The Macedonian Air Force - A New Dawn by Erik Roelofs and Paul van den Hurk
The Republic of Macedonia is one of the youngest republics in Europe. Following a referendum in September, Macedonia declared itself an independent and sovereign state in November 1991. The last units of the Yugoslavian Federal Army, the JNA, had withdrawn from Macedonian soil by April 1992, leaving the newly formed Macedonian Army and Air Force empty handed.
Petrovec Air Force Base, just outside of the capital Skopje, became the new home of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defense Forces. The four Utva-75 and sole Utva-66 light propeller aircraft now filled the platforms from where numerous Yugoslavian Air Force J-21 Jastreb and J-22 Orao jetfighters had operated only months before. Leased from the Macedonian Aeronautical, this handful of trainer aircraft formed a very modest beginning of the new Macedonian Air Force. The very first official flight of a Macedonian Air Force Utva-75 took place on the 10th June 1992. This day is now celebrated as a national holiday.
The United Nations Security Council, deeply concerned by heavy fighting in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, unanimously adopted resolution 713, an immediate embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia. Issued on 25 September 1991, this embargo made it impossible for the newly formed Macedonian Air Force and Air Defense Forces to purchase the badly needed equipment on the open market.
In June 1994, the Macedonian Air Force acquired four Mi-17 Hip helicopters from the Ukraine. Because of the arms embargo, the Hip helicopters received civilian registration and all-white paint schemes. By the end of 1995, the United National Security council lifted the arms embargo, by means of resolution 1021. This allowed the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defense Forces to assign military serial numbers to their small fleet of Mi-17 helicopters and all helicopters received a camouflage paint scheme.
With the arms embargo lifted, the Macedonian government could now directly acquire new military aircraft and equipment and did so by the purchase of four Zlin 242L trainer aircraft. Build in the Czech Republic, these light propeller aircraft allowed the newly formed Military Academy to train the first class of Macedonian Air Force pilots. The modern Zlin aircraft replaced the old Utva-66 and Utva-75 trainers.
Unlike other Yugoslavian Republics, the independence of Macedonia did not result in immediate bloodshed. But Macedonia would not be free of violence. During the Kosovo crises, many Kosovo Albanians fled to Macedonia, to escape the Serbian Army and fleeing for the NATO air strikes. This increased the already existing tension between the Albanian minority and the Macedonian majority in the young republic.
In late 2000 the NLA, National Liberation Army, started her assault on Macedonian security forces and police posts. The NLA, affiliated with the Kosovo Liberation Army or UCK, used similar strategies as the UCK had successfully used in Kosovo, attacking and occupying one town after another.
The surge of violence and the increasing pace of attacks could not be countered by the Macedonian Air Force. Under equipped but not under staffed, the Macedonian Air Force was in urgent need of close air support (CAS) and transport capability. Fortunately, the desperately needed aircraft were quickly delivered through the Ukraine. On 24th March 2001, two Mi-24V Hind and four Mi-8MT Hip helicopters arrived in Macedonia. Taken from active squadrons, the Hinds were still wearing the codes and camouflage scheme of the Ukraine Armed Forces. The Mi-8MT Hips were delivered straight from the Ukraine KFOR detachment in Kosovo, some of them still wearing the KFOR markings on the fuselage.
Not only acting as transport helicopters, the Mi-8MT helicopters also were capable gunships, armed with rocket launchers and machineguns. The Macedonian pilots received a quick "refresh and conversion" course in the Ukraine and were almost immediately engaged in combat operations in the new Mi-24Vs and Mi-8MTs. The two Mi-24Vs quickly proved themselves highly efficient assault helicopters by hammering the enemy positions relentlessly with machinegun and rocket fire and inflicting heavy losses. More Mi-24V Hinds arrived in Macedonia throughout April, June and September that year. As the Macedonian Air Force desperately needed the Hinds, the aircraft were supplied directly to Skopje, without undergoing the usual overhaul at the Konotop facility of Aviakon in the Ukraine.
