In the decades following World War Two, the socialist state of Yugoslavia became a seemingly wonderful, vibrant place with diverse cultures and strong leadership under Josip Broz Tito. In reality as the decades rolled on, the nations republics experienced economic, political, nationalist and ideological problems that worsened in the 1980’s. The 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics highlighted the beauty of the country but all was not as it seemed.
Independence Rumblings in Yugoslavia
The former Yugoslavia was made up of 6 socialist republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Serbia controlled the seat of Yugoslav political power in Belgrade and also contained two autonomous socialist provinces in Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Although a Serbian population lived across Yugoslavia, each republic was ethnically and religiously diverse (i.e. Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks etc.) and cultural differences were abound. By the late 1980’s through to the early 1990’s each republic began to see a rise in nationalism from their different ethnic majorities, that was not necessarily the same vision as that of Serbia.
When the iconic and revered communist Yugoslav leader (described as a benevolent dictator!), Josip Broz Tito (May 7th, 1892 – May 4th, 1980) was alive he had the wide support of the people and most definitely the Yugoslav army (JNA). Tito seemed to keep the 6 socialist republics unified together with his personality and steely determination (he was the Yugoslav partisan leader from 1941-1945 and lead the country from 1944 until his death in 1980).
After Tito’s death, slowly but surely 5 of the 6 Yugoslav republics did not want Serbia to dominate their politics and economy and wanted independence. Other parts of eastern Europe were experiencing the same sort of changes which lead to the downfall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. Yugoslavia was headed the same way.
The Yugoslav Wars 1991 to 1995
Soon enough war broke out in Yugoslavia as the Belgrade communist government tried to hold the nation together. What followed was years of fighting and heavy bloodshed to seek independence. The lines of who was right, who was wrong became very blurred during this bleak period of Yugoslav history. The primary conflicts were as follows:
War in Slovenia (June 27th, 1991 to July 7th, 1991):
Known as the 10 Day War or the Slovenian Independence War it saw a brief conflict following the Slovenian declaration of independence on June 25th, 1991. The Yugoslav Army (JNA) started to seize border crossings under extreme protest from local Slovenians and eventually the Slovenian Territorial Defence Force started to strike back at the Yugoslav Army units. Yugoslavian air strikes commenced but the momentum was with Slovenia who ultimately won when a ceasefire was agreed and Yugoslav forces withdrew from the conflict (despite the Slovenians being outnumbered by the Yugoslav Army their swift actions, along with international pressure and the fact that the republic did not have a significant Serbian population lead to the back down). This was the beginning of further wars within the former Yugoslavia.
Croatian War of Independence (March 31st, 1991 to November 12th, 1995):
Also known as the Homeland War, this conflict was fought by the defence forces of the Croatian government initially against the Yugoslav Army (JNA) until 1992 and local Serbian forces formed as the self declared Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) until 1995. With a large Serb population this was a bloody and long war that saw cities put under Serbian siege and atrocities committed by both sides.
A United Nations ceasefire was arranged in 1992 and the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was the first UN Peacekeeping Force in Croatia. It was formed in February 1992 and remained until March 1995. They were there to ensure conditions for peace talks and security in three demilitarized “safe-haven” enclaves could be established plus establish some border controls and control a demilitarized zone near Dubrovnik.
Despite the ceasefire agreement, sporadic fighting continued and another ceasefire was brokered in 1994. Eventually Croatia ignored the ceasefire and an arms embargo to rearm via smugglers and arms dealers. They went on to conduct two major offenses, Operation Flash (May 1st-3rd,1995) and Operation Storm (August 4th-7th, 1995) to regain lost territory and defeat the Republic of Serbian Krajina (Bosnia-Herzegovina was also able to reclaim its western region during this battle). Serbia did not step in to directly aid their allies and by the summer of 1995 Serbian Krajina ceased to exist.
Bosnian War (April 6th, 1992 to December 14th, 1995):
A brutal conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina that saw Bosniaks pitted against both Croatian forces and Serbian Forces. The Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia existed from 1991 to 1994 and was initially an ally of the Bosniaks until 1993, when they turned on them (this remains a very sore point in Mostar even today i.e. signs can be seen with “Don’t Forget ’93”!). Serbian forces were predominately from the independent state of Republika Srpska which was declared within northern Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 9th, 1992 as they associated themselves as Serbian not Bosniak (their capital became Banja Luka) and the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK). Serbian paramilitary forces also were involved in the conflict.
