June’s end marks aging MiG-29s swap for France’s Dassault Rafale

Belgrade is on the verge of a significant overhaul of its air fleet, with modern Dassault Rafale fighters from Paris slated to replace the aging Soviet MiG-29s that currently comprise the backbone of the Serbian Air Force. Previously, it had been reported that Serbia exhibited a preference for the French-made fighters over other contenders, which included another Russian model and the JF-17, a joint venture of Pakistan and China. 

French Rafale F5 coming with emphasis on EW and SEAD in 2030
Photo credit: Reddit

Just yesterday, an important meeting took place when French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, for a two-day visit. There have been multiple confirmations suggesting that decisive agreements about the acquisition of French fighter jets have been finalized. Vucic told the Serbian press corps in Paris, “We anticipate the contract being signed within the next couple of months, with the French president in attendance.”

Given that Russia is a close ally of Serbia and a significant contributor to its weapons arsenal, the shift to French fighter jets may come as a surprise to some. However, the imposing force of international economic sanctions directed at Russia is significantly hampering its export relationships with partners such as Serbia. This fallout largely contributes to Belgrade’s inability to refurbish its obsolete MiG-29s and presents a considerable risk when considering the purchase of new Russian fighters under current circumstances. Nonetheless, this is not the sole rationale behind Serbia’s decision to opt for the Rafale. The nation is also pursuing a more European-centric diplomatic stance and governance, and in this endeavor, France emerges as an appealing partner. 

Greece received the first six of eighteen Rafale fighters
Photo credit: Dassault Aviation

Dassault Aviation is pleased

Undoubtedly, the procurement of 12 Rafale fighters represents a significant opportunity for the French manufacturer, Dassault Aviation. They’re broadening their global clientele, with countries like Egypt, France, Greece, India, and Qatar already making use of these impressive French jets. Later this year, Croatia is scheduled to enhance their air power by taking delivery of their first batch of six Rafales, from a total order of 12 pre-owned jets.

In other parts of the world, specifically in Asia and the Middle East, France is making its mark. Indonesia is on deck to acquire 42 Rafale jets, while the United Arab Emirates has submitted an impressive order for 80 of France’s highly-regarded fighter aircraft. Undoubtedly, the Rafale holds considerable sway against its European counterpart, the Eurofighter Typhoon. When we eliminate the American F-16 and F-35 from consideration, it truly stands as the “top-selling aircraft globally”

As of now, the financial specifics related to Serbia’s procurement of 12 new French fighter jets remain undisclosed. Simultaneously, though, Belgrade is demonstrating its readiness to meet whatever price tag Paris sets. However, one question lingers – what will France demand to seal this deal? The possibility that France might demand political concessions isn’t off the table. Rumors circulating in some political circles in Central and Eastern Europe suggest that Paris might encourage Belgrade to reconsider its stance on Kosovo’s status. Or perhaps, it could require a lasting commitment to resolving the volatility between Serbia and the “state unrecognized by Serbia”.

Aging MiG-29s

The Soviet Union introduced their MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia in the late 80s, specifically from 1987 to 1989. The Cold War era was a time of intense military technology exportation from the Soviet Union to allied nations and those they favored. Considering the leaps in technology, MiG-29 fighter jets seem to lag behind their contemporaries. Crafted during the closing days of the Cold War, these jets were groundbreaking back then but the rapid progression of technology over the recent years has made them somewhat outdated. 

Contrasted with today’s combat aircraft, the MiG-29 fighters lack multiple state-of-the-art systems now considered as standard. These include intricate avionics and technologically advanced weapon systems. Speaking about avionics, MiG-29 operates on analog systems, which are considered less precise and dependable when compared to the digital systems predominant in today’s modern aircraft.

Moreover, the armament systems of the MiG-29 are no longer on par with the latest technologies. Its inability to carry modern air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles and the absence of advanced guidance and tracking mechanisms diminish its competence in current battle scenarios. 

In addition, the MiG-29 falls short of embodying the integrated communication and data exchange platforms, which are standard features in recent fighter jets. Such systems facilitate superior coordination with fellow aircraft and ground forces and also enable instantaneous data relay and decision-making. The absence of these systems places the MiG-29 on shaky grounds in the face of today’s network-centric warfare. 

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

Possible ‘Meteor’

Without a doubt, the Rafale is poised to significantly bolster the Serbian air force’s combat prowess. Although official confirmation is yet to be received, it’s rumored that Belgrade might also place an order for the French Meteor air-to-air missiles. Produced by the European defense association MBDA, the French Meteor air-to-air missile is a groundbreaking beyond-visible-range [BVR] weapon, set to transform 21st-century air-to-air warfare.

A unique direct drive powers the Meteor missile, renowned for its top-tier speed, adaptability, and precision. This propulsion system, paired with state-of-the-art active radar targeting, allows the Meteor to efficiently engage rapidly moving targets.

Meteor air-to-air missiles and NH90 helos for the Qatari Air Force
Photo credit: Defence Blog

The missile measures roughly 3.65 meters in length, has a diameter of approximately 178 millimeters, and weighs close to 185 kilograms. It is equipped with a two-stage propulsion mechanism, which includes a solid propellant rocket booster for the first stage and a throttling duct rocket, or ramjet, for the second stage.

An aspect that truly distinguishes the Meteor missile is its remarkable operational range. It can engage targets beyond a distance of 100 kilometers, thereby establishing an extensive no-go zone. This extended reach, combined with its speed and agility, makes the Meteor a formidable contender in the field of air-to-air combat.

In addition, the Meteor missile is equipped with cutting-edge active radar guidance technology and a two-way data link, which enables it to receive situational updates from the launch aircraft. This dual functionality ensures high levels of accuracy and operational effectiveness, even when deployed at its maximum range. 

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