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Monday, May 1, 2006

Hands Across the Borders

Igor Bozinovski

Macedonia, like other parts of the former Soviet Bloc, is transforming its military to better mesh with its new defense partner--NATO.

On Oct. 6, 2005, headquarters Macedonian Air Force ceased to exist. The organization wasn't wiped out by an enemy, at least not a current one. Rather, it was reorganized as part of a transformation intended to allow Macedonian military forces to better operate jointly with a new defense ally: NATO.

For decades as a part of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonians joined other Soviet-Bloc forces in squaring off against NATO nations. The Republic of Macedonia won its independence in 1991. Today, it seeks to join its former foes as a full member of NATO. In mid-April, its foreign minister, Ilinka Mitreva, met with ambassadors of NATO member countries toward that end; the nation hopes to be invited to join NATO before 2008.

The changes are based on Macedonia's first Strategic Defense Review. As part of the ongoing reforms for transformation of Macedonia's army to NATO standards, the headquarters of the Macedonian air force (Makedonsko Voeno Vozduhoplovstvo) ceased to exist and that service was consolidated in the Airborne Wing (Vozduhoploven Ving), a brigade-size unit. It immediately became part of the newly established Allied Operational Command that reports to the army's General Staff.

The air force will continue to be organized in four aviation squadrons, and for the first time in its history will have added to that structure two flights. According to the new organization structure, the Airborne Wing is composed of four aviation squadrons: the Combat Helicopter Sqdn. (Borben Helikopterski Skvadron--BHS); the Transport Helicopter Sqdn. (Transporten Helikopterski Skvadron--TRHS); the Training Sqdn. (Skolsko Trenazen Skvadron--STS) and the VIP Transport Sqdn. (VIP Transporten Skvadron--VIPTS). Except for the newly established VIP Transport Sqdn., all the squadrons trace their heritage to the air force's old structure.

In addition to the four aviation squadrons, the newly organized Airborne Wing has two flights in its structure: the Search and Rescue (SAR) Flight and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) Flight. A non-aviation unit designated the Squadron for Logistical Support (Skvadron za Logisticka Poddrska--SLP) also has been established in the restructured Macedonian air force.

Apart from calling for reorganizing the air force, the Strategic Defense Review called for retirement of five outdated helicopters (four Mi-24s and one Mi-8MT) and four old Su-25 ground-attack planes). Their disposal is projected to save the Macedonian defence ministry about US$25 million over the next 10 years. Those savings are necessary to underwrite the planned procurement of 8-10 NATO-compatible aircraft. These would include 2-3 Bell 206B JetRanger 3 training helicopters, 4-6 Huey 2 utility helicopters and one Bell-made, VIP-configured helicopter, as well as one fixed-wing transport aircraft.

The chief of the Macedonian air force, Col. Vladimir Lazarov, said The Combat Helicopter Sqdn. will keep in service only eight Mi-24V Hind-E gunships. The Transport Helicopter Sqdn. will continue to operate with three Mi-8MTs and three Mi-17s. The transport squadron's aircraft are to be supplemented with two UH-1Hs that have so far served within the Training Sqdn.

The sole An-2 Colt transport biplane in service with the air force will also leave its previous operator, the Training Sqdn., and will become part of the newly established VIP Transport Sqdn. that is planed to be the future operator of the new VIP-configured helicopter and fixed-wing transport aircraft scheduled for purchase in the coming years. The Training Sqdn. will continue to operate the fleet of six Zlin trainers, which should be supplemented by 2007 with at least two brand-new Bell 206B JetRanger 3 training helicopters.

The Strategic Defense Review also called for upgrading part of the existing Mi-17 and Mi-24 fleets, which should be focused on providing the aircraft with the ability to use night-vision equipment as well as NATO/ICAO-compatible communications, navigation and identification equipment required for NATO/Partnership for Peace exercises and peacekeeping missions.

The process of seriously preparing the air force for contributing to NATO operations was initiated in December 2003, when the government awarded Elbit Systems of Israel with a US$2-million contract for limited (first-stage) upgrade of two Mi-17s (Serial Nos. VAM 302 and VAM-303) and two Mi-24Vs (Serial Nos. 209 and 210).

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