The Homeland War, as the Croatian War of Independence is known locally, broke out in August 1990 around the Serb-dominated city of Knin, well before the official foundation of the Croatian AF in December 1991. In the beginning, the National Guard and subsequently the HRZ relied on all manner of general aviation and agricultural aircraft, including An-2s, Cessnas, Pipers and UTVAs acquired from local aero clubs.
Home-made bombs of all sizes were used during the first combat missions. The very first bombing raid took place on June 14,1991, when Cessna 172 YU-DMA from the Split Air Club delivered 60kg of home-made’dumb’ bombs.
Croatia received its first combat jets thanks to defections. The first MiG-21 defection actually took place at Klagenfurt in Austria, when Rudolf Perisin landed his MiG-21 R there. He later became the leader of the first Croatian MiG-21 squadron, and today’s Air Force Academy is also named in his honor. Perisin was shot down during Operation’Flash'(Operacija’Bljesak’) in 1995 while flying a MiG-21 bis.Three more MiG-21s defected to Croatia during the war, forming the initial nucleus of the jet fleet. It was June 1993 before the HRZ began to receive combat equipment in significant numbers. Despite the usual international arms embargo, Croatia was able to purchase a squadron of Mi-24D/V from a former Soviet state.
While fighting within Croatia ended in March 1994, it continued in Bosnia for another year until the Dayton Peace Agreement ended this bloody civil war. Meanwhile, the HRZ ended up with additional active aircraft. Further to the previous purchases, Croatia also captured some 11 aircraft in the process of re-taking Udbina airfield.
The Homeland War was followed by a time of consolidation, as Croatia took the path towards full NATO membership. As many aircraft had been obtained second-hand, these were handed back to their owners, including the surviving An-2s.The Mi-24s were withdrawn from service, while the UTVA-75s simply ran out of flying hours. Although a potent asset, the Mi-24 only saw limited action, while one example was converted to carry Mk46 torpedoes. All were retired in 2002, and although some were locally refurbished at the Zrakoplovni tehnički zavod (ZTZ) overhaul facility, efforts to sell them to Georgia were blocked by Russia.
After the war it was clear that modernizations and new purchases were required. Over the years, all training elements have been newly acquired, the current training fleet consisting of the Pilatus PC-9M, Bell 206B-3 and, most recently, the Zlin 242L.
In 2000 Croatia became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, followed by participation in several exercises. The Croatian AF has also participated in several dissimilar air combat training (DACT) exercises with the US Navy, USAFE and the Italian AF. A highlight was ‘Noble Midas’ in November 2007 when Croatia hosted a NATO exercise as a final test before membership began on April 1, 2009.
Since 1992, air policing and air defense duties have been tasked to MiG-21 bis and MiG-21 UM fighters of the Eskadrila borbenih aviona (EBA, or fighter squadron).These aircraft saw some adaptation at Romania’s Aerostar facility in 2003. The current pool of MiG-21 s comprises a total of eight MiG-21 bis and four MiG-21 UMs from Polish sources, which were sent to Romania for overhaul and modification in order to make them NATO compatible. These adaptations included NATO-standard navigation and communications systems as well as compatible IFF. After returning to Croatia, the experienced ZTZ overhaul facility had to correct some of the modifications in order to ensure that they functioned according to Croatian specifications.
ZTZ has a long tradition of overhauling and maintaining all Croatian AF aircraft. In Yugoslav days the facility was known as ZMAJ. Today it is a government-owned independent company that aims to attract contracts in addition to its deals with the Croatian Ministry of Defense (MORH).
A Croatian specialty is the direct transition from Pilatus PC-9M to the two-seat MiG-21 UMD. In 2001 the first group of six PC-9M flight instructors attended a special course for direct transition, based on the experiences of jet flying in the days of the Jugoslovenska narodna armija (JNA, Yugoslav People’s Army). In particular, pilots must familiarize themselves with the high landing speeds of the delta-winged MiG-21.
Armed with R-60 missiles, a two-ship Quick Reaction Alert is based at Zagreb-Pleso, while the remainder of the squadron is stationed at Pula in Istria. At Pula there are fewer restrictions regarding flight training all year round, although some limits apply during the summer tourist season.
Three MiG-21 s have been lost in peacetime, one during 1996 and two (108 and 120) as recently as September 23,2010. A subsequent investigation revealed that the MiG-21 pilots had not received adequate training for some time.
The HRZ MiG-21 bisD and UMD fleet is getting ever closer to retirement, but due to the economic situation any new aircraft purchase seems highly unlikely. For the desired single squadron of 12 (new or second-hand) aircraft, the Saab Gripen and Lockheed Martin F-16 have long been viewed as the front-runners. As is common in these competitions, some rather unlikely secondhand offers have also been made, including former Luftwaffe F-4F Phantom II-s, or Spanish AF Mirage F1s.
Whatever type is eventually selected, it will be a purely political decision. In the meantime, no jet fighters in the air will mean no pilots flying, skills being lost, and a talent drain as disgruntled pilots leave the HRZ.
For the time being the HRZ will soldier on as long as possible with the well-proven MiG-21. Their pilots can only hope that a replacement aircraft will follow in good time. source: combat aircraft monthly