NATO’s newest member: Montenegro

Sven van Roij visited the Balkan nation of Montenegro and tells us about the small nation’s air arm

The entire coastal area of the Adriatic Sea is now covered by NATO. Cliffs near the port of Bar make a scenic backdrop to two Gazelles.

In June 2006, after a small majority of the country’s population voted in favour of separation from Serbia during a referendum, the Republic of Montenegro proclaimed independence. In the years that followed, the country’s political leanings turned from the east to the west. Nineteen years ago, the Balkan country was bombed by NATO during Operation Allied Force. In June 2017, Montenegro became the 29th nation to join the alliance.

Through the years

Golubovci Airbase is located in the Zeta valley, ten miles (16km) south of Montenegro’s capital Podgorica. It is the only air base in the small Balkan country, which was formerly part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The mixed civilian-military airport houses the entire Vazduhoplovstvo Vojske Crne Gore (VVCG, the air force of the army of Montenegro), which consists of a Command Staff and an Air Surveillance Platoon, the Aviation Support Company, an Air Defence Platoon and a Helicopter Squadron. The military area of the airport covers about 75 acres (30.35ha) and 225 Air Force members are employed there.

Deputy Air Force Commander – now Acting Air Force Commander – Lieutenant Colonel Nenad Pavlovic, speaking exclusively to AIR International, said: “Since the Montenegrin military organisation is very small, most personnel have a wide range of tasks. Despite our small size, our Air Force has a rich history and tradition. The firstflight in Montenegro took place in 1913, less than a decade after the firstflight of the Wright brothers. During the 1970s and through the 1980s, both Yugoslav Military Air Force Academy students and foreign air force pilots were trained at our bases with the best results. In the 1990s, Golubovci Airbase housed the largest air force unit in the Balkans: 172. Aviation Brigade, which consisted of seven squadrons and one aerobatic team.”

Two Gazelles overhead Ostrvo Gospa od Milosrđa island in the Bay of Tivat, near the coastal town of Kotor.

The Vazduhoplovstvo Vojske Crne Gore

At its peak, 15,000 flying hours per year were flown by Montenegro’s Air Force. Today it is down to 2,500 and the entire Air Force now has only 29 pilots. The Military Air Force Academy no longer offers basic flight training, because it’s not financially viable to train so few. Therefore, Montenegro’s military pilots complete their flight training in Greece or Macedonia, but type conversion and certification is carried out in Montenegro. Pavlovic said: “The conversion to Gazelle consists of 95 flying hours in 285 sorties during a 33-week course.”

The VVCG fleet has shrunk dramatically since its glory days. It no longer operates fixed-wing aircraft and only has one helicopter squadron operating different versions of the Gazelle. Most of these helicopters were built under licence by the Yugoslav aircraft manufacturer SOKO Mostar. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the country’s helicopter fleet was divided among the new states. The types still operate with the Oružane Snage Bosne i Hercegovine (the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina), the Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo i Protivvazduhoplovna Odbrana (the Serbian Air Force and Air Defence) and Montenegro itself.

Montenegro’s Gazelle fleet comprises 13 helicopters, including the HN-45M Gama (attack version of the SA342L), the HI-42 Hera (scout version of SA341) and the HO-42 (general-purpose version of the SA341H). Two of the SA341s were manufactured by Aérospatiale in France.

Lt Col Pavlovic said: “Of the 13 helicopters in use, seven have already been overhauled and are in operational service. By the end of 2018, we expect four more helicopters to return from overhaul at Avioservis IKAR in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This overhaul includes a check of the aircraft’s structure, the upgrade and repair of all major components, including the engine, main gears and fenestron, and the installation of new, NATOcompatible radio-navigation equipment.

Unfortunately, we lost one of our helicopters in June 2016. The armed SA342 [HN-45M], registration number 12941, was flown by Colonel Namik Arifovic and his co-pilot Lt Col Miroljub Antanasijevic. Both men survived the crash, although Arifovic was seriously injured and had to take early retirement.”

Accession to NATO

Despite fragile public support for membership, the Montenegrin government has generally been in favour of membership of and contributing to NATO.

Five months after gaining statehood during the Riga Summit in November 2006, Montenegro was invited by NATO to join the Partnership for Peace programme (PfP). This allows a partner to build up an individual relationship with NATO, choosing its own priorities for integration into the organisation. Montenegro accepted the invitation and joined the PfP a month later.

Montenegro agreed to deepen its relationship with NATO in July 2008 by agreeing to accept suggested Individual Partnership Action Plans; and then in December 2009, NATO invited Montenegro to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP). This supports countries wishing to join the alliance and provides tailored assistance, advice and practical support.

Less than a year later, as part of the MAP, Montenegro submitted its first Annual National Programme (ANP). In the ANPs that followed, the country announced its intention to dispose of surplus Air Force materiel, including four SOKO G-4 Super Galeb advanced jet trainers and light ground-attack aircraft and three UTVA-75 military basic trainers.