The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) entered Bosnia-Herzegovina in June 1992 but they were not there as a peacekeeping force, they were there to stop the killing of civilians until the war ended. They protected what was left of the Sarajevo airport and provided security for humanitarian aid convoys to and from the city and airport. From September 1992 they also provided security for aid convoys to other parts of the country. In April 1993 they were tasked with the protection of safe areas (including the infamous Srebrenica) and monitored the weapons free zones as designated in the US brokered February 1994 cease fire.
Despite the UN presence, the Bosnian War was a bloody one, with sieges and heavy destruction of Mostar (April 1992 to December 1993) and Sarajevo (April 1992 to February 1996 – even after the war officially ended in December 1995! Killing over 11,000 people). In February 1994 NATO were authorised to conduct air strikes on Serbian artillery and mortar positions in or around Sarajevo at UNPROFOR request.
NATO commenced Operation Deny Flight on April 12th, 1993 to create a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina to attempt to stop Serbian air attacks particularly on civilian population centres. The operation ended on December 20th, 1995 with NATO pilots having flown 100,420 sorties including air strikes to support UN forces during the conflict. Despite this the local Serbian forces seemed to have still conducted many obviously low-level air missions to try and keep below NATO radar.
Even worse, acts of war crimes such as ethnic cleansing (starting in 1992) and genocide in Srebrenica (1995) were part of this terrible Bosnian War. On July 12th, 1995 the UNPROFOR was not able to reinforce the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica and thus failed to deter Bosnian Serb forces who attacked and overrun the town. They went on to sadly kill more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians, mostly men and boys who lived in that area.
NATO also conducted Operation Deliberate Force over Bosnia and Herzegovina from August 30th, 1995 to September 20th, 1995. This was an air campaign in conjunction with UN ground forces to damage the capability of the Bosnian Serb ground forces that were threatening to attack UN “safe areas”. Srebrenica was a major trigger for this action. Deliberate Force involved 400 aircraft and 5,000 personnel from 15 nations. They hit 338 Bosnian Serb targets and dropped over 1,000 mostly laser guided bombs during the campaign.
A peace deal between Bosniak, Croat and Serbian representatives, witnessed by the United States, Russia, France, UK, Germany and the European Union was brokered in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 to end the Bosnian War (the Dayton Agreement was drafted in November 1995 and formally signed in Paris on December 14th, 1995). On December 20th, 1995 the NATO led Implementation Force (IFOR) took over from UN forces and were tasked with implementing the Dayton Agreement peace deal.
Macedonia and Montenegro:
On September 8th, 1991 Macedonia peacefully became independent of the former Yugoslavia and was not involved in the Yugoslav Wars (they made some small changes to their border with Yugoslavia to avoid issues). As was the way in the Balkans though, they were involved in a short conflict between February and August 2001 with ethnic Albanian insurgents that were seeking an independent state within parts of Macedonia following the Kosovo conflict. This was settled with the aid of NATO intervention via a ceasefire monitoring force.
Montenegro remained with Serbia as part of the former Yugoslavia (became the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and fought alongside them during the regional conflicts. Montenegro remained in this partnership until they voted to peacefully secede in 2006.
The international community accused Serbia of supporting Serbian rebels in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia was suspended from most international organisations and had international political, economic and military sanctions imposed upon the nation. Economic woes soon followed but Serbia remained the main source of funding, equipment, ammunition and assistance in military planning for forces such as those from the Republika Srpska until 1995.
Serbian and Yugoslav Leadership during the Yugoslav Wars
During this time of turmoil Serbian Slobodan Milošević (August 20th, 1941 – March 11th, 2006) was the President of Serbia from 1989 to 1997 (a republic then within Yugoslavia) and the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000. He was instrumental in much of the turmoil and fighting within the former Yugoslavia. Milošević was tried in absentia by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1999 for war crimes instigated by Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.
Milošević retained power until overwhelming demonstrations forced him to resign from the Presidency in 2000 (following the disputed September 24th, 2000 elections) and he was arrested by Federal Yugoslav authorities on March 31st, 2001 on the suspicion of corruption and embezzlement. These charges lacked evidence and he was handed over to the ICTY to face the war crimes charges instead.
Milošević declared the tribunal illegal as it was not established by the UN General Assembly and went on to defend himself during the 5 year legal trial which ended without a verdict when he passed away from a heart attack during imprisonment at The Hague in 2006. In 2007 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Milošević and Serbia were not directly involved in the genocide committed by Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian War but ruled that he and others in Serbian command failed to prevent the genocide from occurring and did not cooperate with the ICTY to punish those that did commit the action of genocide.