In December 2001, the Macedonian Air Force received two additional Mi-24K Hinds from the Ukraine. Unlike the Mi-24V models, the Mi-24K is used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting. A camera replaces the usual laser/electro sensors under the nose and the Mi-24K also lacks the normal fuselage doors with machinegun-mounts. Instead, there are designated camera windows for further reconnaissance equipment. As the Mi-24K lacks the required sensors to aim the AT-6 anti-tank missiles, this version of the Hind doesn’t have the AT-6 rails mounted on the outer-wing hard points.
Greece delivered two UH-1H Huey helicopters during March 2001 which were mostly used to support the "Tiger" and "Wolves" counter-terrorist and quick-reaction units of the Macedonian Police and Macedonian Army.
In June 2001, the Macedonian Air Force took delivery of four Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft, including one Su-25UB two-seater. Although acquired through the Ukraine, it is said that these aircraft were supplied by Belarus. On certain aircraft, traces of the Belarus roundel and codes can still be seen. According to the pilots, both the aircraft and their Ukraine instructors had seen combat action in Afghanistan in the 80s. Almost twenty years later, these aircraft would once again engage in Counter Insurgent (COIN) operations but this time in the European theater. Armed with an array of unguided rockets and freefall bombs, the Su-25s delivered heavy air strikes upon enemy positions and were often operating together with the Mi-24V Hinds.
The Macedonian Air Force operations against the NLA insurgents continued until August 2001, when both parties signed the Ohrid treaty and ended the hostilities. Although the NLA never succeeded in shooting down any of the Macedonian Air Force helicopters or aircraft, the combat operations were fierce and dangerous. On the 17th March, Mi-17 "VAM-301" struck an electric pole while attempting to land near Popova Sapka. The helicopter crashed and tumbled down the hill. Only the technician did not survive the crash, the pilots and troops escaped with injuries. The wreckage of "VAM-301" was brought back to Petrovec Air Base, where it remains today. Other helicopters still bear the scars of battle. After an attack run on a NLA position, Mi-24V "208" was struck by heavy machinegun fire which penetrated the cockpit and damaged the fuselage. But both pilots escaped without injuries and "208" made it back its home base, where it still awaits repairs.
With the peace secured, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defense Forces underwent several reorganizations and changes. In October 2003, the Strategic Defense Review was written, outlining the future of the Macedonian Armed Forces with the emphasis on more flexibility, better integration and future NATO partnership.
By the end of 2005, the Macedonian Air Force would cease to exist all together. Instead, the air arm of the Macedonian Armed Forces would become "Wing" and report to the newly created Joint Operations Command. The Wing structure would also be different from the previous Macedonian Air Force squadron structure, with squadrons renamed or disbanded and new squadrons created.
While gaining a separate VIP squadron, a SAR flight and an ATC flight, 101 Aviation Squadron was disbanded. This squadron operated the Su-25 Frogfoot until March 2004, after which the attack aircraft were grounded due to financial and political reasons. With their attack capabilities no longer required, the Su-25s proved unable to fulfill other roles such as reconnaissance or air defense.
Several attempts were made to sell the aircraft to various buyers. Georgia showed interested to purchase the aircraft for the TAM Su-25 "Scorpio" modernization project, but this deal never materialized. Sales to other interested countries, including a West-African nation, met serious political resistance. As the Macedonian government forbids the sale of such weaponry to private individuals, it was also not possible to sell the aircraft to several interested and wealthy Americans. Donating the aircraft to international museums also met an unwilling Macedonian government due to the high purchase price. Until a politically satisfactory solution has been found, the Su-25s remain on the flight light at Petrovec Air Base but no longer belong to any Squadron. All the Su-25 pilots are now flying the Hind or Hip helicopters instead.
As of early 2006, Wing consists out of these squadrons:
- Combat Helicopter Squadron
- Transport Helicopter Squadron
- VIP Squadron
- Training Squadron
- Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
All the ten Mi-24V and the two Mi-24K helicopters belong to the Combat Helicopter Squadron. The Mi-24V helicopters are numbered 201 through 210, while the two Mi-24K models are designated as 211 and 212.
