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MiGs Over Croatia

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MiGs Over Croatia

By Tom Cooper Oct 28, 2003, 18:32

The creation of the Croatian Air Force came in the wake of the declaration of independence by Croatia in late June 1991. Already in the first months of the war, in the summer of 1991, recognizing the importance of the air power, the Croatian authorities were urgently gathering all available resources to form an air arm, the "Hrvatsko Ratno Zrakoplovstvo" (HRZ - literaly "Croatian War-Air Force"). Initially, only a small number of Police helicopters and aircraft of the local flying clubs, as well as agrar-aviation were available, but these were pressed into service, nevertheless, frequently armed with makeshift bombs and rocket launchers. The first such unit, the so-called Zrakoplovna Grupa (Airborne Group) later re-named into Eskadrila Lakih Borbenin Zrakoplova (Squadron of Light Combat Aircraft) was formed actually already on 28 June 1991, at the small airfield Pribislavec, near Cakovec, in northern Croatia, and was equipped with several An-2s, UTVA-75s, and Piper PA-18s. The original cadre of the HRZ included almost exclusively officers and pilots that previously served with the Yugoslav Air Force (JRViPVO), many of which were highly experienced. The first Commander-in-Chief of the Croatian Army (HV), Gen. Tus, for example, was former Commander-in-Chief of the JRViPVO, and a qualified MiG-21- and MiG-29-pilot.

The former Yugoslav Air Force & Air Defence Force (JRViPVO) still operated a considerable number of MiG-21s when the war between Croatia and Serbia broke out, in the summer of 1991. Together with several types of light strikers produced in Yugoslavia, these played the dominant role in the air war. Yugoslav pilots were well-trained and considered capable opponents during the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s the JRViPVO was heavily hit by the years-long economy crisis that caused shortages of spare parts and fuel. Defections of Slovenian, Croatian and personnel of other nationalities, as well as a series of reorganizations caused by a swift pull-out of many units out of Croatia and Slovenia, created - in cooperation with poor leadership - a complete chaos within the air force, and its total effect on the war on the ground was therefore minimal.

By the autumn of 1991 several so-called Independent Air Units were formed in different parts of the country, boasting a total of 41 aircraft. These units were usually assigned to the local commands of the HV or National Guard (ZNG). Only in late 1991 and early 1992, after the liberation of the airfields in Zagreb, Pula, and Split, and the general pull-back of the Federal Army out of Croatia, was it possible to organize them into a single service. The types in service with the HRZ were very different and included UTVA-75 training aircraft, as well as Air Tractor AT-400/401, Cessna 188B AGTruck and An-2 agrar-aircraft, and a single Mi-8 (former JRViPVO 12271) captured at Sisak in late September 1991. Even if most of the planes at one point or the other went through the maintenance facilities available at the ZMAJ depot in Velika Gorica, near Zagreb (where originally also the well-known Iraqi MiG-21s and MiG-23s were refurbished, in 1989-1990, which were later flown by JRViPVO pilots to Batajnica, near Belgrade), they were painted in very different disruptive camouflage patterns. The first combat missions HRZ aircraft flew already in September 1991. Initially, foremost the An-2s were used for nocturnal attacks against Serbian positions around the besieged Croatian city of Vukovar, in the east of the country, on the border to Serbia. The aircraft would approach their targets at a very low level and low speed, drop a number of home-made bombs, and disappear in the darkness before the adversary could react. Over the time the An-2s based at the airfield near Osijek, in eastern Croatia, flew also supply sorties to Vukovar, and bombed Serbian forces in Tenja, Mirkovci, Ceric, Jankovci, Sodolovci, Bobota, Kardzicevo and Markusic, their strikes eventually growing in