Yugoslav Air Force in the Yugoslav Wars
Naturally the Yugoslav Air Force (JRViPVO) had aircraft based across the former Yugoslavian republics. With the outbreak of these newly declared nations leaving Yugoslavia, most of the aircraft based in these countries were flown back to Serbia and Montenegro, which remained as Yugoslavia (as it was in 1991) and operated them from home soil during the wars. Other aircraft were allocated to the local Serbian forces of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia (see below for more information).
When talking about the Yugoslav Air Force, things get messy during the split of Yugoslavia resulting from the 1991 to 1995 Yugoslav Wars as it basically ceased to exist as that nation’s air force in early 1992. For the sake of completion of the discussion, I will continue to give an overview of the air combat which was predominately backed by Serbia who attempted to keep Yugoslavia together by force and operated as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Given that the key combat aircraft were in the hands of the Yugoslav Air Force (and their local Serbian allies) and later NATO enforced no-fly zones, there was very little air to air combat between the forces of the former Yugoslavian republics during the Yugoslav Wars.
In 1991 the Yugoslav Air Force (JRViPVO) began launching air strikes in Slovenia on TV transmitters and Slovenian Territorial Defence Force positions. Upon the ceasefire in July 1991 the aircraft were withdrawn from the conflict with no loss of combat jet aircraft (6 helicopters were lost). As war broke out in Croatia in 1991 the Yugoslav Air Force was soon launching air strikes against Croat targets. Hostilities continued in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.
The JRViPVO officially disbanded in April 1992 and surviving aircraft became part of various national air forces within the former Yugoslavia. The bulk of the aircraft formed the new Air Force of Serbia and Montenegro (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo Srbije i Crne Gore – RVSiCG) which was now the Air Force of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and operated approximately 300 aircraft with 16,000 personnel from April 27th, 1992 to June 3rd, 2006 when Montenegro voted to secede from the former Yugoslavia (Serbia then reverted to the old Royal Yugoslav Air Force roundel). The bulk of the remaining aircraft then formed what is todays Serbian Air Force and Air Defence.
MiG-21’s in Combat
The Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 was primarily operated by the Yugoslav Air Force in the ground attack role during the Yugoslav Wars. 7 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. One air to air incident ended in much controversy when a Yugoslav MiG-21 shot down a 1992 European Community Monitor Mission helicopter on January 7th, 1992, killing 4 Italian and 1 French military personnel). The MiG-21 pilot, Emir Šišić was sentenced to imprisonment by a Croatian court but he had fled and was not arrested until 2001 in Hungary. He was taken to Italy and sentenced to 15 years jail. In 2006 he was sent to Serbia to complete the sentence but was released in 2008. Serbia was ordered to pay monetary compensation to the victims families.
Croatian Air Force MiG-21’s
Croatia first operated 3 Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21bis fighters during the Croatian War of Independence (2 were later shot down). The aircraft had been flown into the country in 1992 by defecting Yugoslav Air Force pilots of Croatian descent who helped form the Croatian Air Force which was established on December 12th, 1991. In 1993 Croatia purchased up to 40 more MiG-21bis/UM’s from various sources to counter those operated by the Yugoslav Air Force. This purchase contravened an arms embargo (half those purchased by Croatia were used for spares and at least 1 was lost in combat operations).
One interesting defection by a Yugoslav Air Force MiG-21 pilot of Croatian descent was made into Austria on October 25th, 1991 by Rudolf Perešin (March 25th, 1958 – May 2nd, 1995 and a 10 year Yugoslav Air Force pilot). Perešin became the first Croatian pilot to defect and it is said his actions were a great morale boost to Croatian forces (he declared he could not fire against his native Croatia). He had apparently secreted his family to safety a few weeks before, then whilst on a reconnaissance flight in a Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21R Fishbed H, diverted course and flew to Klagenfurt, Austria from Željava Air Base (near the border of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Rudolf Perešin then headed back to Croatia and flew on their side until sadly killed in action when shot down by Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) ground fire on May 2nd, 1995 during Operation Flash. His body was not recovered until 1997 and Perešin was buried with full military honours on September 15th, 1997 in Zagreb. The Croatian Air Force Flying School in Zadar is named in his honour.
The MiG-21R (number 26112) flown by Perešin into Austria was retained and is today displayed in its original Yugoslav markings at the Austrian Air Force Museum in Zeltweg, where I saw it in October 2015. Apparently the airframe is still a cause of international dispute over ownership between Serbia and Croatia!.
