Air Defense: Romania Improves Black Sea Defenses


July 8, 2024: Romania, a NATO member that has a Black Sea coast and a Ukrainian border, is spending billions of dollars to build a new airbase and storage facilities for military equipment. Romania believes that Russia, another country with a Black Sea coast, will be a continuing problem in the region. Romania wants to prepare facilities that Romania and its NATO allies can use. At the same time Romania is purchasing more defensive systems like Patriot and GEM-t to deal with any Russian attempts to officially or covertly carry out air attacks on Romania. The new air base will be used by NATO allies, particularly the United States, to monitor activity in the region. The Americans have already been using AWACS and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) aircraft to monitor Russian activity in the Black Sea. The new airbase will be able to handle more NATO member, particularly American, monitoring aircraft. Romanian air bases have already hosted combat aircraft from several NATO nations. These aircraft carry out patrols in the Black Sea to protect unarmed surveillance aircraft.

Romanian efforts to upgrade its air force included retiring the last of its MiG-21 fighters in early 2023. This ended the nearly 70 years of MiG-21 use by European nations. Small numbers of MiG-21s still serve in a number of African countries.

Romania has a small economy, and defense budget, compared to the original West European NATO countries and most other new East European NATO members. This has made it difficult but not impossible to upgrade its military to meet NATO standards. That meant replacing all the Russian combat aircraft with more capable Western models. If you were on a budget, the best inexpensive NATO compliant fighter was the F-16. There was a thriving market in second-hand F-16s and upgrades for F-16s. of all ages. There was an upgrade market for MiG-21s after the Cold War ended in 1991. Romania kept its MiG-21s relevant for a long time via periodic upgrades. This kept Romanian MiG-21 LanceR models in service longer than anyone else’s. Romania’s transition to F-16s also involved a series of upgraded second-hand F-16s.

For example, Romania replaced 17 current second-hand F-16Bs with 32 more modern Norwegian second-hand F-16s. Norway upgraded its F-16s to the equivalent of the F-16C Block 50 in 2010. Romania negotiated the purchase of the Norwegian F-16s for $12 million per aircraft. This included spare parts and support equipment plus maintenance and technical training services. Deliveries began in 2023 and will be completed in 2024. These aircraft are good for at least another ten years. Norway had the best maintained F-16s in NATO, and recently replaced its F-16s with F-35s.

The Romanian F-16s from Portugal had been upgraded to a less advanced F-16 version. Romania is one the three NATO nations including Bulgaria and Turkey with a Black Sea coastline and the only one bordering Ukraine. That land border is used to get NATO supplies into Ukraine. Romania also provides training for some Ukrainian troops and security for commercial shipping moving between Ukraine and the Turkish exit to the Mediterranean.

Romania and many other NATO members have long used the F-16 because this aircraft has the most impressive combat record of any current jet fighter. The U.S. was the earliest and largest user of the F-16 and its F-16 fleet, containing many aircraft acquired in the 1980s, is rapidly aging. The average age of American F-16s is over 30 years, and the average aircraft has nearly 7,000 flight hours on it. Most European nations received their F-16s in the 1980s and have upgraded them since, but they are still elderly aircraft. Back in 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 flight hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models (a Block 25) F-16 passed 7,000 hours in the air. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours. Advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas flew over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime.

The official successor to the F-16 is the new F-35. This aircraft is more complex, capable and expensive. So much so that many F-16 users are asking for an upgraded F-16 as an alternative to the expensive F-35.




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