Even though the last Super Galeb flight took place on June 24, 2010, and the last operational UTVA-75 flight was on September 2, 2008, the Montenegrin government did not decide to sell the fixed-wing aircraft until March 2016. Air Force commander Colonel Zivko Pejovic said: “The cost of training, operation and maintenance of the aircraft was no longer economical.”

Lieutenant Colonel Pavlovic told AIR International: “The expected financial return for the sale will be around €13 million to €15 million. The aircraft have not been sold yet and are currently in open storage. However, serious interest was shown by the armed forces of Serbia, a company from Serbia and one private company from Croatia.”

Because of Montenegro’s lack of fighter aircraft, quick reaction alert is provided by NATO allies Greece and Italy under an air policing agreement reached on October 30, 2017.

Montenegro’s third ANP, published in October 2012, identified a need for at least two multipurpose helicopters with additional equipment for transport, medevac, SAR and fire-fighting.

The Gazelle is a light, agile helicopter that is very suitable for reconnaissance, but is unsuitable for fire-fighting, medical evacuation, SAR and troop transport duties.
Deputy Air Force Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nenad Pavlovic spoke to AIR International about the Montenigrin Air Force and his country’s accession to NATO.
Montenegrin Ministry of Defence

The future

The need for such a new helicopter type was recognised in the 2013 Strategic Defence Review of Montenegro, which described the Air Force’s lack of a medium-lift utility helicopter. The first Gazelle was taken into service in 1976 and the last was commissioned 26 years ago.

The type is not suitable for every task required of a NATO member. The urgent need for a bigger, better, more capable helicopter became painfully evident in July 2017 during forest fires in Luštica Peninsula near the Croatian border.

On July 17, exactly six weeks after joining NATO, Montenegro requested assistance from the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre to fight those fires. As a result, NATO’s youngest member received help from the Ukraine, Israel, Bulgaria and Switzerland, all of which sent fire-fighting aircraft and helicopters to Montenegro to assist in quenching the blaze.

In addition to its unsuitability as a firefighting platform, the Gazelle is also unsuitable for medevac and SAR duties and for use as a troop transport. In November 2017, an announcement was made that two Bell 412EPIs and one Bell 412EP were to be bought at a cost of €29.9 million. On January 30, a formal order was signed by Montenegrin Minister of Defence, Predrag Boskovic and Martin Zablocki, Chief Executive Officer and President of Canadian Commercial Corporation, the Canadian government-to-government contracting organization. The new, powerful, medium-lift helicopters will be fitted with the Bell BasiX Pro Integrated Avionic System with four 10.4-inch (264mm) high-resolution LCD multifunction display units. The aircraft is optimised for IFR Category A and JAR OPS3 compliant operations and has a useful load of 5,100lb (2,313kg). It can be fitted out to carry 14 passengers.

Pavlovic said: “The renewal of the aircraft fleet will involve logistical and infrastructure challenges, especially for a country with limited funds. Still, Montenegro tries to fulfil its duties. Lieutenant Colonel Radeta, instructor pilot on the Gazelle, describes the plans for modernising Golubovci Airbase: “During the bombing of the airbase in the late 1990s, its infrastructure was severely damaged. Of the seven hangars we had, only one was saved. This hangar is currently being renovated with a new floor and large electric doors. In addition, we expect to begin construction of a new hangar soon, which will house the newly purchased helicopters.”

Lieutenant Colonel Pavlovic: “For this year and next year, €7 million to €8 million is budgeted for new equipment, infrastructure and the training of pilots and technicians, excluding the monthly payment for staff.”

With the accession of Montenegro, the entire coastal area of the Adriatic Sea is now covered by NATO, a major strategic advantage for the organisation, and the nation has participated in EU sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea. Montenegro also refused a request by the Russian Federation to install a military base near Port of Bar, to provide logistical support to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which covers the Mediterranean. The nation’s strong political stance was recognised by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who praised Montenegro’s contribution to international peace and security after it joined the organisation.

Lt Col Pavlovic said “Security in the region and beyond is our priority over the next ten years. Therefore, we will focus on increasing our capabilities in tactical troop transport and SAR.

We will develop operational capacities to be able to adequately provide support to civilians in emergency situations with our new helicopters, in all weather conditions, day and night. We will establish a modern Air Operations Centre. This centre will have the capacity to continuously monitor all types of situations in our airspace through collecting data from its own resources and from Montenegrin civil aviation entities, NATO allies and neighbouring countries. This will involve the purchase of a modern 3D air defence radar in the next two years. The radar system will enable the integration of radar images both at national and regional level, as well as data exchange with NATO.

“Our air fleet will remain small due to high operating costs and our small defence budget. We are not planning on providing the Air Force with fixed-wing transport aircraft or attack aircraft. However, replacing the Gazelle fleet with another helicopter type is a possibility. Modernisation of the armed HN- 45M will be very expensive and the aircraft will still offer limited capacity. The future will show what type of aircraft will strengthen our Air Force.” AI

A Montenegrin HN-45M Gama follows a HO-42 over the rugged Balkan landscape.