with a telemetry radar and one multifunctional display. The MiG-29 was also equipped with the new avionics, but without complex works (the capital repairs not being possible in Romania), just as in the MiG-21. The reason was very simple: AEROSTAR did not have a licence for such works, did not have complete documentation, as similar factories from Poland, East Germany or Serbia had.

All of the solutions tried by Elbit and Romanian military air force leadership to modernize the MiG-29 failed. The resources for the 21 aircrafts (at that moment) was to deplete towards the end of 90s and until the beginning of the new century.

In 1994, Romania was among the first states to sign the Partnership for Peace with NATO. This decision caused the introduction of an IFF (identification friend or foe) device compatible with NATO recon systems. The final version, imposed by constraints at the time, but also by the vision of the military leaders in that period, who understood that Romania’s political orientation must be towards NATO, was to modernize 100 MiG-21 aircrafts. The M and MF options, among the last that had been purchased, were chosen. Of these, 25 were in the C variant or “Air to air”, while the other 75 were configured simpler (cheaper) as an A or “Air to ground) variant. Other 10 double command aircraft were also similarly configured with the latter ones, as a B variant. In real life, although the generic name and the paint colour said otherwise, the best plane for “Air to ground” is still the C variant, with a multi-mode radar and two multifunctional displays, which can direct a laser-guided bomb by using its guiding container.

Titus Stefancu was designated to take part in the program as a MiG-29 pilot, a connoisseur of more modern systems installed on this aircraft. In order to understand how the new avionics worked, he studied tomes of specialty books at Israel’s Tehnical University (Technion). He had to compensate the lack of knowledge from our “ultra-outdated system, from all points of view”.

Titus had the role to explain to us, other pilots, the functionality of systems with which we were not familiar and the new philosophy of modern air forces, in order to optimally use all equipment.

Sorin Niculescu, Marian Oprisi, George Istrate were the first engineers involved in the modernization program. They were joined by engineers Ovidiu Buhai and Tibi Mocanu from AERSOTAR, SIMULTEC, as well as engineers from the Bacau air base and from the leadership of the Aviation and Air Defence Staff, with the integrating software being developed progressively.

Personnel training and operationalizing

The first three pilots who flew the LanceR were Liviu Burhala, Virgil Ristea and Adrian Puiu. They had been around the engineers and Israeli pilots since autumn 1996, also as instructors for Elbit’s test pilots, who switched to the classic MiG.

The first series of ten pilots made the switch to the LanceR in 1997. We studied together, pilots, engineers, technicians, traffic controllers, we established instructions and procedures. We were not in NATO back then, there were restrictions from the US for some equipment, we did not have access to allied standards, to the tactics and procedures used by those in the Alliance, while the Eastern ones were mostly outdated.

The selection and training of the first series should have been learned lessons for the next fighter jet, because the LanceR was planned to only be an intermediate step, until the purchase of a fourth-generation multi-role fighter jet, which was supposed to be acquired by the Air Forces in 2011-2012.

Starting with 1998, the next series were prepared by those in the first group. And this happened at the same time while they were also continuing their training, by learning techniques and procedures never-before used in Romania. From Close Control interceptions or Bull’s Eye, to air interdiction and, the most difficult, Close Air Support, the new missions required effort to learn, understand, prepare the mission and the actual flight. New concepts, such as preparing data for the mission and loading them, post-mission debrief were introduced, which helped comply with allied requirements. And, at the same time, the same happy pioneers of the LanceR took part in drills, ground and air technique presentations, air shows in the country and above. This was the first time the MiG-21 pilots flew on civilian air routes.

The MiG-21 flight evolved in a very short time from prudent manoeuvres to complex acrobatic displays, to striking a target precisely at the hour, minute and even seconds established in the briefing. The possibility to visualize accurate flight parameters made the flight safer and the significantly increased fighting performances. The first pilots who presented the plane in flying, Liviu Burhala and Virigil Ristea, were joined by Catalin Bahneanu, Valent Tanasa, Mihai Marcel, Nicu Surdea, Dumitru Nichifor, the first being instructors in Bacau, who also trained pilots from the other airbases.

After Bacau followed the Borcea Air Base. The “Sorbonne of military aviation”, as Ion Stefan, one of the first pilots involved in the program, named it. The base commander, Dorel Luca, personally became involved in the program, bringing theoretical training forward by taking over the manuals since during the test period. In order to take over the LanceR’s in-flight presentation, he maintained a professional exchange with the best Israeli test pilot, Yehuda Shafir, with which he shared the new limits of the “new plane”. Luca stimulated the young pilots to become involved so that, starting with 1999, each year, they were able to take part in common drills with the F-15, F-16, Mirage, Tornado, and learned procedures and tactics on the go.

Pilots, engineers and technicians took part in deployments never dreamed of before. Participating in the Farnborough or Le Bourget international aviation expo, to the NATO and NATO-PfP drills were exceptional experiences which increased the professionalism of Romanian pilots, proved the validity and value of the decision to modernize the fleet, as well as trust in our own abilities.