Croatian MiG-21bis fighters were used for ground attack missions during the decisive 1995 Operations Flash and Storm which sealed Croatian victory in the Croatian War of Independence (only 1 MiG-21 was lost during Operation Flash which was flown by Rudolf Perešin). They operated in conjunction with 12 Mil Mi-24V Hind helicopter gunships that were delivered from the Ukraine in 1993. Air to air combat seems to have been scarce for Croatian pilots with the only known incident occurring on August 7th, 1995 when 2 Croatian MiG-21’s intercepted Republika Srpska Air Force Soko J-22 Orao attack aircraft but following some maneuvering both sides ended up disengaging without firing.
12 Croatian MiG-21’s were upgraded in 2003 to the MiG-21bisD (8) and MiG-21UMD (4) standard with new navigation and communication systems to be interoperable with NATO aircraft and were updated again in 2014 (7 Croatian air frames plus 5 from the Ukrainian company completing the upgrade). The 2014 upgraded aircraft are scheduled to remain in service until 2020.
MiG-29 in Combat
The then relatively new Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29’s were used for Combat Air Patrols by the Yugoslav Air Force along the Austrian and Hungarian borders during the War in Slovenia in 1991 but saw no combat. They assumed a limited ground attack role in the first years of fighting in Croatia during 1991-1992 and were used to strike targets in Croatia in 1991 including airfields (destroying some Antonov An-2 Colt light transports) and the seat of the Croatian government at the Banski dvori building in Zagreb.
Yugoslav MiG-29’s were also used to strike Bosniak targets during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. No MiG-29 aircraft were lost during this 1991 to 1995 period but an arms embargo, budget constraints and limited spares meant by 1996 serviceability became a problem for the MiG-29’s. Later in Kosovo the MiG-29’s did not fare well in air combat against highly skilled NATO pilots flying better maintained aircraft (see below).
Soko Orao in Combat
The home-grown Soko Orao 1/2 aircraft were used in combat during the Yugoslav Wars for ground attack and reconnaissance missions over Slovenia (they flew over as a show of force but apparently did not drop any ordnance), Croatia (used to strike Croat targets in 1991 and also to hit arms smugglers bringing weapons into Croatia) and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Five were lost between 1991 and 1995 (3 in 1991). At the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992, Yugoslavia gave 8 Soko J-22 Orao attack aircraft to the Republika Srpska Air Force in 1992 who flew them on many sorties over Bosnia and Herzegovina (1 of these was lost in combat).
Soko Super Galeb in Combat
The home-grown Soko G-4 Super Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft were also used in ground attack missions during at least the early stages of the Yugoslav Wars. Yugoslav Air Force examples were seen over Croatia in 1991, where 3 are said to have been shot down with the pilots all ejecting safely.
One Yugoslav Super Galeb (YAF serial 23733) in particular highlighted the toughness of this little jet when on September 24th, 1991 it was struck in the tail by a Stinger man portable surface to air missile launched by the Croatian paramilitary whilst flying at 720 km/h at an altitude of 2,100 km. Pilot Sub Lieutenant Branislav Ivanovski managed to make it to Udbine Airport where its entire rear section was replaced so it could be returned to service. That particular damaged tail section resides today in the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum in Serbia.
Republika Srpska Air Force
The independent state of Republika Srpska was declared within northern Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 9th, 1992. Much of the JRViPVO equipment in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia was given to the new Republika Srpska Air Force which was officially formed on May 27th, 1992 (with local air force personnel and territorial defence personnel) to protect the local Serbian population. They actually made 16 combat sorties that same day mostly over Bosnia. The official title was The Air Force and Air Defense of Republika Srpska (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo i Protivvazdusna Odbrana Vojske Republike Srpske – RViPVOVRS).
On the combat aircraft front the Republika Srpska Air Force operated Soko J-21 Jastreb light attack aircraft, Soko IJ-21 Jastreb reconnaissance aircraft and Soko J-22/IJ-22 Orao 1 attack and reconnaissance aircraft allocated from the JRViPVO during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). They also operated 3 Soko NJ-21 Jastreb two-seat trainers and a Soko G-4 Super Galeb for advanced pilot training.
