Romania suspends all MiG-21 LanceR flight operations

The Forțele Aeriene Române (FAR, Romanian Air Force) has suspended all flight activities with its ageing Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Lancer B/C fleet to improve aviation safety and prevent further attrition events involving the Soviet-era fighter.

On the orders of Romania’s Chief of the Defense Staff, Gen Daniel Petrescu, this fleet-wide grounding order came into effect on April 15. The FAR states that “the measure was taken in view of the significant incidence of aviation events and accidents during the operation of MiG-21 LanceR aircraft, resulting in multiple casualties and damaged or destroyed aircraft.”

Romanian MiG-21 in flight [Romanian Air Force/Bogdan Pantilimon]
Effective from April 15, all flight operations involving Romania's fleet of ageing Soviet-era MiG-21 LanceR B/C fighters have been suspended until further notice. Romanian Air Force/Bogdan Pantilimon

While the Romanian MiG-21 fleet remains grounded, the FAR’s newly acquired Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcon fleet – which was acquired second-hand from Portugal – will continue to execute domestic Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) operations, with support from allied aircraft deployed to Romania in support of NATO’s enhanced Air Policing (eAP) mission. The FAR adds that ground-based air defence systems will continue to augment such Air Policing missions under the framework of the NATO Integrated Air Defence Systems (NATINADS).

In light of the MiG-21’s diminishing safety record, Romania is also working to speed up its acquisition of 32 F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcons from Norway, with a further two squadrons of the type set to be established in the coming years. Romania plans to operate three F-16 units in total.

“The draft law approving this acquisition has gone through the stage of legislative transparency and is in the approval circuit and will be presented to the Romanian parliament as soon as possible,” the FAR adds. The air arm states that the F-16s will remain operational for at least a decade, adding that it plans to ultimately transition to a fifth-generation combat force, with an aim to acquire a fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-role stealth fighters in the long-term.

Romanian MiG-21 [Khalem Chapman]
Two Romanian units, the 711th and 861st Combat Aviation Squadrons, operate the veteran Soviet-era MiG-21, which is easily recognisable for its sharp dagger-like design. Given that Romania and Croatia are both set to replace their well-aged MiG-21s in the near future, the type has now entered the twilight years of operational service in Europe. Khalem Chapman

The MiG-21 initially entered operational service with the FAR in the mid-to-late 1960s. A total of 73 single-seat MiG-21M/MF/MF-75 Fishbed-J fighters and 14 two-seat MiG-21UM combat-trainers were upgraded to LanceR A/B standard (respectively) between 1995 and 2002. The LanceR A was tasked with ground attack missions, while the LanceR B maintained its combat-trainer role. A further 25 MiG-21MF/MF-75 airframes were converted to LanceR C standard and tasked with the air superiority role. The LanceR A fleet was retired from service in 2011 and less than 25 LanceR B/Cs remain in Romanian service today.

In recent years, the ageing LanceR fleet has suffered from rising attrition rates. On June 12, 2017, one example crashed in the Romanian county of Constanța, with the pilot managing to egress the aircraft before impact. A year later – on July 7, 2018 – a FAR MiG-21 was lost during a display at the Borcea Open Day due to technical difficulties, resulting in the death of its pilot.

In April 2021, another LanceR B/C crashed during a training flight over Mureș County. The pilot successfully ejected from the aircraft and survived. More recently – on March 2, 2022 – a MiG-21 crashed near the Romanian village of Gura Dobrogei as a result of adverse weather conditions. That day, the Romanian military also lost an IAR-330L Puma utility helicopter, which was conducting search and rescue operations for the lost MiG-21 pilot, killing all seven on board.