In May 2006, only four Mi-24V helicopters were operational (201, 205, 209 and 210). The remaining eight helicopters are currently held in open storage at Petrovec Air Base. Aviakon in the Ukraine has recently overhauled two of the operational Mi-24Vs, 201 and 205. The remaining two operational Hinds have partially undergone an upgrade program. However, in June this year, Mi-24V 210 made a successful emergency landing near Veles after a gearbox failure and is currently awaiting repairs.
The Combat Helicopter Squadron will withdraw four helicopters from operational service in the near future. Two of these will be the Mi-24K reconnaissance helicopters. The reconnaissance equipment has proven itself very difficult to use and is obsolete by modern standards. The Mi-24Ks have been in open storage for some time now. Two more Mi-24V Hinds will be retired along with the K-models; one of these will be Mi-24V 204. This particular Hind has suffered from gearbox problems since its delivery in 2001 and has not flown much. It has been stripped of all useable parts and engines. Another candidate for retirement is Mi-24V 208, which has not flown since it sustained damage to the cockpit and fuselage.
Two of the stored Mi-24Vs, 202 and 207, are awaiting transportation to the Ukraine in order to be overhauled. These Hinds have not flown since August and May 2005 respectively. The faith of the remaining two Hinds, 203 and 206, is unclear at this time. Ideally Wing would like to have all eight remaining Mi-24Vs operation, after receiving the overhaul and upgrades. Although with the current funds, this doesn’t seem possible in the very near future.
The Transport Helicopter Squadron operates the remaining three Mi-17, four Mi-8MT and two UH-1H helicopters. The Mi-17 Hips are numbered 301 through 304, with 301 being lost in 2001. The Mi-8MT Hips are numbered 305 through 308 and the two UH-1H Huey helicopters are 321 and 322.
Like the Combat Helicopter Squadron, the Training squadron has several helicopters in open storage and will lose one Mi-8MT in the near future. While the Mi-17 and UH-1H helicopters are all operational, the four Mi-8MT helicopters are not. Two of these, 305 and 306, are currently held in open storage and have not flown for quite some time. Of these two stored Hips, 306, has been used as a source of spare parts and is a likely candidate to be withdrawn from service. The other two Mi-8MT Hips are now undergoing their badly needed overhauls and should return to service upon their return to Macedonia.
The UH-1H Hueys are not only used as transport helicopters for the Macedonian special forces, but also act as training helicopters to educate new rotary pilots. The two UH-1H Hueys receive their overhauls in Greece. Although the helicopters were acquired at very low costs, the overhauls have proven to be both expensive as problematic. As the Macedonians no longer want to be dependent on the Greek maintenance facilities, a delegation of technicians will be send to Germany to undergo training. In the future, the entire maintenance of the Hueys is to be done in Macedonia.
Presently the VIP Squadron operates a single Antonov An-2 transport aircraft. Purchased in 2003 from a local aero club, the bi-plane is used for VIP transportation and parachute training.
Although a very sturdy and reliable aircraft, the An-2 is completely devoid of modern avionics and navigation equipment, making it unsuitable for all-weather or international operations. When required, the VIP Squadron also makes use of the Zlin 143L belonging to the Training Squadron. This four-seat aircraft is equipped with modern radio and navigation systems such as GPS.
At least one senior Macedonian Air Force pilot received extensive training on the CASA CN.235M in Turkey. Turkey made a very competitive offer for the delivery of one CN.235M transport aircraft including a complete support and maintenance package, but this deal never materialized.
The Training Squadron uses at least Zlin 242L aircraft for basic pilot training. Three of these have both military and civilian registrations and belong to the original batch of four aircraft purchased in 1996. One aircraft, Zlin 242L VAM-101, was lost in an accident in April 1999.
The Training Squadron later received more Zlin aircraft from civilian sources, including a single Zlin 143L. These aircraft retained their civilian registrations.
Currently, the Training Squadron also makes use of the UH-1H Huey helicopters for basic helicopter training. Two Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopters will be purchased and delivered in the near future, relieving the UH-1H helicopters of training duties.
Updating the fleet
The urgent need for the additional Mi-8MT and Mi-24V helicopters during the armed conflict in 2001 meant that these were taken straight from front-line units in the Ukraine. During the conflict, the Hip transports and Hind gunships flew many short but intense combat sorties, putting additional stress on the airframes.
