MiG-21 LanceR – end of the tale

On 9th May 2023, the Romanian Ministry of Defence announced the date of withdrawal of the country´s MiG-21 LanceR fleet from active service. The final day was set on 15th May, therefore ending sixty-one years of operations of the MiG-21 fighter with the Romanian Air Force (Forțele Aeriene Române).

The Romanian Air Force received its first twelve MiG-21F-13 aircraft in 1962. Subsequent deliveries were continued until 1990 and there was a time that the Romanian fleet of the MiG-21 fighters exceeded three hundred aircraft.

Between 1995 and 2000, the RoAF upgraded the MiG-21 to completely new, advanced standard designated LanceR (´R´stands for ´Romania´). That upgrade was made by the joint venture of Romanian company Aerostar SA and Elbit Systems from Israel. From all then existing RoAF MiG-21s – mostly of M, MF and MF-75 variant – 110 fighters that had the lowest number of the flight hours on their airframe were chosen to be upgraded to the new standard.

Actually, there were three versions of the LanceR made – ´A´ optimized for the ground attack, ´B´ training version and ´C´ being the air superiority variant. Thanks to the upgrade, the MiG-21 LanceR received the capability to use both Eastern and Western weapons, including R-73 / R-60 or Magic II and Python-3 missiles.

The withdrawal of the MiG-21 LanceR from the active service is based on the decision of the Supreme Council of National Defence (Consiliul Suprem de Apărare a Țării) no. 83, dated 18th May 2022. That act not only decided about acceleration of retirement of the MiG-21 fighters from the RoAF but also defined their replacement by F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Romania is one of the last European countries to retire the MiG-21 jets. That once very popular fighter aircraft – although now definitely passing its glory days – managed to stay in active service until the 2010s in just four air forces in Europe. In December of 2015 the MiG-21 was officially withdrawn from operational service in Bulgaria and then the Serbian Air Force said farewell to that legendary aeroplane in May of 2021.

MiG-21 LanceR, flying display at Bucharest International Air Show 2012

Currently, the Croatian Air Force (Hrvatsko ratno zrakoplovstvo) is the sole European air force still operating a fleet of the MiG-21 fighters. Nevertheless, their service days are also counted. The aircraft had to be withdrawn from active operations already in 2022, however the replacement programme was delayed due to coronavirus outbreak. According to the 2021 statement of the Croatian Ministry of Defence, the MiG-21 fleet will be succeeded by twelve used French Rafale fighters.

Following the withdrawal of the MiG-21 LanceR from active service, the RoAF will continue its operations with the fleet of fourteen F-16 fighters. Another thirty-two Vipers acquired from Norway – that replaced them with the F-35 Lightning II – are expected to be received in the nearest future. In the meantime, the RoAF is constantly being supported by fighter deployments from other NATO countries, within Enhanced Air Policing programme implemented by the Alliance.

Official solemn ceremonies related to the MiG-21 LanceR retirement will be held on 15th May 2023 in three air force bases in Romania – the 71st Air Base ´General Emanoil Ionescu´ in Câmpia Turzii, the 86th Air Base ´Lieutenant Aviator Gheorghe Mociorniţă´ in Borcea and the 95th Air Base ´Erou capitan aviator Alexandru Șerbănescu´ in Bacău.

The main farewell ceremony will be held in Bacău and will be combined with open doors day at the air base that starts at 12:00 hours.

Visitors to the 95th Air Base will have an opportunity to see the MiG-21 LanceR aircraft arriving to Bacău from other airfields, as well as have access to the museum located in the air base.

Romanian MiG-21 LanceR at Aviators´ monument in Câmpia Turzii (in the vicinity of the 71st Air Base)