From April 1992 the Yugoslav Air Force officially became the Air Force of Serbia and Montenegro (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo Srbije i Crne Gore – RVSiCG) and was now the air force of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The RVSiCG roundel changed from the old red star in a blue circle, to a 3 bar blue, red and white roundel that reflected the colours of the nation’s flag.
The RVSiCG which for the sake of simplicity I will continue to refer to as the Yugoslav Air Force, 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. The bulk of the remaining aircraft then formed what is todays Serbian Air Force and Air Defence and reverted to the old Royal Yugoslav Air Force roundel (originally operated from 1918 to 1941).
As discussed in my previous post, the Yugoslav Wars of 1991 to 1995 had torn apart the former Yugoslavia, with most republics leaving the once proud nation under a cloud of heavy bloodshed. The Yugoslav Air Force was involved in all of these conflicts but had seen little air to air opposition. Soon they were to face the full brunt of NATO air power and the results were going to be felt for decades to come.
Kosovo War 1998 to 1999
In 1989 Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević removed Kosovar autonomy, something they had enjoyed for decades in the former Yugoslavia, and put the region under strict Serbian control. This action slowly but surely built up tension in Kosovo and when ethnic Kosovar Albanians sought independence, the Kosovo War (February 28th, 1998 to June 11th, 1999) saw a return to conflict within the former Yugoslavia, with the Kosovo Liberation Army fighting against Serbian forces. Serbia naturally struck back and it was again a bloody conflict.
The death toll mounted on all sides, particularly between March 1998 and March 1999. During the summer of 1998 250,000 Kosovar Albanians were reportedly forced from their homes as villages and crops were destroyed. By April 1999 over 380,000 refugees had fled Kosovo!
Such a humanitarian crisis resulted in NATO intervention and 78 days of NATO air strikes and cruise missile strikes upon Serbian targets in both Kosovo and Serbia from March 24th, 1999 to June 11th, 1999 under Operation Allied Force (air defences, air bases, ground forces and high value military targets such as the Serbian Army HQ in Belgrade which was more a show of force than a strategic target. It remains a bombed out shell today as a memorial of sorts against “NATO aggression”). Facilities were only hit if assessed to be making an effective contribution to the overall Yugoslav military effort (many targets were not subject to air strikes due to the high risk of civilian casualties – especially when military equipment was stored in a civilian area). A small number of air strikes were also conducted in Montenegro but this region was seen to have lesser strategic value and was not a key focus of NATO strategy.
Despite the precautions taken, not all NATO air strikes were accurate and approximately 500 civilians were sadly killed. Some political strife arose in May 1999 when the Chinese Embassy was hit in Belgrade, killing 3 Chinese journalists (halting the bombing campaign for 3 weeks) and an Albanian refugee convoy was struck by mistake killing 50 people. Both the US and NATO apologized for the applicable mistakes.
The NATO air campaign involved up to 1,045 aircraft flying over 38,000 combat sorties (including 10,484 strike sorties) out of bases in Italy and off aircraft carriers in the Adriatic Sea. There was no major ground threat to Serbia during the Kosovo War so they did not have to group large military forces into single locations and they dispersed their forces, used decoys and camouflage as best as possible to try to limit the effectiveness of the NATO air advantage (ultimately a relatively small number of tanks, armoured vehicles etc. were destroyed given the number of sorties conducted by NATO). Despite Serbia’s initial resilience, this air campaign lead to a Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo and the moving in of NATO peacekeepers in 1999 but unfortunately did not totally stop the bloodshed beforehand. Although air superiority was quickly established, Serbian ground based air defences were strong with many mobile sites which were difficult to locate and although hit hard by NATO, were always something NATO pilots had to be cautious of (see NATO losses below).
Yugoslav Air Force Losses
The Yugoslav Air Force was active during the Kosovo War but this time they were pitted against highly trained NATO pilots. The key to any success on a ground attack mission over Kosovo was to fly low and avoid NATO radar. The Serb pilots were brave, despite knowing they were outnumbered with the odds against them, they strived to defend their nations airspace and strike enemy targets (numerous pilots were awarded bravery medals during the war).
NATO destruction of Yugoslav jets in the air and on the ground was a major show of force during aggression in Kosovo. Airbases were taken out quickly and hit often to keep them inactive, especially poor old Batajnica Air Base near Belgrade which was hit numerous times.
