One of the defining issues of the strife that befell the immediate post-communist world of the former Yugoslav states was the question of what states would retain aspects of the Yugoslav military.
The ability to protect a nation-state is directly predicated in most instances on the strength of that nation’s armed forces and while no state wishes to have to apply military might, most ensure some degree of independence in regard to their armed forces, with such being true even of nations such as Sweden and Denmark that have not needed to resort to protective warfare since the Second World War. For Serbia, this question in the 1990s was acute and it continues to be a key issue today.
The Kosovo War proved, once NATO became involved, that for the type of geopolitical situation that the Balkans present, air power was the most efficient form of military power and also the one that presented the least risk and loss of life to those who prosecute a war with air power. RAND Corporation analyst Ben Lambeth has written about this topic and presented in his book-length study NATO’s Air War for Kosovo (RAND, 1999) a very compelling argument that air power was the most-rational approach for NATO and also the approach that could be expected for any nation with the means to apply an air force in future conflicts in the Balkans.
Moreover, the immediate needs in terms of national security are ones of what we can term “national surety”, or the idea that the nation-state’s status as such will not be disputed by other nations simply because that state is seen as weak or unable to articulate a comprehensive, robust, defense against foreign incursion. To provide this security for a state like Serbia, air power is the logical answer: a means to either safeguard homeland interests or to, if needed, take the fight directly to the enemy.
During the Cold War, Yugoslavia mirrored the weapons systems and training pedagogy of the Soviet Union and even today, those products and practices make up the lion’s share of the Serbian armed forces’ approach to warfare. Therefore, it should not be surprising that according to the aviation news website The Aviationist, Serbia is set to purchase MiG-29 fighter aircraft in the newest variant of this airplane, the M2. Journalist Jacek Siminski at The Aviationist notes—as have other analysts and writers—that the MiG-35 may in fact be offered to Serbia though while there has been much speculation in military aviation circles regarding this, no concrete evidence has turned up to suggest such a sale of the even more-advanced MiG-35, which itself is a more-evolved version developed out of the MiG-29M2 technology.
All of this is quite interesting for those involved in national defense studies and casual fans of military aircraft alike because Russia is also developing the PAK-FA, a fifth-generation advanced fighter aircraft on par with the United States’ F-35 and Europe’s Eurofighter Typhoon. If anything, what is known of the PAK-FA’s design suggests it to be more advanced than the F-35 and equal or better in many regards to the Typhoon as well.
Thus far, the only planned partnership sales of the PAK-FA will be to India in the variant of the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA fighter, though by year 2025, exports of either this Indian variant or the original Russian PAK-FA to nations such as Vietnam and South Korea (which is also entertaining other fifth-generation fighters to meet its needs) may well take place. The older Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft would also be a good contender for Serbia given its high degree of precise handling, two-seat configuration (which the MiG-29 also offers in the M2 variant and is desired by Serbia, apparently), and its fuel range, which is less than ideal for Russia’s vast geography but would easily suffice for Serbia’s needs.
Indeed, it is the Su-30 that on paper appears to be the best choice for Serbia at the best cost, yet the MiG-29 appears to be favored by the Serbian military for reasons that are not fully clear. One possible reason is that Serbia is already using older MiG-29s and thus the pilots and ground crews know their way around the MiG better than other aircraft and it is also very possible that the MiG-29M2 will be offered at a cost as low or lower than the Su-30 could be provisioned. One key obstacle—aside from its highly classified systems that Russia may not wish to provide to other nations—to export sales of the PAK-FA has been its astronomical cost.
Interestingly, at one point Yugoslavia sought to design and produce its own tactical fighter, the Novi Avion, but with the break-up of the Yugoslav state this project was abandoned. The Vazduhoplovno Tehnicki Institut had designed most of the airframe, powerplant, and control system aspects of the Novi Avion and the entire aircraft was around only a year away from entering its first stages of actual production. While a French-built jet engine and some French expertise in radar design were incorporated into the Novi Avion, the design was fully the work of engineers in Belgrade and not patterned after any extant foreign fighter aircraft. The operational parameters of the Novi Avion interestingly would put it more or less in the same tactical class of fighters as the Su-30, albeit the Novi Avion was a single-pilot and single-engine aircraft whereas the Su-30 is a two-crew, dual-engine fighter.
Serbia’s military may now rue the day the Novi Avion was left on the drafting table, given that while there are more choices than ever for fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft, most from Russia will come with high costs and perhaps without all the advantages the Serbian military may desire. Russia, though long a prime exporter to China and other nations it believed to be friendly, seems now more interested in building vastly different export models of aircraft than those kept at home for its own military.
The PAK-FA, which is possibly the most-exciting fighter aircraft currently entering production, would seem to be the fighter everyone would want, but whether Russia will desire to sell it is another story and yet unknown. The most-advanced of the MiG-29s would be logical for Serbia though and the aircraft promises to be well-supported for at least another couple decades into the future.