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intensity and precision to a degree where the Federal Army was not only blaming them for the death of one of its generals, but also forced to deploy a battery of SA-6 SAMs into the area in order to bolster its air defences. These managed to shot down the An-2s YU-BOP (c/n 1G222-37) near Vukovar, in December 1991, killing the crew of four (including pilots Mirko Vukusic and Marko Zivkovic, as well as technicians Rade Griva and Ante Plazibat). On 25 October 1991 also two HRZ UTVA-75s were damaged by small-arms fire while on a reconnaissance mission near Petrinja. One of the pilots was injured and almost crashed, but both aircraft eventually landed safely. The JRViPVO several times attempted to destroy the HRZ on the ground, attacking especially the airfield in Pribislavec, but the place was heavily defended and the aircraft well hidden in the nearby forest. On 31 December 1991 also two MiG-21 intercepted a HRZ Cessna over this area, and attacked it with gunfire. The Croatian pilot managed to evade by flying a series of sharp manoeuvres and eventually landed safely at Maribor airfield, in Slovenia. Desperate to acquire real combat aircraft the Croatian sympathisers and agents in Western and Eastern Europe attempted to buy fighter jets in several different countries, but all their efforts were spoiled by the international arms embargo. Consequently, the HRZ even considered putting ultra-lights and museum pieces to service: an F-47D Thunderbolt, otherwise on display at the Technical Museum in Zagreb, was overhauled and camouflaged in preparation for being rushed into service, just for example. Despite many negotiations with different private entrepreneurs mainly in Germany and the Ukraine - the Croatians achieved their first success in clandestine acquisition of combat aircraft only in 1992, when up to 20 Mi-8s were acquired from civilian stocks in Eastern European countries. While some of these were impounded during their delivery flights, in Czech Republic and Slovakia, at least 12 arrived in Croatia in the summer of 1992. Additional 26 were to follow by 1995, some of which were destined for the Muslims in Bosnia. On the similar way the Croatians acquired also at least 12 Mi-24D helicopters. The first dedicated combat aircraft of the HRZ was a MiG-21bis 17133 (c/n N2119), acquired on 4 January 1992, when JRViPVO Capt. Danijel Borovic defected with the aircraft to Pleso IAP, near Zagreb. Immediately after arrival the aircraft had the JRViPVO markings removed, and HRZ markings as well as a serial 101 applied instead. Another pilot of the JRViPVO defected already at an earlier date: on 25 October 1991 Capt. Perisin flew the MiG-21R "26212/212" to Graz-Tallerhof, in Austria, requesting political asylum. The aircraft - the serial of which was overpainted by Austrian authorities immediately after the landing - was eventually impounded and remains in Austrian hands, but Perisin was permitted to return to Croatia, where he joined the HRZ.

The first MiG acquired by the Croats was this MiG-21bisK, previously serialled "17133" in the JRViPVO. The aircraft was left in its original Light Grey (FS36373) overall finish, but has got a large serial "101" applied on the nose, as well as a large Croatian flag on the fin, and the Croatian shield on the rear fuselage. Note that the aircraft carried the Croatian shield on the upper side of the left wing, and the serial on the upper side of the right wing. "101" was to see only a short service with the HRZ, then it was shot down already on 24 June 1992.

Finally, on 15 May 1992 two JRViPVO pilots defected with their MiG-21s to Croatia: Capt. Ivan Selak flew the MiG-21bis 17167 (c/n N4051) and Capt. Ivica Ivandic flew the MiG-21bis 17235 (c/n N2741) to Croatia. Both aircraft entered service with the 1st Squadron HRZ, and were named Osvetnik Vukovara (Avenger of Vukovar) and Osvetnik Dubrovnika (Avenger of Dubrovnik), respectively, in the memory of two Croatian cities that suffered heavily to Serbian aggression.

MiG-21bis "102" - nick-named "Osvetnik Dubrovnika" ("Avenger of Dubrovnik") was the former "17235" of the JRViPVO. In service with the HRZ it was left in the original Light Grey (FS36373) overall finish, with radome and dielectric panels painted in Olive Drab (FS16165). The aircraft wears also the insignia of the - then 1st Squadron HRZ - black knight helmet with shield in Croatian national colours - and the town arms of the historic City of Dubrovnik, which was heavily damaged by Serbian air and artillery strikes, in 1991. It is believed that this is the sole survivor of the original three HRZ MiG-21s, acquired through defections of JRViPVO pilots, in 1992. Note that the insignia of the 1st Squadron HRZ was subsequently kept in this form when the unit was renumbered into 21st Squadron.

Although having only three MiG-21s available the HRZ was not to hold them in reserve. Already in late May and early June these fighters flew their first combat sorties, striking targets in Serbian-held parts of Croatia, but also inside Bosnia, where the war spread meanwhile as

