The Serbian Defence Ministry has begun to consider options for acquisitions of new fighter aircraft to modernise the country’s ageing air force, which has contracted in recent years with the retirement of approximately 34 modernised MiG-21 fighters leaving only a single fighter squadron in service formed of 14 MiG-29s. With the Eastern European country remaining one of the few on the continent outside NATO and its sphere of influence, but coming under considerable pressure to exclude non-Western arms from its procurement processes, a number of countries could potentially supply Serbia with fighters to again form a second squadron supplementing its existing MiGs. Serbian MiG-29s were mostly donations from Russia and Belarus, which inherited significant surplus airframes from the Soviet Union, with the aircraft integrating modern electronically scanned array radars and avionics. Serbia has nevertheless avoided high profile purchases from Russia, largely due to threats of American economic sanctions, as perhaps best demonstrated by its acquisition of Chinese HQ-22 air defence systems where an acquisition of the competing Russian S-300 or S-400 was previously expected. An acquisition of Russian fighter aircraft, particularly lower end models which are much less likely to trigger sanctions from Washington, nevertheless remains possible although competition from China and European producers means nothing can be assumed. A look at some of the most likely candidates to meet Serbia’s defence needs is given below.
Entering service from 2018, the J-10C may well be considered the most suitable fighter to meet Serbia’s defence needs and is the most capable from China to have been offered for export. A ‘4++ generation’ jet with avionics on par with those of modern fifth generation aircraft, the fighter benefits from low maintenance needs and operational costs making it suitable for Serbia’s limited defence budget. The J-10C boasts several advantages over competitors as well as aircraft fielded by neighbouring states, including access to the PL-10 and PL-15 air to air missiles which are considered more capable than their existing Russian and American counterparts and are paired with a powerful AESA radar and helmet mounted sights for guidance. The J-10C would provided a more capable complement to the MiG-29, and would help further cement ties with China which has emerged as Belgrade’s most critical economic partner, and although short ranged has an endurance more than sufficient to protect the country’s relatively small airspace particularly when considering the range of its sensors and standoff weapons.
JF-17 Block 3
A second Chinese lightweight fighter produced in parallel to the J-10C, the JF-17 Block 3 is manufactured exclusively for export but benefits from similarly capable avionics and access to the same classes of air to air missiles. The aircraft is considerably lighter and has a much poorer flight performance and weaker engine than the J-10C, but benefits from a significantly lower operational cost and lower maintenance needs well below those of the MiG-29 and comparable to the MiG-21s Serbia recently retired. The JF-17 Block 3 would be among the most sophisticated fighters in Eastern Europe if deployed, and could potentially be fielded in much larger numbers than alternatives while also allowing Serbian pilots to spend more time in the air training than higher maintenance aircraft would. The fact that the JF-17 uses an engine derived from that of the MiG-29 would also simplify maintenance. The JF-17 Block 3 represents a fighter with a much lower operational cost than the MiG-29 which is able to maintain higher availability rates and is very considerably more capable even at visual ranges where the MiG most excels due to its pairing of state of the art helmet mounted sights with the cutting edge PL-10 IR guided missile.
With Serbia currently relying heavily on the MiG-29, the possibility remains that it could form a second squadron from more advanced MiG-29 variants. These could be Soviet era airframes modernised with new avionics, such as the MiG-29SMT/UPG recently supplied to Syria and India, or more expensive newly built MiG-29Ms with a more modern post-Soviet airframe design. The MiG-29M has recently been exported to Algeria and Egypt, and has significantly lower maintenance needs than the original MiG-29 but would also be more expensive for Serbia to purchase. An improved derivative of the MiG-29M, the MiG-35, may also be sought and benefits from use of an AESA radar, a higher weapons payload and access to new generations of missiles such as the R-37M for long range air to air engagements. Political factors and Serbia’s current degree of satisfaction with its existing MiG-29 fleet will likely determine whether further MiG-29 purchases may be pursued.
Originating in the same fighter program, the Rafale and Eurofighter are in many ways similar designs although the former has proven significantly more popular on export markets due to its lower operational costs, longer range and greater emphasis on electronic warfare, as well as the fact that it began to integrate electronically scanned array radars almost two decades before its competitor. The Eurofighter benefits from more powerful engines and greater manoeuvrability, but has lacked the strong French lobbying power needed to push sales abroad. While Serbian officials have stated that both are under consideration, the Rafale remains the more likely contender due to the state of relations with France, the fighter’s perceived superior capabilities and the much higher price of the latest Eurofighter variants. The primary advantage the aircraft have over Chinese and Russian competitors is political, however, with Serbia’s intentions to accede to the European Union meaning a multi billion dollar purchase of European combat jets could well pave the way to its membership.
Should Serbia refrain from placing orders for new fighters until the latter half of the decade the possibility remains that Russia’s Checkmate, its first single engine fighter to enter service since the 1970s, may be considered. A light fifth generation aircraft, the Checkmate was designed to prioritise stealth, low operational costs and low maintenance needs and is expected to have superior capabilities than any of the aforementioned contenders while potentially coming at a cost comparable to that of the J-10C and MiG-35. While acquiring the Checkmate could be highly affordable, with the aircraft likened to a ‘MiG-21 of the 21st century,’ it would make Serbia one of the few operators of fifth generation fighters in Eastern Europe. Whether the Checkmate program will produce a fighter by 2027 as scheduled, and whether the aircraft can be as cost effective and easy to maintain as advertised, remains to be seen, but should it do so it could potentially be a leading contender to equip the Serbian Air Force.