Yugoslav Air Force Combat Aircraft: 1980’s Modernization

In the 1980’s the Yugoslav Air Force and Air Defence (Jugoslavensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo i Protivvazdushna Odbrana – JRViPVO) backbone was the Soviet supplied Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbed fighter aircraft. Yugoslavia received 277 MiG-21 variants in total between 1962 and 1977. Many older variants were retired during the 1980’s and 1990’s but the definitive version, the 100 MiG-21bis Fishbed L fighters delivered in 1977, continued to be the primary frontline fighter of the JRViPVO in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Yugoslav Air Force MiG-21bis fighter armed with 500kg bombs
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-21bis fighter armed with 500kg bombs
Yugoslav Air Force Roundel
Yugoslav Air Force Roundel

The MiG-21’s were supplemented by attack aircraft developed by the Yugoslavian aviation industry, such as the Soko J-1 (J-21) Jastreb (Hawk) ground attack aircraft and the Soko J-22 Orao 1 (Eagle 1) attack and reconnaissance aircraft but these were aircraft developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. By the 1980’s the JRViPVO needed to modernize its aircraft to keep pace with the NATO and Warsaw Pact nations that surrounded the borders of Yugoslavia.

A modern fighter was a key requirement and although the Vazduhoplovno Tehnicki Institut (VTI – Aeronautical Technical Institute) were working on the development of a fourth generation fighter aircraft to enter service in the 1990’s, once again Yugoslavia had to look to the Soviets to provide an aircraft to cover an operational gap. The solution was pretty immediate in the form of the highly capable Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum multi-role fighter. New home-grown developments were also key to this modernization including a new attack aircraft in the Soko J-22M Orao 2 (Eagle 2) and a new advanced trainer in the form of the Soko G-4 Super Galeb to supply suitably trained pilots to fly modern aircraft.

G-4 Super Galeb

The Soko G-4 (N-62) Super Galeb two-seat advanced trainer and light attack aircraft first flew in 1978 and was introduced into the Yugoslav Air Force in 1983/84 as a replacement for the G-2A Galeb. 90 G-4 aircraft were manufactured for the Yugoslav Air Force and the type remains in service today with the former Yugoslavian republics of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia (civil purposes), plus a small number operating in the Myanmar Air Force (Burma).

The SOKO G-4 Super Galeb first flew in 1978 Yugoslav Air Force
The SOKO G-4 Super Galeb first flew in 1978 but was not introduced into Yugoslav service until 1983/84

The Super Galeb has excellent flight characteristics and maneuverability, and received a significant boost in power over its predecessor with the types licence-built Rolls Royce Viper 632-46 turbojet engine, which provides a maximum speed of 920 km/h / 572 mph (the top speed of the G-2 Galeb was 812 km/h / 505 mph). Avionics include communications and navigation equipment, fire control and weapons systems including a gyro gunsight and naturally defensive sensors and systems.

Although primarily a trainer the Super Galeb is well suited to the light ground attack role and armament can include a twin-barrel GSh-23L 23 mm cannon in a ventral gun pod with 200 rounds) along with various unguided bombs and rockets on 4 underwing pylons. There is also provision to fit a reconnaissance pod with cameras and an Infra Red line scanner.

A Yugoslav Air Force Soko G-4 Super Galeb at the 1991 Paris Air Show
A Yugoslav Air Force Soko G-4 Super Galeb displaying armament options at the 1991 Paris Air Show

J-22M Orao 2

50 new Soko J-22M Orao 2 (Eagle 2) attack and reconnaissance aircraft capable of operating from unprepared or damaged airfields were introduced in 1986 plus 8 converted from the earlier IJ-22 Orao 1 variant (the Orao 2 prototype first flew on October 20th,1983). The Orao 2 was an improved version of the Orao 1 (which was first developed in the 1970’s and introduced into service in 1978) with upgraded avionics including a new radar and a Thomson-CSF VE-120T HUD, extended wing leading-edge roots, increased fuel and weapons payload and afterburning licence-built Rolls Royce Viper Mk.633-41 engines.

Yugoslav Soko J-22M Orao 2 (Eagle 2)
Soko J-22M Orao 2 (Eagle 2)

The Orao 2 is armed with 2 x twin barrelled 23mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 cannons and features four underwing and one centreline hard points with the ability to drop laser guided bombs, fire air to surface missiles such as the Soviet designed/Yugoslav modified Zvezda Kh-23 Grom and US designed AGM-65 Maverick missiles along with carrying a reconnaissance pod fitted with cameras and Infra Red sensors.

12 new Soko NJ-22M Orao 2 two-seat trainer and reconnaissance variants were also introduced in 1986, plus 6 that were converted from the earlier INJ-22 Orao 1 variant. Orao 2 aircraft saw combat service in the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995) and over Kosovo in 1999. Both the single and two-seat variants vastly improved the capability of the original home-grown Orao 1 design and the Orao 2 remains in service with the Serbian Air Force today.

