Barely two months after grounding its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-21 Lancer jet fighters, the Romanian Air Force has returned them to service as a stop-gap measure. Although the fleet was grounded on April 15, 2022, due to a high rate of accidents, the remaining fleet of around 26 serviceable aircraft was subsequently cleared to return to operational use on May 23.
The Air Force has noted that their usage will help fill a capabilities gap while the government proceeds with a purchase of 32 secondhand Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF) F-16s to help fill out its current inventory of 17 refurbished and modernized F-16AM/BMs acquired from Portugal. Deliveries of these redundant Portuguese F-16s ran from October 2016 through March 2021.
The effort to procure the 32 used fighters from Norway is being accelerated in light of current tensions in Eastern Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Once acquired, they will enable the Romanian Air Force to fully replace the obsolete MiG-21 fleet operated by its 711th and 861st fighter squadrons.
In the meantime, the MiG-21s will be restricted to conducting national air policing duties and training flights to ensure optimal pilot readiness. The planned retirement of the MiGs is set for May 15, 2023.
— Alert 5 (@alert5) May 26, 2022
Like many former Soviet-satellite and Warsaw Pact countries freed from communism following the end of the Cold War, Romania has slowly weaned itself from Soviet-origin platforms and weaponry in an effort to bring its military closer to NATO interoperability standards.
The MiG-21 replacement project represented the most expensive of this comprehensive effort, thereby resulting in a lengthy, ongoing saga that dates back to 2005. Financial pressures slowed the process to a crawl, thereby putting the Romanian Air Force in a pinch, as its remaining MiG-21s were originally to be retired in 2011 and 2012.
In the longer term, Romania aims to procure a new-generation fighter such as the F-35, which would then serve as a replacement for the F-16s. Spurred by events in Ukraine, government officials are already undertaking early-stage measures toward launching this acquisition program.