President Putin of Russia recently sent some essential supplies to Serbia, as a personal gift, to put some of Serbia’s Mig-21 and MiG-29 aircraft back in service. The essential supplies consisted of special batteries the MiGs required to operate. Why did the Serbs lack batteries? Therein lies an interesting tale.
Serbian Air Force officials knew they had to obtain additional batteries nearly a year ago and asked the Defense Ministry to order them. This was done, but not before someone in the Defense Ministry noted that India offered the same batteries (manufactured for their own MiGs and for export) at a third of what the Russians (the usual supplier) charged. So Serbia ordered from India. Russia found out and demanded that Serbia cancel that order or else Russia would withhold MiG parts and maintenance services only Russia still provided. Serbia protested but was reminded them that in 1999 Russia was the only major power that had backed them when they sought, in vain, to prevent Kosovo province from becoming an independent state (something NATO approved of). The Serbs felt they owned their “big brother” something and gave in. However the Serbs pointed out that money was short and it would be a while before they could scrape together the funds to pay for the pricey Russian batteries.
While all this was going on the air force ran out of batteries. Thus by June the Serbian air force revealed that none of its combat aircraft (26 MiG-21s, four MiG-29s and 18 J-22s) were available for duty because the Defense Ministry was having problems buying batteries for the aircraft.
Serbia doesn’t have much of an air force to begin with and the cost of maintenance has been a struggle keep up with. For the last three months the air force insisted that three MiG-21s and three MiG-29s were available for emergency service but no one has seen any of them flying lately. Some of the older aircraft have been out of action for so long that it will take a major refurbishment to get them back into the air. Most of the non-combat aircraft are also grounded because of maintenance problems also related to procurement costs.
At first it was believed that the battery situation was clearly another example of the Defense Ministry procurement bureaucracy getting in the way. In the past the procurement bureaucrats had been involved in some situations where the troops complained of a torturous and lengthy process for ordering equipment. There were even cases where the procurement bureaucrats seemed to ignore how delays in obtaining parts or supplies would impact equipment readiness. But in this case the procurement officials were trying to save some money so that more critical parts or maintenance supplies could be purchased. Russia, as it has often done to others in the past, gets very disruptive and threatening when anyone seeks to buy MiG parts or services from anyone but Russia.
Normally all this procurement politics is classified as “state secrets” but word on the battery fiasco got out because of the high handed behavior of the Russians. Thus in this case there were no calls for an investigation to find and prosecute the “spy” who made this item public. Russia tried to break the deadlock and portray itself as the good guy by donating some of the needed batteries. But many other batteries must be bought at the usual price, which is three times what the Indians charge. Buy Russian, or else.