Over 60 Yugoslav combat aircraft were lost mostly on the ground in NATO air raids in 1999 (plus numerous other aircraft types). These were predominately the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbed fighter (around 24 aircraft destroyed on the ground), Soko J-22 Orao 1/2 ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft (1 was lost on March 25th, 1999 in a likely accident during a combat mission over Kosovo and 11 more were destroyed on the ground mostly at Ponikve Airbase), Soko G-2 Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft (12 said to have been destroyed in a hangar fire by one NATO bomb at Golubovci Airbase), Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters (10 lost in air and ground incidents – see below) and Soko G-4 Super Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft (7 from the Leteće zvezde / Flying Stars air force aerobatic team were lost in the hangar bombing at Golubovci Airbase – see below).
The Yugoslav Air Force Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum was the most capable air to air threat to NATO aircraft. The Serbs knew they would be a high priority target, so in a bid to prevent all the MiG-29’s being hit on the ground, they built a wooden air force of MiG-29 decoys, jokingly dubbed the M-18 (the real MiG-29’s were designated L-18). Apparently the decoys were the idea of Serbian aviation enthusiasts rather than the Air Force. They were deployed in locations such as Batajnica Air Base and moved regularly to make them look active (also featuring metal panels to create a realistic radar image and they burned tubs of kerosene under them to look like engine exhaust fumes) and it is said that nearly 80% of the decoys were hit by NATO bombs, so they obviously worked in distracting attention from the real thing! An example of the decoys can be found at the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum today.
Despite the best efforts of the decoy makers they could not save all the MiG’s. Within the first 3 days of the Kosovo air campaign 5 MiG-29’s scrambled to intercept incoming NATO aircraft were shot down by NATO fighters: 3 by USAF F-15 Eagles, 1 by a USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon and 1 by a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 (pilot Peter Tankink hit the MiG-29 with an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile for the first RNLAF air to air victory since World War Two). A sixth MiG-29 was said to have been shot down by friendly fire, another was badly damaged in air combat but landed safely and 4 were destroyed on the ground by NATO air strikes (including one MiG-29UB trainer).
This decimation left just 5 MiG-29B’s and 1 MiG-29UB from the original fleet of 16 MiG-29B/UB’s and saw the end of them flying missions over Kosovo. Ongoing Budget restraints from the long Yugoslav Wars and the resulting political isolation and economic sanctions had led to serviceability issues and low flight hours of MiG-29 pilots, which obviously would not have helped in the ensuing combat.
Each MiG-29 is said to have experienced technical issues with radar, weapons and navigational systems during the Kosovo War, which highly limited their effectiveness against a better trained and equipped foe (an arms embargo on Serbia meant they needed to soldier on but they have since been upgraded in Russia and most still fly in Serbia today)! The Serb pilots would have been well aware of these issues before they flew in to combat. You cannot question their courage in such a situation!
Soko J-22 Orao attack aircraft and Soko G-4 Super Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft flew 20 – 30 combat missions at low-level (tree top height apparently!) over Kosovo attacking KLA targets. 1 Orao was lost on such a mission on March 25th, 1999 in what is reported to likely have been a flight accident rather than being shot down by ground fire.
It wasn’t all one-sided during the Kosovo War and some NATO aircraft were shot down by Serbian air defences (not in air to air combat though). Most famously a USAF Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk “Stealth Fighter” in March 1999 and a USAF General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon in May 1999 were shot down during air raids over Serbia.
A small number of other NATO aircraft were reported as damaged by the extensive Serbian ground based air defences but this was relatively minimal given the number of sorties flown (this is said to have included another F-117A Nighthawk and 2 Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II close support aircraft. I would assume the number of unreported damaged aircraft from AA gun fire is much higher though). 815 Serbian Surface to Air Missiles were fired at NATO aircraft with many being radar guided SA-3 and SA-6 missiles that had to be launched unguided to avoid NATO HARM missile strikes upon the launch site/vehicle guidance radar (hence their effectiveness was severely hampered but mobile SAM’s were still very hard to target and hit)!
On March 27th, 1999, just 4 nights into the NATO air campaign, the F-117A (serial number 82-0806) was hit by a Surface to Air missile fired by the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Missile Brigade, equipped with the S-125 Neva-M (SA-3 Goa) missile system. Despite an intense search by Serbian forces, USAF pilot Lt. Col. Dale Zelko evaded capture and was rescued by a USAF combat rescue team helicopter the following morning.
How did the Serbs do the unthinkable and hit a stealthy, low-observable, radar absorbent aircraft with a radar guided missile? The approximate area of operation for the F-117A aircraft was known to the Serbs and apparently in the applicable area they tweaked their Soviet era radars using long wavelengths to detect things like a bomb bay door opening (there was no stealth profile during this stage). They took a risk turning on the radars (risking NATO anti-radar missile attack) and this technology, with a bit of luck, brought the Nighthawk down!