With an increasing number of helicopters rendered unserviceable due to mechanical fatigue, the Macedonian Air Force received the funding to catch up on the badly needed overhauls. The Mi-24V and Mi-8MT aircraft are sent two at a time to the Aviakon facility in Konotop, Ukraine. The helicopters are transported to the Ukraine by aircraft but Macedonian Air Force pilots ferry the helicopters back to Macedonia. At the Aviakon facility, the helicopters receive a new color scheme, designed by the Macedonian Air Force.
The return flight takes the pilots across the Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania. Usually this flight takes up to 9 hours but bad weather turned the return flight of the first two overhauled Mi-24V Hinds (201 and 205) into a three-day journey. The first two overhauled Mi-8MT Hips (307 and 308) are now scheduled to return to Macedonia in June.
At the same time the Macedonian Air Force has initiated a modernization program for her Mi-24V, Mi-17 and Mi-8MT helicopters. The first stage of the program will give the helicopter fleet night vision capabilities; the second stage will includes NATO compatible communication systems, GPS navigation systems and improved self-protection suites.
Elbit Systems was chosen as partner for the modernization program after the Israeli company proposed a custom-made solution build around the ANVIS/HUD-24 system. The ANVIS/HUD-24 system integrates a night vision system with Head Up Display (HUD) projection. The pilot no longer needs to look down into the cockpit as all vital flight information is projected through a pair of goggles mounted onto the pilot’s helmet. The ANVIS/HUD-24 system not only provides night vision but also functions during daylight operations.
Besides the ANVIS/HUD-24 system, both the Hip and Hind helicopters will also receive NATO compatible communication and identification systems and a modern navigation system incorporating GPS and a digital map display as well as ILS and VOR equipment.
The Hip helicopters will receive a self protection suite, including chaff and flare dispensers.
The Mi-24V Hind helicopters will also receive a new Electro Optical Payload system, which enables the crew to target and guide their weapons in all weather conditions. The ELOP system is housed in a rotating pod and consists out of a FLIR sensor, a TV camera, laser rangefinder and laser target illuminator. This pod will replace the current obsolete laser targeting equipment under the nose if testing reveals that firing the nose-mounted machinegun will have no negative influence on the pod’s performance.
Two Mi-24V Hinds (209 and 210) and two Mi-17 Hips (302 and 303) already underwent the first stage of the modernization project, which includes the integration of the ANVIS/HUD-24 system and adapting the cockpit layout and lighting for night vision operations. By the end of this year, the first two fully modernized Mi-24V and Mi-17 helicopters should be operational.
In 1995, the Macedonian Air Force signed the NATO Partnership for Peace framework in and consequently participated in various NATO exercises such as Rescuer ’97 and Cooperate Key. The organizational changes and the helicopter modernization program were put in place to improve integration with NATO and European Union operations. The Macedonian Air Force is taking slow but deliberate steps towards a full NATO membership.
The Macedonian Air Force is currently preparing itself for its first participation in Operation Althea. This European Union led police and monitoring mission into Bosnia Herzegovina replaced the NATO SFOR mission in December 2004. The Macedonian Air Force will deploy two Hips together with a Belgian contingent of Agusta A109 helicopters. Although technicalities have delayed this deployment, it will be a very important step forward for the Macedonian Air Force. The opportunity to contribute to stability and peace in former Yugoslavia is not taken lightly by the Macedonian helicopter crews.
The Macedonian Air Force is reshaping itself into a small but modern air arm with clear objectives and goals. Besides defending the Republic of Macedonia, it will also participate in humanitarian and peace keeping operations with its fleet of modern and capable helicopters.
With the four Su-25 fighter-bombers retired, there is no intention to operate fighter aircraft in the future. In the future Macedonia will rely on other NATO partners to safeguard its airspace. When Macedonia has officially joined the NATO alliance, it can submit a request for defense support from other NATO members. Although there is no official agreement yet, there are indications that Bulgaria will deploy a small number of fighters to Petrovec Air Base near Skopje.
The authors would like to thank Lt. Col. Lazarov, Maj. Kolevski and Lt. Col. Beglinger for their hospitality, trust and support. Without their support, this article could not have been written.