Romania Grounds MiG-21 LanceR Fighter Fleet

 - April 18, 2022, 6:03 AM
A two-seat LanceR B leads a pair of LanceR Cs during a training mission from Campia Turzii. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Romania's air force (Forțele Aeriene Române, FAR) abruptly suspended flight operations with its Aerostar/Mikoyan MiG-21 Lancer fighters on April 15. The decision was taken by chief of the defense staff General Daniel Petrescu, the ministry notification citing “the significant incidence of aviation events and accidents during the operation of MiG-21 Lancer aircraft that resulted in multiple casualties and damaged or destroyed aircraft.”

The most recent airframe loss occurred on March 2, when a LanceR and its pilot were lost during a combat air patrol mission. A Puma helicopter sent to locate the missing pilot also crashed, with the loss of all seven on board. More recently, a LanceR experienced an inflight emergency on April 12. While the pilot managed to return the fighter safely to its base, it was the final straw for the defense ministry.

For the time being the FAR will use its single squadron of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to meet air defense requirements. Romania acquired 17 F-16AM/BMs from Portugal to begin the LanceR replacement program, with the first batch of 12 signed for in 2013. The last of the 17 was delivered in early 2021. It is not thought that the LanceRs will be returned to service as the fleet is only two years short of its planned out-of-service date, and plans for its full replacement are already at an advanced stage.

As a result of the grounding, Romania is now seeking to accelerate the purchase of 32 F-16AM/BMs from Norway to minimize any fighter capability gap. A draft law covering the acquisition is currently going through the approval process, and is due to be presented to parliament as soon as possible. With the delivery of the Norwegian aircraft, the FAR will have three full squadrons of F-16s, which the ministry states would operate “for a minimum of 10 years and form an air capability of transition to fifth-generation F-35 jets.”

Apart from a handful of aircraft still active in Croatia—to be replaced by Dassault Rafales in 2024—Romania’s LanceRs were the last MiG-21s flying in Europe. In the late 1990s/early 2000s 114 FAR MiG-21s were upgraded by Aerostar with assistance from Israel’s Elbit Systems. Three variants were produced: the LanceR A ground attack version; LanceR B two-seat trainer; and LanceR C with EL/M-2032 radar for air defense. At the time of the grounding, the fleet had dwindled to two squadrons with about 30 LanceR Bs and Cs, operating from Baza 57 Constanta/Mihail Kogalniceanu and Baza 71 Campia Turzii.