During the Bosnian War the Republika Srpska Air Force lost 6 J-21’s. The most notable J-21 losses occurred on February 28th, 1994 in what became known as the Banja Luka incident , when 6 of them with 2 J-22 Orao attack aircraft violated the NATO no-fly zone during Operation Deny Flight to bomb a factory target. The Serbs attempted to evade and escape at extremely low altitude but 4 J-21’s were shot down by NATO USAF F-16C fighters and an additional J-21 was lost in a flight accident rather than combat during this incident (the USAF credited 3 air to air victories to Captain Robert Gordon “Wilbur” Wright and 1 to Captain Stephen L. “Yogi” Allen). Additional losses during the Bosnian War included 5 Orao aircraft (3 lost on combat and 2 in accidents) and 7 helicopters.
Despite Deny Flight, the Republika Srpska Air Force seems to have managed to conduct many obviously low-level combat sorties during this war period (this may have been facilitated by aircraft flying in from Serbian territory in Croatia where the no fly zone was not in initially in place, but was later authorised by the UN in November 1994 – see Republic of Serbian Krajina below). The Commander of the RViPVOVRS, General-Major Marinko Siljegovic reported that the air force had completed 17,316 sorties in total during the conflict, with 3,179 of them being medical evacuation flights. They even flew aircraft to Serbia to be repaired and replaced!
At the start of the Bosnian War they had at around 67 aircraft of all types including light aviation, plus helicopters. By 1996 they had around 42 aircraft (plus helicopters) which had been reduced from combat losses, attrition, accidents, budget constraints etc. (for example the last two-seat Orao in service was lost in a training accident in 1997 and 4 J-21’s were disarmed and put out of service as per the post war negotiated Florence Agreement for arms reduction in 1996 – see below). Aircraft numbers had been significantly reduced again by the time they merged with the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2005 to around 26 aircraft (including 7 J-22 Orao’s, 4 J-21 Jastreb’s, 1 IJ-21 Jastreb, 3 NJ-21 Jastreb’s, 1 G-4 Super Galeb, 2 UTVA 75 light aircraft plus other light aircraft) along with 33 helicopters (22 Aerospatiale SA-342 Gazelle/Paritzan and 11 Mil Mi-8 Hip).
Republic of Serbian Krajina
The Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) is said to have operated a small number of combat aircraft during their involvement in the fighting within Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 before the RSK ceased to exist in 1995. The aircraft on hand included 12 former Yugoslav Air Force Soko J-21 Jastreb light attack aircraft and at least 2 Soko G-2 Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft (along with other light aircraft and helicopters) operating from the former Yugoslav Air Force Udbina military airport in Croatia and were used to attack Croat and Bosniak targets. The aircraft were flown by with the 105th Aviation Brigade and the combat squadron was called the “Cobras” (“Kobre”).
The RSK aircraft appear to have operated as part of the Republika Srpska Air Force though, as they wore the same markings and flying out of Croatia where NATO was not initially authorised to fly (later rectified by UN Security Council Resolution 958 in November 1994), they could come in as low as 200 feet to hit targets in Bosnia and Herzegovina such as the besieged town of Bihać (where bombs and napalm were dropped) and get back to base before being intercepted over Bosnia. Not much in the way of combat information seems to be available on missions by RSK aircraft but during the Croatian Operation Storm offensive in August 1995 they were withdrawn to Banja Luka in Republika Srpska and following RSK defeat the 105th Aviation Brigade was disbanded.
The Demise of Soko Aviation
The Soko Aviation company founded in 1950 was located in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina where it had its main aircraft factory. Soko was the combat aircraft manufacturer of Yugoslavia and a source of great aviation pride. The bloody and destructive Bosnian War, a lack of funding and an international arms embargo unfortunately put paid to future production and development of aircraft by the company in this location. By the early 1990’s the aircraft factory was closed and partly dismantled with some of the facilities and equipment being transferred to the Utva Aircraft Industry company in Serbia (they had previously worked with Soko in building their training jets).
Florence Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control
In 1996 with the cessation of hostilities the former Yugoslavian republics agreed to the Florence Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control. On June 14th, 1996 the associated nations signed an arms limitation agreement to reduce, monitor and control the size of their military assets to help prevent future hostilities. Dozens of Soko G-2 Galeb, J-21 Jastreb and J-22 Orao 1 aircraft operated by Serbia and other aircraft operated by the Republika Srpska Air Force were taken out of service following this agreement.
Peace didn’t last long in the former Yugoslavia though. By 1998 war rumblings commenced again in the province of Kosovo and for the Yugoslav Air Force the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999 was one that would cost them dearly for years to come. More on this conflict in my next post.