On May 15, 2023 the Romanian Air Force (RoAF) retired its fleet of MiG-21 fighter jets — a heritage from the Soviet era — as the NATO member and Ukraine neighbor is aiming to modernize its armed forces.
The MiG-21 LanceR jets embarked on their final flights at a ceremony on Monday.
During the communist regime, Romania had around 400 MiG-21s. The current number is confidential, but unofficial estimates say it now stands at around 25.
The retired jets will be stored at the Bacau airbase in northeast Romania.
“It was time for us to move on to something better and be in line with the world,” Romanian pilot Adrian Trifa, 37, told AFP ahead of the ceremony at the Borcea airbase in the southeast.
Given that the age to start training for the F-16 is under 35, Trifa will not train to fly the more modern fighter jets.
Last May, a month after deciding to ground them following a slew of problems, the RoAF said that for their last year of service, the MiG-21s would have been limited to air police missions and training flights to maintain the proficiency of the pilots.
In 1962 the RoAF received the first 12 MiG-21F-13, followed by another 12 of the same variant in 1963. Deliveries continued over the next years with other variants: 38 aircraft of MiG-21RFM (PF) variant in 1965, 7 MiG-21U-400/600 in 1965–1968, 56 MiG-21RFMM (PFM) in 1966–1968, 12 MiG-21R in 1968–1972, 68 MiG-21M plus 11 MiG-21US in 1969–1970, 74 MiG-21MF/MF-75 in 1972–1975, and 27 MiG-21UM in 1972–1980 plus another 5 of the same variant in 1990, for a total number of 322 aircraft.
Beginning in 1993, Russia did not offer spare parts for the MiG-23 and MiG-29 for the RoAF. Initially, this was the context for the modernization of the Romanian MiG-21s with Elbit Systems, and because it was easier to maintain these fighter jets. In 1995–2002, a total of 111 MiG-21s were modernized, of which 71 were M and MF/MF-75 variants modernized under the LanceR A designation (for ground attack), 14 were UM variant as LanceR B designation (trainer), and another 26 MF/MF-75 variant were modernized under LanceR C designation (air superiority). Today, only 36 LanceRs are operational for the RoAF. It can use both Western and Eastern armament such as the R-60M, R-73, Magic 2, or Python III missiles.
Despite being one of the newest MiG-21 fleets in service, the Romanian MiG-21 LanceR fleet was grounded due to difficulties maintaining the aircraft, and since 1996 it has had an accident rate of over 30 per 100,000 hours. Serviceability rates below 50% are not uncommon.
The RoAF has suffered numerous events in recent years with its arsenal of MiG-21s. On Jun. 12, 2017, a MiG-21 crashed in Constanța County, with Adrian Stancu, the pilot, managing to escape in time. On Jul. 7, 2018, Florin Rotaru died during an airshow in Borcea with some 3,000 attendants while piloting a MiG-21 that suffered technical difficulties, choosing to deflect the plane and die to protect the attendants rather than ejecting himself in time. On Apr. 20, 2021, during a training flight, a MiG-21 crashed in an uninhabited zone in Mureș County. The pilot, Andrei Criste, managed to eject safely and survived the crash.
On Mar. 2, 2022, a MiG-21 LanceR crashed during adverse weather conditions near the village of Gura Dobrogei, Cogealac Commune.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has strengthened its eastern flank. It also supplied troop reinforcements and equipment to Romania.
Last month, Romania’s supreme defense council said it aimed to buy the latest generation of American F-35 fighter jets, but it will likely take years for the acquisition to go ahead.
Retired general Stefan Danila, a former chief of defense and former MiG-21 LanceR pilot, said the shift to more advanced jets should have happened “at least ten years ago.”
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