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well. The Serbs were well-armed, however, and there were understandable problems with identification of Croatian MiGs by their own ground troops, so the job of Croat pilots was not without dangers: on 24 June 1992 the HRZ MiG-21 101 by a SA-14 MANPAD, fired by Croatian troops. The pilot, Anton Rados ejected over a Serb-controlled territory and was never found again. Interestingly, the MiGs of the 1st Squadron were not very lucky in intercepting a number of Serbian aircraft and helicopters that operated over the battlefields in Croatia and Bosnia at the time. Other Croatian crews and units were, however. In July 1992, for example, pilot Matko Raos intercepted a JRViPVO Mi-8 helicopter while underway for a bombing-mission on a Reims-Cessna F.172M. Raos aircraft was armed with a single machine-gun, mounted on the side-doors and manned by the co-pilot (who was also throwing home-made bombs during groundattacks, in WWI-style!), but as soon as he approached the enemy the Serbian pilot increased the speed and outdistanced the slower plane! The bad luck of the 1st Squadron HRZ was to continue into 1993 as well. In September of that year the Croatian high command ordered the unit to find and destroy the Serbian LUNA surface-to-surface missiles, which were threatening Zagreb from within the Serbian-held part of north-western Bosnia. The order did not make much sense: the Croats knew that meanwhile a special unit of the Serbian military was sent to Bosnia to bring these missiles back under the control of Belgrade and return them to Serbia. Indeed, the missiles and their launchers were loaded on several flat-beds and underway back towards east, all the time tracked by Croatian reconnaissance-UAVs. Eventually, on 14 September an attack by two MiG-21s was ordered nevertheless. These failed to hit the LUNAs, instead destroying several military trucks and civilian vehicles instead: in turn one of the MiGs was shot down by Serbian Strela MANPAD and the pilot, Capt. Miroslav Peric, was killed.

MiG-21 "103" was nick-named "Osvetnik Vukovara" in the memory of the eastern-Croatian City of Vukovar, completely destroyed in three-months long murderous siege in summer and autumn 1991. The aircraft is former "17167" of the JRViPVO and otherwise painted like "102" above, except for the arms of the City of Vukovar and the full fin flash in Croatian national colours. The "roundel" is actually the Croatian national emblem, consisting of the red-white chequered shield and insignia of five Croatian provinces: since 1995 this insignia is used insteadof the fin-flash on the other Croatian MiGs.

With this, the 1st Squadron HRZ was back down to only one operational MiG-21. For quite some time nothing was heard about the unit, but in spring 1995 it re-appeared in the public again, this time equipped with a considerable number of camouflaged MiG-21bis. Namely, in 1994 the Croats managed to acquire 25 MiG-21s in the Ukraine. These were flown to Poland, crated, and then shipped to Croatia per truck via Slovakia and Hungary. Later in the same year 15 additional MiG-21s were acquired from the same source, bringing the total to 40 aircraft. Together with MiGs also a considerable amount of weapons including R-60 (AA-8) and R-3R (AA-2-2) air-to-air missiles, 23mm ammunition, and 250kg bombs was supplied. The HRZ, however, made only some 20 MiG-21s including at least four MiG-21UMs operational, while the rest was used as sources of spares. Two units were now formed with new aircraft which were not only camouflaged but also wore much less gaudy markings than the first three MiGs: the 21st Squadron (former 1st Squadron), based at Pleso IAP, and the 22nd Squadron, based at Pula IAP. One of the new MiGs crashed during a military exercise, on 21 April 1995, killing the pilot, Maj. Zlatko Majerski.

Most of the Croatian MiG-21s smuggled from the Ukraine in 1994 were camouflaged in Olive Green and Medium Brown, with Pale Blue undersurfaces. The new HRZ insignia, originally introduced between June and August 1993, is now applied on the rear fuselage, while the Croatian shield, which previously acted as a roundel, was moved to the fin. The only other similarity with earlier MiGs in service with the 1st Squadron HRZ is the emblem of that unit, which is still carried on the forward fuselage.

These additional MiG-21bis were blooded already on 2 May of the same year, during the Croatian Offensive Flash, which saw the destruction of two Serbian brigades in the so-called "West Slavonia pocket", in the area between Daruvar, Novska, and Gradiska. This offensive was sparheaded by several strikes against Serbian command and communication facilities, but also saw the loss of another MiG-21bis, reportedly serialled "119" in HRZ, and flown by Maj. Rudolf Perisin (the same pilot who flew his MiG-21R to Austria, in October 1991). Perisin was shot down by Serbian anti-aircraft artillery in the Bosanska Gradiska area and killed. During the same operation also one or two HRZ helicopters were damaged although the Serbs claimed to have shot down two Mi-24s.

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Another version of the same camouflage pattern as above: note the difference in the way the Pale Blue colour on the underside was applied on the front fuselage, as well as a completely different pattern of Olive Green on the upper fuselage and the fin.

