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Serbian Air Force Since its Creation to the Present Day

Serbian Air Force Since its Creation to the Present Day

Since Serbia was first formed in the late VIII century it has always strived to be shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Europe. In the middle ages it dedicated a lot of money to maintain a heavily armoured cavalry, which was main fighting force of European kingdoms in that time. In XIX century the Serbian principality and Serbian revolutionaries saw the importance of artillery and thus looked to equip their forces with best cannons they could afford, and when at the dawn of XX century, as great powers started introducing aeroplanes in their armies, the Serbian Kingdom was quick to form an air force of its own.



Serbian air force was formed on 24th of December of 1912, putting Serbia in first 15 countries in the world to have an air force. The force was quite small, numbering just 8 French scouting planes and few observation balloons but for a small kingdom it was more than enough. Serbian pilots got their first chance to fly their aeroplanes in a military operation during the first Balkan war, on the 29th of March 1913 when they were given a task to scout the  Ottoman positions near the city of Skadar to help the Montenegrin forces to take the city. First Serbian pilot to lose his life was not killed by an enemy pilot, sergeant Petrović fell out of his plane when his aircraft suffered a malfunction, today military airport in Niš carries his name.



The first battle in the skies over Serbia came with the Great War. Even though Serbia possessed but a handful of planes, the small kingdom managed to take control over their sky for a short period of time because, with the help of the French, they mounted machineguns on top of scout planes, they were able to fire at Austro-Hungarian planes from a safe distance with high caliber automatic weapons, while Austrians were still resorting to using handguns.  Still Serbian air force suffered from the lack of equipment and vital infrastructure, along from large numerical disadvantage.



After the First World War it was clear to entire world that aircraft will be the ones to rule the battlefields of future, thus military command of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later named Yugoslavia) decided to create an air force that will be able to fight toe to toe with European powers. 



From 1918 to 1941 Yugoslav royal air force grew, expanded and improved. New airports were built alongside numerous supply centers. One great advancement in Yugoslav air force was creation of first pilot schools in the country. In those years number of aeroplanes increased significantly to 640 aircraft, including fighters, bombers and trainer aircraft. This was achieved due to the fact that Yugoslavia was buying aircraft from whoever was offering to sell them at the time, so at the start of the Second World War the Yugoslav air force had British, French and even German aeroplanes in its possession, It is important to mention that Yugoslavia was building its own aircraft as well, in fact most of the trainer aircraft Yugoslavia had were domestically produced. The best airplane Yugoslav engineering could produce was IK-3 (ИК-3) manifactured in „First Serbian aeroplan factory Rogozharski A.D.“ („Прва српска фабрика аероплана Рогожарски А.Д.“). Unfortunatelly,  the production of this aeroplan was cut short after just 6 pieces as Yugoslavia was caught up in WWII.



While the Yugoslavian army performed rather poorly in the April war (Axis invasion of Yugoslavia) its air force proved to be a thorn in the side for the Germans. On the very first day of the war after air force of Third Reich surprise bombed Belgrade, Yugoslav bomber fleet took off with the mission to bomb surrounding Axis countries. It is quite ironical that the squadron that bombed the railroad junction in Austrian city of Graz was composed of DO-17K bombers that Yugoslavia bought from Germany. 


Yugoslav fighters also achieved a decent success in defending the skies of their country by shooting down over 50 German planes in only 12 days that the war lasted. 


Even though Yugoslavia as a country fell its people were not so easily subdued by the new German overlords and numerous guerilla movements sprung up against the occupiers. The ones who proved to be most successful were the communist partisans. By 1944 the partisans were able to create a small air force stationed on islands in the Adriatic sea, aircraft used were either donated from USSR, UK and USA or were captured from German and Italian forces, they mostly conducted just scouting operations and postal service among dispersed pockets of partisan forces, the real bombing runs and air sweeping operations started once Belgrade was liberated by united Soviet and Yugoslav partisan forces and with it the Zemun airport.



As the war ended and the dust settled down it was time for the new communist government of Yugoslavia to rebuild a country, and one of the most important aspects of a country for the communists was a strong army. 


For the first few years after the war the Yugoslavian air force relied on airplanes donated from allied forces from WWII as industrial capabilities required for production of aeroplanes were destroyed during the war and would need years to rebuild. After the so called Tito-Stalin split, in which Yugoslavia distanced itself from the rest of eastern bloc, it could no longer expect help from communist countries in terms of military aid and so it turned to the western countries. In the years between 1948 and 1955 Yugoslavia received decent amounts of rather modern aircraft, among which were F-84 Thunderjet, T-33 Shooting star and F-86 Sabre. Yugoslavia was also one of the first countries in eastern Europe to have a helicopter squadron, thanks to early helicopter donations from the USA.



Yugoslavia also planned to start production of its own aeroplanes by early 50s and while numerous prototypes were created, such as “avion 451”, “zolja” and “matica”, small industrial capacity meant that they would not be able to manufacture them in large numbers. 