On May 1st, 1999 the General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon (serial number 88-0550) was flown by pilot Lt. Col David Goldfein, the commander of the USAF 555th Fighter Squadron. It was hit by a SAM and lost its engine. Ejecting down onto a field at 2:20am he headed away from the area, found a suitable clearing and called in a NATO air combat rescue helicopter. The rescue was completed 2 hours after he ejected from the F-16. The helicopter sustained 5 bullet holes in his rescue!
At least 21 NATO Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) were also shot down during the Kosovo conflict (I gather mostly from AA gun fire). Remnants of the shot down USAF F-117A and F-16C aircraft along with a Predator UAV and NATO weaponry are today displayed at the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum and further components of the F-117 can be found at the Belgrade Military Museum.
Please note I am well aware that Serbian claims exist for much higher numbers of NATO aircraft being shot down (60-100+) but ultimately NATO air superiority was quickly established, air defence radars were supressed and although anti-aircraft gun fire may have been heavy, its effectiveness against fast jets has not been widely reported. There is no hard evidence to support such claims of aircraft losses and much can be attributed to wartime propaganda and hearsay (what are the applicable aircraft serial numbers? What happened to the downed pilots? Why were there no rescue helicopters shot down recovering pilots?).
I also realise that NATO and the USAF would have understated the number of aircraft damaged but hiding from the public the downing and loss of so many pilots and aircrew, captured, killed or rescued, is just not realistically feasible. If these claims were accurate, Serbian military museums would display much of this wreckage, instead they only have pieces of the shot down USAF F-117A and F-16C. Claims such as the loss of a Northrop B-2 Spirit “Stealth Bomber” during combat are unfounded, as 21 were manufactured, 1 was lost in an accident in Guam in 2008 and 20 still remain in USAF service. I am not being pro either side but simply relaying what I can ascertain from information publicly available and from what I have seen visiting various museums in Serbia.
Leteće zvezde (Flying Stars)
The Leteće zvezde (Flying Stars) official Yugoslav Air Force aerobatic team was established in 1985 and operated until 2000. In 1985 they were formed flying 7 specially painted red, white, blue and yellow Soko J-21 Jastreb ground attack aircraft. The J-21’s were disarmed and modified specifically to perform aerobatics.
The J-21’s were replaced in 1990 by the newer Soko G-4 Super Galeb two-seat trainer. The Super Galeb aircraft were painted in a new red, white and blue livery. The team was grounded in 1991 due to the start of the Yugoslav Wars and the aircraft returned to being used as advanced air force trainers for the duration of the major conflicts across the former Yugoslavia.
Reformed in 1996, Leteće zvezde made numerous domestic appearances and even some international ones but in 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign of Serbia all 7 Super Galeb aircraft were destroyed on the ground at Golubovci Airbase in Montenegro when a NATO laser guided bomb hit the entrance to the underground hangar starting a fire within the hangar. Some further Leteće zvezde team appearances were conducted in regularly camouflage painted G-4 Super Galeb aircraft, before budget constraints and limited aircraft availability forced the team to disband in 2000. Following disbandment some of the Flying Stars pilots served as test pilots at the Flight Test Center – VOC and performed solo aerobatic displays in a Super Galeb at domestic and international air shows.
The Serbian Air Force Today
The Yugoslav Wars effectively ended the Yugoslav Air Force and saw the start of the Serbian Air Force and Air Defence (as of 2006) which was by 1999 and still today, a much weaker air arm in regards to the number of aircraft and a modern air defence capability. Combat losses, the Florence Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control, budget constraints and serviceability issues have resulted in a much smaller air force compared to the glory days of the former Yugoslavia and one that is rapidly becoming obsolete. As of 2016 in regards to combat aircraft they operate only 4 MiG-29B plus 1 MiG-29UB Fulcrum two-seater (with the 204th Air Brigade, 101st Squadron based at Batajnica Airbase – numbers in service as listed on the Serbian Armed Forces official website) and a small number of MiG-21UM Mongol B two-seat trainers (around 10 which are armed with R-60 / AA-8 Aphid air to air missiles), with around 33 Soko J-22 Orao 2 attack aircraft (16 J-22, 7 NJ-22, 8-IJ-22 and 2-INJ-22 – numbers in service as listed on the Serbian Armed Forces official website) and 23 Soko G-4 Super Galeb trainers. These aircraft fly out of 3 main airbases at Batajnica, Lađevci, and Niš.
Apparently both western and Russian aircraft have been considered to modernize the Serbian Air Force but orders have never been placed and for now they are just looking to upgrade the remaining Soko G-4 Super Galeb fleet (a potential order of 6 advanced MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum E fighters/two-seat trainers from Russia was discussed by Serbia in 2013 but this was abandoned in 2014). It will be interesting to see what Serbia does to modernize their future air force (most likely they will turn to their old ally Russia) but for now they must soldier on with their Cold War era aircraft.