The Romanian Air Force – 15 Years in NATO
Interview with Major General Viorel Pană, Chief of the Romanian Air Force Staff
Where does the Romanian Air Force (ROU AF) stand after fifteen years membership of the North Atlantic Alliance?
To start with, I would like to stress that it is a great privilege for me to provide the readers with an overview of the current missions and challenges of the ROU AF and I want to highlight the efforts of the entire ROU AF personnel to fulfil their responsibilities, as we are now witnessing an unprecedentedly complex international security environment.
We face hybrid, conventional and asymmetric threats, combined and intertwined from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and from non-state actors or failed states. This requires constant and profound growth within the ROU AF to meet the new challenges confronting NATO. The ROU AF has adopted a dynamic approach to meet the modernization requirements and to integrate them into NATO.
We started the transformation process that touched upon all aspects of our Air Force and intended to transform our capabilities and to fulfil our missions while experiencing budget pressure for many years.
We implemented the first two stages of the transformation process; the main downsizing stage (2003–2007) and the NATO and European Union (EU) operational integration phase (2008–2015). Excellent progress was made towards generating an agile and adaptable force structure, which is more suited to today’s security environment. This process is to be finalized in 2025 and translates into a full integration into NATO and EU.
The ROU AF has come a long way since 2002, when we deployed a C-130 aircraft to Afghanistan in support of the coalition effort. In 2005, we deployed four IAR-330 SOCAT helicopters into Bosnia for one year and the following year, for the first time, Romania became the lead nation of the Kabul Afghanistan International Airport (KAIA) for four months. In 2007 we deployed four MiG-21 LanceR aircraft to Lithuania to secure the Baltic Nations’ airspace while performing the Air Policing mission and in 2008 we secured the NATO Summit in Bucharest together with our US allies. In April 2011 we took over once more the KAIA lead nation mission, this time for a full year.
But first and foremost changing the mindset of ROU AF personnel was critical, because of the implications on all the other aspects that come along with an Alliance membership; common doctrine, interoperability, increased role specialization, participating in multinational exercises and in coalition operations.
What does the Roadmap for the Transformation of the ROU AF look like?
Transforming the Air Force has been done to accomplish the following objectives: achieve NATO’s and EU’s commitments; upgrade to new Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems and Force Structure, add new logistics support structures, and modernize acquisition programmes.
Our main goals are to develop our Air Force to be capable of performing a broad spectrum of tasks such as transport, Search and Rescue (SAR), Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), air traffic management, reconnaissance, and most importantly protection of Romania’s airspace within NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS).
Some of the acquisitions have been planned for quite a while, but in 2016 after the ‘Romanian Armed Forces’ procurement program for 2017–2026 timeframe’ was approved by the Homeland Defence Supreme Council, the situation changed and we were content to include those new assets foreseen to be a part of our inventory.
Today, at the core of the ROU AF are our fighters, helicopters, transport aircraft, the Air C2 system, radars and missiles.
We will continue to increase our operational capability through the multirole fighter aircraft procurement programme, projected to achieve a final operational air capability represented by three multirole fighter squadrons equipped with 5th generation F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), through a transition period covered by three F-16 squadrons. To date, in the first phase of the programme, we have acquired twelve F-16 Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) aircraft from the Government of the Republic of Portugal, we have trained our pilots and technicians, and the first squadron was declared operational last summer and is ready to execute Air Policing missions. There are ongoing activities to continue the programme, to train additional personnel and at the same time to facilitate our national defence industry involvement to be prepared to perform maintenance and logistic services for our F-16 fleet.
We started the programme to upgrade the IAR-99 Șoim aircraft to an advanced training platform. Now that we have the multirole F-16 aircraft in our inventory, the IAR-99 requires a reconfiguring of the avionics and flight control systems to transition pilots through to the F-16. This programme targets to upgrade 21 IAR-99 Șoim aircraft with a new configuration of the IAR-99 Super Șoim platform aiming to increase reliability of the on-board installations and systems and to extend the aircraft lifecycle. This upgrading programme will involve the national industry capabilities.
We have enough Air Transport aircraft to sustain our Army and the Navy operations. The four C-130 Hercules aircraft established our airlift capability, which has been further improved by the procurement of seven C-27J Spartan aircraft in the past years.
The ROU AF operates Puma SOCAT attack helicopters, Puma transport, Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) and SAR helicopters and recently we started an upgrade programme for our IAR-330L helicopters. Our aim is to modernize twelve helicopters to have the updated platform available for peace-time missions on national territory, to support the central and local authorities in case of emergency situations, and to participate in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions as a part of Romania’s commitment. We are currently in the first stage of the programme where seven helicopters are modernized and we will start the second stage for modernizing the remaining five as soon as the ‘Helicopters procurement and endowment conception for the Romanian Armed Forces’ is approved.