Baltica 2007the first foreign mission with fighter jets

The training of pilots in Campia Turzii was finished at the end of the program. Joining NATO also presumed joining NATO’s Air Police. In Aprile 2004, pilots from Bacau were still detached to Campia Turzii for this service, one of them even being the current commander of the Campia Turzii base, Marius Oatu, together with Costica Strat. Moreover, in 2005, the pilots from Capia Turzii received the mission to partake in the NATO Air Police in the Baltic countries, successfully carried out in 2007. In less than two years, they managed to go through a complex training program, where they learned aerial acrobatics, solo and in formation, and even went through “two versus two” air fight training in the final stages.

The LanceR program meant a change in mentalities, brought a breath of fresh air in Romanian fighting air forces. At the same time, AEROSTAR not only managed to survive, but also become a modern aviation company, because the new directors were directly involved, understood and adapted to the new concepts and technologies. Furthermore, when there were problems, solutions were found which surprised even the specialists in Elbit. The LanceR program was good school for everyone, pilots, engineers, technicians, a school which should have been used better.

The new multi-role fighter jet – from projects, to facts

After 2006, a new purchases program was introduced in the endowment plan for the fighter aviation, more specifically for a multi-role fighter jet to replace the LanceR in 2012. According to the situation of the flight resource at that time, some aircrafts were beginning to reach the total flight resource resulted following capital repairs even since 2008. The lack of a decision regarding the purchase made a new resource extension necessary, even if this solution had been evaluated as inefficient. Parts of the necessary equipment are not fabricated anymore and cannot be replaced. Furthermore, the munition mostly expired, and revitalizing it would be difficult and involved a high level of risk. The missions of fighter jets must be accomplished, and Romanian pilots do not know how to report “it cannot be done!”

Purchasing training programs, operating procedures, preparing a sufficient number of personnel on each specialization, directly by the equipment provider was a first conclusion which should have been retained. Preparing the infrastructure in advance, before the ground equipment and aircraft arrived would be an additional problem, which we also faced in modernizing the MiGs.

The necessary number of fighter jets (48) resulted from the already assumed missions and from a simple calculation of flight hours necessary for these missions. Later, assuming a reduction in one of the missions planned in the future within NATO, we reached a minimum of 32 aircrafts in a first stage, with the condition for all of them to be new, while the other 16 will be purchased in a later stage, not more than five years after. This concept received the Defence Council’s approval in December 2011, but the government fell two months later.

The economic crisis contributed to a continuous reduction of the defence budget (“accidental” in 2006 and 2007), which led to endangering the operation of all military equipment, with catastrophic effects for the air force.

All the reports presented by commanders in all echelons were arguments to consolidate the necessary budgets, and the ministry requested them every year. Unfortunately, finance planners found it easier to allot funds for technical unemployment then for military technique maintenance. An entire chain of weaknesses which does and still does so much harm to the army’s operational capacity, as well as for industry in the area.

The 2013 decision to purchase 12 F-16 MLU (Mid-Life Upgraded) jets from Portugal was a momentary solution, which should have been supported by another to purchase 36 aircrafts, which would have been revitalized and modernized to the same level with the first ones. No military leader wanted this solution, but it was the only variant accepted by the prime minister in office back then. This or nothing!

The difficulty of switching to a complex weapons system as the F-16 proved to be higher than initially anticipated. The insufficient number of pilots and technicians prepared to operate them, delays in building infrastructure, the insufficient number of aircrafts, delays in restocking spare parts caused a delay in operationalizing the squadron for the Air Police-Fighting Service.

Catalin Miclos, the commander of the 53 “Warhawks” squadron, could make use of the experience he gained on the LanceR, even if the F-16 requires an even more complex approach. The program has well-established rules and the biggest problem could be the pressures to “make it more Romanian”. There is no “it works either way” here! Infrastructure is especially important, as is personnel training and, especially, the presence of enough personnel for all the tasks required.

In the meantime, the initial personnel have gotten older, the state of uncertainty regarding the future of the second squadron is maintained, while the number of unavailable planes is growing. No decision has (yet) been taken on entering the F-16 MLU into the European family or into US VIPER program. The purchase of five other jets seems to be just another temporary fix. But can a member of the military comment on the contents of a law?

I would like to conclude in a more optimistic note, even if the reality is overwhelming. Six years after the purchase decision, the first squadron for air policing became operational. The pioneers of the LanceR passed the torch to those younger than them, who continue to defend the country’s and Alliance’s blue sky, but this also entails the fastest possible purchase of the necessary aircraft. Operationalizing a squadron takes between four and five years, requires funds, material resources and, most importantly, people. For other types of missions, there is still no resource. The best, carefully selected and well-instructed. With their families, their dreams, and their needs, which they are ready to sacrifice for the best job in the world!

Translated by Ionut Preda