By 1955 however, USSR and Yugoslavia started improving relations opening new possibilities for armament purchasing.
Throughout the rest of the cold war Yugoslavia relied on Soviet Union for its fighter air force, reaching the  number of 261 MiG-21 fighters in various different versions and 16 MiG-29 aircraft by the end of the cold war. As for the training and bomber aircraft, Yugoslavia developed its industry enough to be capable of designing and manufacturing its own aircraft. Most successful of those domestically produced aeroplanes were trainer/bomber Galeb G-2 trainer bomber Galeb G-4 and the tactical bomber, created in cooperation with the Romanian Peoples Republic, Orao J-22.  The rebuilt and improved Yugoslavian economy was able to arm the air force with  118 Orao J-22 bombers, 85 Galeb G-4 Trainer bombers, 131 Galeb G-2 trainer arcraft and 169 J-21 Jastreb light bombers. Those were not only domestically produced aircraft in Yugoslav army as there were numerous models of light propeller training planes. All the jet planes were manufactured in “SOKO” factory in Mostar while propeller based ones were made in “UTVA” factory near Belgrade which is working and actively making aeroplanes to this day.



Yugoslavia also had a large helicopter force of over 100 large transport helicopters (mostly Mi-8 soviet made helicopters) and 178 Gazelle light scout helicopters that were domestically manufactured in cooperation with France and UK. Helicopters, just like jet planes were built in “SOKO” factory. Yugoslavia later developed its own attack helicopter named GAMA (standing for GAzelle MAlyutk) by attaching soviet malyutka anti armour rockets to the helicopter.



The golden age of Yugoslav air force came to an end when eastern bloc fell apart. Federal republics that formed Yugoslavia started declaring their independences and Yugoslav people’s army attempted to prevent the secessions. 


During the ten day war (war in Slovenia) air force was tasked to reconnoiter Slovenian territorial defense and in few occasions conduct bombing operations. Although Yugoslav air force stood unopposed in the short lasting conflict, army command gave an order to pull out of Slovenia and all operations halted.


In the meantime Croatia also declared its independence which was followed by new Republic of Serbian Krajina declare its own independence from Croatia. First losses for Yugoslavian air force came in the shape of Croatian pilots joining new Independent Croatia, taking with them numerous aircraft (mostly ,Mi-8-s and MiG-21-s). At the beginning of the war Yugoslavian air force was tasked with only flying above Croatian held areas in a show of force but soon their duties have been changed. Throughout 1991 and most of 1992 Yugoslavia conducted numerous bombing runs and close air support operations. One such operation was during the battle of Kupres. Yugoslavia also conducted some limited air sweeping missions whenever an aircraft would fly in the croatian airspace without permission. Such one instance was when Yugoslav pilot Emir Šišić, piloting MiG-21, shot down Bel UH-1 chopper of the European observation mission.


By the end of 1992 UN voted that Yugoslavian forces must leave Bosnia and Croatia, so in their retreat Yugoslavia left much of the equipment, including aircraft of all kinds, to the forces of Serbian Krajina and Rpublic of Srpska. Lather of which continued on with air operations even during the NATO led UN operation “Deny Flight”. One of the last air operations that air force of Republic of Srpska conducted was bombing of ammunition factory “Bratstvo”, while the factory was successfully bombed all 5 J-21 Jastreb aeroplanes were shot down by two American F-16-s on their way back to airport.

After years of embargo, economic and financial collapse Yugoslavia had major problems in maintaining its air force, which was by end of the decade but a mere shadow of what it once was. Falling on only 68 outdated MiG-21 and 14 MiG-29 aircraft with unserviceable equipment in its fighting air force. It will be those aeroplanes that will be engaged in dogfights against NATO aircraft in 1999. While the Yugoslav air defenses proved to be quite capable, the combat air force, with its inoperable equipment, in unfavorable conditions of total NATO air superiority, did not score a single air victory over the NATO. 



After the war of 1999 Yugoslav air force was in dire state, with most of the planes destroyed and the rest barely operable it required a lot of spending to be put back in shape. 


In the years between 2000 and 2012 little has been done to improve the state of air force. Yugoslavia fully collapsed and in 2006 Serbian Air force was formed again. 



However after 2012 a progress was made, 2 last remaining MiG-21 aircraft were slightly modernized and talks about repairing the 4 MiG-29 started. In 2014 Serbia purchased 2 Mi-17 transport helicopters from Russia. In next few years Serbia assembled a squadron of 14 fully modernized MiG-29 aircraft and is planning on buying 14 French Rafales while the remaining 2 MiG-21 were put out of service.


A bomber fleet of 16 close air support Orao J-22 is currently being modernized to match the standards of todays aeroplanes of the same type.
Serbia strengthened its helicopter forces in the last 10 years, the most significant improvement was purchasing of 4 Mi-35 Russian attack helicopters and six Eurocopter Airbus H145M

Serbian air force is also the only in the region that is operating attack drones. Serbia has 6 CH-92 Chinese made attack drones and has recently developed an attack drone of its own that is to come to serial production in early 2023.


Even though current geopolitical situation in the world makes military purchases increasingly hard there are plans and ambitions for future arming and equipping of the Serbian air force, mainly regarding of helicopter and transport fleets.