Serbia’s Dassault Rafale ambitions dashed by French objection

In April 2022, news broke about Serbia’s plans to acquire Rafale fighter jets from France, intending to replace their Russian-sourced MiG-29s. Speculation was high that they were looking to secure 12 new aircraft. 

Serbia's Dassault Rafale ambition dashed by French objection - MiG-29 fighter Serbia
Photo credit: Serbian MoD

This wasn’t Serbia’s first defense collaboration with France. They’d previously established a fruitful relationship, positioning France as an alternative to their ties with the Russian Federation. In October 2021, the Serbian Ministry of Defense struck a deal with Airbus to deliver two C295 transport aircraft, succeeding the An-26. Interestingly, this decision was made when Russia failed to uphold its promise to supply Serbia with additional transport aircraft. 

In February 2023, Serbia reaffirmed its commitment to purchasing French Rafale jets. This announcement was formally made by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the IDEX 2023 defense exhibition.

Half of Croatia's Rafale F3-R fleet acquired, full delivery by 2025
Photo credit: Dassault Aviation

The problem is not the price

It’s been suggested that the total cost of Rafale jets from France could potentially set Serbia back by 3 billion euros. This figure appears even more substantial in light of Belgrade’s preceding ‘major task,’ which was to raise the defense budget to a mere 2.2 billion dollars to meet its fundamental defense needs. 

However, Serbia finds itself in a difficult situation. The country urgently needs operational aircraft to replace the aging MiG-29. After February 2022, sourcing components for this aircraft has become increasingly difficult, relegating the issue of cost to secondary importance. 

A year later, towards the end of March 2024, Serbian President Vucic signaled his intent to purchase Rafale fighter jets while inspecting an airport. He stated quite clearly that if the Rafale jets are unavailable, he’s prepared to explore other options. 

At present, a successful sale of the Rafale largely depends on the political standing of France. The fraught issue of Kosovo’s status is an important consideration, and France’s reluctance to sell air-to-air Meteor missiles to Serbia, as it is not a NATO member, also plays a significant role.

Serbia vis-à-vis the status of Kosovo

Just in: Clashes in North Kosovo, KFOR soldier is badly hurt
Photo credit: Twitter

The position that Serbia takes regarding Kosovo’s status is essentially one of denial. Despite the strides towards autonomy made by Kosovo in 2008, Serbia’s stance is that Kosovo is merely an autonomous province within its own borders. This belief originates from a combination of historical, cultural, and political elements, which includes the significance of Kosovo in defining Serbia’s national identity.  

Serbia expressly denies Kosovo’s independence, wherein international law is brought into the picture. Serbia’s argument is that Kosovo’s unilateral secession infringes on the principle of territorial integrity; a cornerstone of international law. This principle maintains that nations should avoid actions that would disturb the national unity and territorial wholeness of other countries.  

The catch is that the international community has a divided opinion on this matter. Numerous Western nations – the USA and the majority of EU states, for instance – have recognized Kosovo’s independence. However, other countries, such as Russia and China, align with Serbia’s viewpoint. This discord has hindered Kosovo’s efforts to achieve complete international recognition and become a member of international bodies.  

Greece tests new shells to increase the 155mm B-52 howitzer range
Photo credit: MoD Serbia

Yet another concern is the state of affairs concerning the Serbian minority residing in Kosovo. Serbia has expressed fears over the protection and rights of the Serbian community in Kosovo. Even with international peacekeeping forces in place, the tension between the Kosovan Albanian majority and the Serbian minority remains high.  

There have been advances towards resolving the conflict through dialogue and discussions, with the European Union serving as a mediator. However, these conversations have frequently been overshadowed by political instability and a general distrust between the two parties. The matter of Kosovo’s status continues to be a significant hurdle to Serbia’s ambition of joining the European Union.

Serbian MiG-29s vs. French Rafale

New munition under the French Rafale F4.1 wings - the AASM 1000
Photo credit: French MoD

Currently, the Serbian Air Force mainly uses the MiG-29 variant, specifically the MiG-29B 9-12A and MiG-29UB 9-51A. These planes have undergone upgrades to the MiG-29SM version, which features advanced avionics, an expanded fuel capacity, and adaptability for precision-guided weapons. 

By contrast, the French Rafale is a multi-role fighter aircraft that surpasses the MiG-29 in numerous aspects. The Rafale is powered by a stronger engine, delivering remarkable agility and speed. Moreover, it’s equipped with superior avionics, integrating a Thales RBE2-AA active electronically scanned array [AESA] radar that outperforms the MiG-29’s N019 Topaz radar with its remarkable detection and tracking performance. 

Furthermore, the Rafale has a longer range than the MiG-29, due to its larger fuel capacity and more efficient engines. This feature enables the Rafale to stay airborne for more extended periods and cover larger distances, a critical advantage for patrol and surveillance missions. Last but not least, the Rafale has a higher weapons capacity than the MiG-29, boasting a nuclear strike capability along with air-to-air, air-to-ground, and anti-ship missile capabilities.

Serbia's Dassault Rafale ambition dashed by French objection
Photo credit: Focus Agency

The alternatives to Serbia

Suppose a French Rafale, a Eurofighter, or American and Russian options are all off the table for Serbia, we can’t discount the Saab JAS 39 Gripen as a feasible alternative. Originating from Sweden, the Gripen is a multirole fighter aircraft widely respected for its balance of cost-effectiveness, superior performance, and adaptability to a range of combat situations.  

Boasting advanced avionics and sensor systems, the Gripen is akin to the Rafale when you consider the radar system with which it’s equipped. Add into the mix a broad spectrum of air-to-air and air-to-surface armament options, and you’ve got quite a formidable opponent. The Gripen truly excels, however, in operational cost — significantly lower than its French counterpart — an appealing prospect for Serbia. 

China has sold FK-3 medium / long-range missile system to Serbia
Photo credit: Global Times

If you’re looking elsewhere, the Chinese Chengdu J-10 is another multi-role fighter jet worth considering. Lauded for its agility and powerful engine, it’s by no means lightweight compared to the Rafale. Moreover, its diverse assortment of weapons coupled with advanced avionics makes it an imposing adversary in aerial warfare. Keep in mind, the J-10’s technology might not stand toe to toe with the Rafale or Gripen, but that doesn’t disqualify it as a viable alternative — with China’s readiness to export military tech, it’s a potent contender. 

Lastly, let’s not overlook the KAI FA-50 from South Korea. Although not quite in the same league as the Rafale in terms of raw power, this light combat aircraft offers versatility, capable of executing various air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Equipped with state-of-the-art avionics and a broad range of weapons, the FA-50’s key selling point is its affordability and easier maintenance. Given these features, it is a tempting option for Serbia, especially if budget considerations are front and center in their decision-making process.

Vucic and Macron

Europe Can No Longer Rely on the US to Defend NATO Allies - Emmanuel Macron
Photo credit: Wikipedia

It appears that Serbia is meticulously considering its approach towards decision-making. The desire for French Rafales is palpable in Belgrade, and the consideration of other alternatives does not seem to be on the table for now. This sentiment is echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. 

In a televised government meeting, Vucic discussed the possibility of engaging in conversations with Macron during his planned visit to France on April 8th. “The agenda will cover subjects like specific-purpose industries and how we can foster cooperation in these areas,” Vucic explained, highlighting the focus on their defense sector. 

Serbia, a potential member of the European Union, boasts one of the most formidable military forces in the Balkans. Despite their recent purchases of Chinese anti-aircraft missiles and combat drones, Serbia continues to maintain its military neutrality. However, it has chosen to participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which is designed exclusively for nations that do not intend to join the alliance.

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