Soko NJ-22M Orao 2 two-seat trainer variant Yugoslavia
Soko NJ-22M Orao 2 two-seat trainer variant
Yugoslav Soko NJ-22M Orao 2 two-seat trainers
Yugoslav Soko NJ-22M Orao 2 two-seat trainers

The prototype Orao 2 (serial number 25101) made Yugoslavian aviation history when being flown by test pilot Marjan Jelen over Batajnica Air Base on November 22nd, 1984. Whilst in a shallow dive of 15 degrees the aircraft exceeded Mach 1.0 and broke the sound barrier. This was the first ever Yugoslav designed and manufactured aircraft to go supersonic! Alas it was only capable of this feat in a dive and remained a subsonic aircraft in level flight.

prototype Orao 2 (serial number 25101) went supersonic in a test flight dive in 1984
Prototype Orao 2 (serial number 25101) went supersonic in a test flight dive in 1984
Prototype Orao 2 (serial number 25101) went supersonic in a test flight dive in 1984
Prototype Orao 2 (serial number 25101) went supersonic in a test flight dive in 1984

Enter the Fulcrum

Yugoslavia was one of the first export customers for the Soviet era Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum multi-role fighter. The JRViPVO received 14 MiG-29B Fulcrum A (L-18 – with L being for “Lovac” or Hunter and 18 simply being the type designation. Export Soviet version) single seaters and two MiG-29UB Fulcrum B (NL-18) two-seat trainers from the Soviet Union in 1987 and 1988. The MiG-29’s provided a huge boost in capability and prestige for the JRViPVO as the first highly maneuverable and highly capable modern multi-role aircraft to enter Yugoslav service. As such they received a high priority posting and were operated by the 127th Fighter Aviation Squadron “Knights” at Batajnica Air Base near Belgrade in Serbia.

Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29B Fulcrum multi-role fighters
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29B Fulcrum A multi-role fighters
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29A/UB Fulcrum A/B multi-role fighters
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29B/UB Fulcrum A/B multi-role fighters
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29UB Fulcrum B two seat trainer 1989
Yugoslav Air Force MiG-29UB Fulcrum B two seat trainer 1989

Yugoslavia did not purchase that many MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters as it was more or less seen as a stop-gap measure while the Novi Avion fourth generation multi-role fighter was developed for service entry in the mid to late 1990’s (see below for more information on this fighter). Despite the small number in service, MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters saw combat service in the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995) and over Kosovo in 1999.

Novi Avion – Yugoslavia’s Proposed Fourth Generation Multi-Role Fighter

In the 1980’s Yugoslav military aviation planners recognized the need to continue to develop home-grown aircraft to not only strengthen Yugoslavia but also replace a large number of ageing and steadily obsolete Soviet and Yugoslav designed combat aircraft. They also would need to replace the stop-gap MiG-29’s that were purchased to provide a modern multi-role fighter capability until the home-grown development could enter Yugoslav Air Force service.

The proposed Novi Avion (“New Aircraft”) was a single-engine delta-canard fourth generation multi-role fighter that would have been built by Soko Aviation based in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was intended to be capable of a speed of Mach 1.8 and was possibly going to be powered by a licence built French Snecma M88 afterburning turbofan engine (as used in the Dassault Rafale).

1983 SOKO Novi Avion concept
1983 Novi Avion concept (Image Source: Global Security)

The Novi Avion would have been fitted with advanced digital flight controls, avionics, radar and weapons systems including a glass cockpit. Armament would have consisted of a 30mm cannon with wingtip hardpoints for most likely French Matra short-range air-to-air missiles and multiple underwing pylons for medium range air-to-air missiles and other guided/unguided ordnance for air-to-ground missions. No doubt a reconnaissance pod with cameras and Infra Red sensors could also have been fitted for reconnaissance missions.

The project was first commenced by the Belgrade based Vazduhoplovno Tehnicki Institut (VTI – Aeronautical Technical Institute) in the 1980’s and received some French technical assistance in regards to multi-mode radar and other advanced features but was cancelled in 1991 following the start of the break up of the former Yugoslavia, which lead to the 1991 to 1995 Yugoslav Wars. This ambitious aviation project met its demise at the hands of budget constraints, war and the resulting end of the Soko Aviation company (more on that in my next post).

Yugoslav Novi Avion cutaway schematic
Novi Avion cutaway schematic (Image Source: Global Security)

Although an all Yugoslav design, the 1983 concept drawing of the Novi Avion looked much like a delta-canard heavily influenced by the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. Later concept images looked more like a single engine Dassault Rafale.

Soko Novi Avion - A modern Yugoslav combat aircraft project cancelled in 1991
A later Soko Novi Avion concept image – A modern Yugoslav combat aircraft project cancelled in 1991
Another later Soko Novi Avion concept image
Another later Soko Novi Avion concept image

Expected to enter service in the mid to late 1990’s, the 150+ planned Novi Avion fighters would have replaced the MiG-21 Fishbed and eventually the MiG-29 Fulcrum in JRViPVO service and meant that Yugoslavia was no longer dependant on other nations for modern multi-role combat aircraft (this no doubt would have also opened up a new aircraft export stream too). Sadly a lost dream for Yugoslav aviation that would, in the long run, prove to be very costly for the capability and effectiveness of the Yugoslav Air Force.

The Yugoslav Wars

By the 1990’s Yugoslavia was in turmoil, the former Yugoslav republics were at war and slowly but surely the nation was torn apart kicking and screaming. In my next post I will discuss the role of the JRViPVO in the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995. These wars were the first steps to the eventual demise of the Yugoslav Air Force.

 

References:

Aeroflight (World Air Forces)

Aeroflight (Soko J-22 Orao)

Belgrade Aviation Museum

Global Security – Novi Avion

Wikipedia (Aeronautical Technical Institute)

Wikipedia (Soko J-22 Orao)

Wikipedia (Yugoslav Air Force)

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