Another important major acquisition programme was triggered when the decision was made to procure the long-range surface-to-air PATRIOT missile systems. The aim of this programme is to equip the Air and Land Forces with seven PATRIOT missile systems, to include the missiles, the C2 elements, the initial logistic support and personnel training, in order to defend the national airspace and the vital and strategic military and civilian critical assets. The first four systems are expected to be delivered by the end of 2022. Moreover the Short Range Air Defence/Very Short Range Air Defence (SHORAD/VSHORAD) integrated weapon systems are considered to be purchased as Romania is determined to implement the Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) concept.
The radar units utilize several types of digital radar stations such as Fixed Radar Surveillance 117 (FPS 117), Transportable Radar Surveillance 79 (TPS-79) Gap Filler and TPS-77. Our aim is to establish a reliable and sustainable C4ISR system.
What do you see as your priorities in meeting the modernization challenges in the ROU AF?
For this year we intend to fully integrate and exploit the F-16 starting with the execution of Air Policing mission and to train our aircrews as well as the maintenance, planning, operations and logistics officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) who will be deployed alongside four IAR-330L helicopters in less than four months in Mali. In two to three years, we want to train and educate our men and women to strengthen our Air Defence posture when the Patriot systems will enter service.
I have already mentioned the human resource as an essential factor and I want to provide, as one of my top priorities, well trained and equipped airmen and women for the future challenges. With this in mind, officers, NCOs, airmen and civilian employees undergo a comprehensive training program throughout their careers. We are continually reviewing the training methodology and the syllabus to enhance situational awareness, leverage knowledge and, at the end of the day, to have the right airmen taking the right decisions, to execute a mission in the most effective manner.
Since March 2018 the C-27J Spartan Detachment is the first NATO airlift detachment to finish the Tactical Evaluation (TACEVAL) programme and is able to accomplish its mission according to Alliance’s standards, as it went through a successful Capability Evaluation-type check-up by the TACEVAL/AIRCOM Ramstein Division. Our C-27J Advanced Training and Maintenance Facility has offered reoccurring currency training for the Hellenic Air Force’s specialists and there are ongoing discussions and negotiations to start training specialized personnel from Lithuania, Bulgaria and even the Peruvian Air Forces, as our intention is to transform it into a regional C-27J training hub in South Eastern Europe.
The MiG-21 LanceR was the workhorse of the ROU AF for decades, maintaining Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) to address potential airborne threats. This task will be taken over by the F-16, ensuring increased responsiveness and reactivity. There are different sorts of activities that prove our strong commitment to maximize this capability, to including the beginning of air-to-air refuelling missions. Our F-16’s now participate in extensive and comprehensive training to increase interoperability with our allies, from a complex point of view; communications, flight procedures, and logistics, according to NATO standards.
PATRIOT missiles systems will shape a new architecture design for our Air Defence posture and will enhance our contribution to the Alliance to deter and defend NATO territory.
We need to keep pace with the new security environment and the asymmetrical challenges, intellectually and doctrinally, and our equipment needs to have the embedded flexibility to be capable of adapting to future demands.
In recognition of the changed security environment, the National Defence Strategy (NDS), published in 2015, included a specific commitment to meet NATO expectations. This specifically targets military modernization by allocating two percent of Romania’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defence spending starting from 2017 for a minimum of ten years. Such commitments are meant to sustain the aspiration that Romania is an important security provider in the region, not just a recipient.
The Enhanced Air Policing missions executed in partnership with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force reinforced the cooperation and, at the same time, effectively contributed to the collective effort in managing the threats against Euro-Atlantic security.
Our agile and deployable force structure, supported by the ongoing modernization and procurement programmes will further strengthen our Air Force and the deterrence and defence posture of the Eastern flank of the Alliance.
To conclude, the ROU AF is effectively contributing to homeland security by safeguarding the national airspace. We will continue to upgrade and consolidate our combat capabilities with a view of defending our national and rule-of-law values and respecting the commitments made by our country at the international level to bolster regional and Alliance security.
Sir, thank you for your time and your comments.
Major General Viorel Pană
started his military career in 1989 as a fighter pilot on MiG-21 aircraft. In 1992 he became an airlift pilot on AN-24, and continuing with C-130 Hercules and C-27J Spartan. He is instructor pilot on C-130 Hercules and on C-27J Spartan. He has over 3,100 flying hours logged as an airlift pilot.
In 2014 he assumed command of the 90th Airlift Base. He was appointed as the acting Chief of the Romanian Air Force Staff on October 2017 and became the actual Air Chief at the beginning of 2018.
He was promoted to the rank of Major General on 1 December 2018.