Slightly more than two months later, the MiG-21s of the 21st and 22nd Squadrons were also to spearhead the final Croatian offensive inside their country, the Operation Storm, initiated on 4 August 1995, which targeted the liberation of areas in southern central Croatia held by the Serbs since the summer and autumn 1991. On the morning of this day the HRZ MiGs hit several Serb headquarters, artillery and frontline positions, scoring many hits, but hitting also a number of civilian objects or UN-posts nearby. During these operations, the UN forces in the Knin area requested support from NATO Aircraft patrolling the skies over Bosnia. Two Dutch F-16As were diverted over the city, in the hope that their appearance would cause the Croats to stop shelling the place. Once over Knin, however, the F-16s were locked-on by Serbian SA-6 site stationed nearby, the crew of which probably believed to have acquired Croatian MiGs. The site was subsequently neutralized by an attack of two USN F/A-18 Hornets and two EA-6B Prowlers from USS T. Roosevelt. The Serbs in Croatia had a mini-air-force, established already in 1991 and based at the Udbine airfield, which was also defended by another SA-6 site that was attacked by USN fighters (these strikes stood in no connection with the Croatian operation Storm), but this did not manage to prevent HRZ MiG-21-operations in the area. Quite on the contrary, in the overall chaos within the Serbs in these days their air force failed to appear, instead deciding to evacuate remaining operational aircraft to the Mahovljani airfield, in Bosnia, on 5 August. The Croats captured the base later in the day, finding there nine aircraft, including one each SOKO G-2 Galeb, G-4 Super Galeb, and J-21 Jastreb, as well as some UTVA-66s and UTVA-75s, and a single J-21 (2425?) without the tail section. Together with aircraft also the local ammunition depot was captured, which contained hundreds of bombs, modern Bofors L-70 anti-aircraft guns, and an improvised SAM-launcher (consisting of rails for K-13 missiles). According to unconfirmed reports also two Serbian J-20 Kraguj COIN-fighters were captured on a small airfield near Karlovac. The MiG-21s of the 21st and 22nd Squadrons continued their operations in the following two days as well, mainly against the Serbian units in the Petrinja area, where a large number of Serbian civilians was blocked in their attempts to escape into Bosnia. Their strikes caused a number of civilian casualties, as several times they hit mixed columns of civilian and military vehicles, most of which were kilometres long. On 5 or 6 August at least one HRZ MiG-21 was damaged either by MANPADs or anti-aircraft guns over this area, but the pilot managed to land safely. On 7 August the Serbian J-22 Oraos starting from bases in Bosnia attacked several targets in eastern Croatia, in the Kutina area. After at least two such strikes remained without an answer, the HRZ finally dispatched a pair of MiG-21s. In the poor light and haze of the late summer afternoon, the pilots had some problems to find the Oraos and after some manoeuvring both sides disengaged without having fired a single bullet.

The other version of the camouflage pattern applied on Croatian MiG-21bis acquired in 1994 consists of Light Brown, Dark Green or Olive Drab and Pale Blue, and is usually applied in a pattern similar to this. Note the serial 126, applied for an open day display at Aviano AB, in Italy, in July 1996: camouflaged Croatian MiG-21bis usually do not wear any serials at all.

Eventually, this is the last combat operation flown by HRZ MiG-21s about which any details are known in the public: it is likely that they have undertaken additional strikes against different targets in the following days, then the Operation Storm ended only on 9 August even if most of its objectives were reached already two days earlier.

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The MiG-21bis of the Croatian 22nd Squadron are very seldom seen wearing the unit insignia - a black, long-horn bull, with yellow wings, over a red-white chequered "22": in most cases they do not wear any other but national insignia at all.

In the years since the end of the war the HRZ meanwhile renamed into Hrvatske Zracne Snage (literally Croatian Air Force) continued operating its MiGs, despite increasing problems with the spare parts supply (which might have caused the loss of the the plane flown by pilot Ivica Bosnar, that crashed on 14 August 1986, near Velika Gorica, killing the pilot. In the year 2002 an agreement was reached with Romania that saw acquisition of four additional MiG-21UMs, as well as the upgrade of at least a dozen of MiG-21bis with some elements of the Israeli-Romanian Project LANCER, but foremost a complete refurbishment of the aircraft. This upgrade, done through 2003, was needed not only to keep the planes serviceable for a longer period of time, but also in order to make them more compatible with US and NATO forces and systems, then the Croatians exercise regularly with the USN over the Adria, and also hope to join the NATO in the near future. A total of eight MiG-21bis and four MiG-21UMs were eventually refurbished in Romania, but the newest reports from Croatia indicate that the HRZ was not entirelly satisfied with the work there. Quite on the contrary, the whole fleet of refurbished Croatian MiG-21s was grounded for almost a week earlier this year, and then all the aircraft were sent back to Romania for corrective work. Supposedly, the cause for the problems was poor work on several mechanical sub-assemblies on the aircraft.

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