Modernised assets imply modernised system

Interview Brigadier General Michael KRIŽANEC, Commander of Croatian Air Force

The Croatian Air Force Commander used the opportunity to congratulate the 29th anniversary of the establishment of the Croatian Air Force to the present and past members, who developed it for nearly three decades. This year, though strongly marked by the pandemic, is one of the most intensive for the Croatian Air Force since the Homeland War.

The interview is taking place in the Barracks named after the fallen Croatian pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Marko Živković. What is the legacy of the people like him for today’s Croatian Air Force and how inspirational their feat can be for the young pilots?

With a 29 years distance we can claim that the people like that their personal example set the foundations of today’s Croatian Air Force. They were people who did not hesitate to risk the lives they had lived, their families’ well-being, the property acquired in the moments of utmost uncertainty for the Croatian people and the Republic of Croatia as the cause that was above that all and above. Their example is our legacy today, which we pass on to the young technicians, mechanics, pilots, enlisted soldiers, officers, NCOs of specialties.

What actions during the Homeland War, from the pilot’s point of view, would you highlight in a special way and what is it that distinguishes them from others?

As a helicopter pilot I would certainly single out the Militar and Police Operation “Maslenica”, in which the Croatian Air Force executed a first massive landing of land forces from the north of Croatia on the battlefield. The Military and Police Operation “Maslenica” was the first inter-service operation of the Croatian Army. This by no means minimises the importance and contribution of the rest of the aviation personnel who took part in the liberating operations – the pilots of fighter and transport aircraft and pilots of attack helicopters. Everyone gave their utmost withouth disregarded their own safety. They made the maximal use of the assets and applied inexpected tactics against the enemy.

You belong to the 1st generation of pilots educated in Croatia. Can you compare your training experiences with today’s system?

The 1990ies were specific in the sense that we had very few training aircraft and no helicopters. After fifty hours of training on the Utva-75 training aircraft plane, I was immediately assigned to train on the Mi-8 helicopter, which, as seen today, is all but cost-effective and reasonable course. However, we had to adapt to the resource scarcity. The later development of training and procuring of the ZLIN 242 and Pilatus PC-9 aircraft and Bell 206 helicopters enabled a normal development for the new pilots, with .m opment of for new pilots to have normal development supported by a technique that is both affordable and intended for training.

What are the results of the campaign inviting young people to choose the careers of pilots or aviation technicians?

We have achieved significant progress with the supporting aircraft mechanics and technicians over the past three years. More than sixty bursaries entered the Croatian Armed Forces. Some of them have already become NCOs, and we will support the best students with graduating from the secondary school and commissioning as officers and aeronautical engineers. It however means that we will have to admit fewer candidates among third graders and four-graders. We will select the best motivated and harmonise the process with the natural fluctuation of personnel. In addition, the scholarship for third graders as future pilots has also proved successful. Many candidates applied this summer, despite the pandemic.

The Croatian Air Force Training Centre “Rudolf Perešin” and the 93rd Wing of the Croatian Air Force did an excellent job selecting the candidates, and we had the most candidates over the past decade, half of whom were 3rd graders. The successes aside, I think we need to revise and modernise our approach to candidates. We need to adopt a modern approach, through social media and digital marketing, relying on the expertise of marketing agencies, rather than presentations and lectures.

Will the newly procured equipment raise the interest in joining the Croatian Air Force?

It is really difficult to draw quality personnel into the system to make a career top professional training on outdated assets.

We have already made progress in terms of procuring helicopters with the purchase of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, and it will be even bigger when the Black Hawks come in. 

I am certain that the introduction of the new fighter aircraft will raise the interest for joining the Croatian Air Force. It will imply major modernisation both in terms of asssets and in terms of thinking and operation and will require different knowledge and skills than those we implement today.

For example, flying the current 2nd – generation fighter is demanding both physically and mentally, as pilots have to focus on flying procedures, whereas the 4th-generation aircraft enables pilots dedicate to tactics and task execution.

Speaking of the pandemic, how is the Croatian Air Force operating under the present circumstances?

From the very start the had the understanding of the General Staff for our specificity  and it allowed us to organise operation the way we deemed the best, so our operation has run smoothly and our capabilities have been preserved. None of our tasks was suspended, be it in the Airspace Control Centre, the radar posts of the Air Space Surveillance and Control Battalion, the air guard pair on duty, the emergency medical flights, the firefighting tasks and the selection service.

When is the service period of the MiGs-21 expiring? What if new fighter aircraft are not procured by then?

At this moment in the procurement of a new multi-role fighter aircraft the Working Group is supposed to provide the Inter-departmental Commission of the Government of the Republic of Croatia with the necessary input for the recommandation, and the decision and start of negotiations with the selected bidder is up to the state authorities.

Interrupted national air space control, no matter how brief, is not in the interest of the Croatian Air Force. The MiG aircraft are expected to fulfill the mission properly by the end of 2024. In the meantime, a Plan B is devised, with the steps to signal, plan and coordinate with our allies, as we make a part of NATO’s integrated system, so the solution will be sought within that framework. I hope this will not happen, but even if it does our citizens need not worry that the Republic of Croatia will be left without airspace protection.

What are the commitments of the Croatian Air Force with the procurement of the multi-purpose fighter aircraft? Are there differences compared to the past process?

 The Croatian Air Force has very clear tasks: to organise the introduction of the aircraft across the functional areas, to prepare and select candidates of all specialties for training.

We are also developing plans relating to the infrastructure. Some works have already commenced, but we did not continue without knowing which type of the aircraft would be selected.

The minimum preconditions have been ensured, and we conducted several “site surveys” with the bidders several times, which helped us define the requirements to do prior to the delivery of the aircraft.  

Put briefly, we coordinate the management of all requirements related to the new aircraft well, including the personnel aspect, organisation and the infrastructure concerns.

 Thanks to the procurement of Kiowa Warrior helicopters the Croatian pilots have been provided with new fighter aircraft. To what extent has the procurement enhanced the capabilities of the Croatian Air Force?

Kiowa Warrior is a fighter air asset that has strengthened the Helicopter Squadron of the 93rd Wing of the Croatian Air Force. Firstly, it is a logical extension of the flying the training helicopters Bell 206. Its characteristics and capabilities enable it to integrate with other services and branches of the Croatian Armed Forces.

 The Hellfire Romeo multipurpose projectiles are the best asset of the class but are also expensive. Will it be launched from Kiowa helicopters in an exercise?

We discussed that, but the decision on the demonstration of capabilities of the projectile in an exercise is not up to the Croatian Air Force. The pilots are ready, however, to perform the firing, as they have done it many times with practice ammunition, so it would come out well, only without smoke, the rocket motor noise and the flash. 

 What is the situation with the procurement of the Black Hawk and how will the aircraft be equipped? When is the service life of the Mi-8 expiring?

The procurement of Black Hawk was preceded by a study which was approved by the Chief of General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces. It was decided at the strategical level that the Croatian Air Force would be equipped with a western-produced transport or multi-purpose helicopter, whereby we would preserve the existing and develop new capabilities for the Croatian Armed Forces and fulfill the technical criteria and requirements of the declared Target Capabilities.

We ordered the basic version of Black Hawk helicopters – the Green or Slick models, but we also stated the requirement for specific equipment that will reinforce the capability to perform special tasks and operations. We need modular and mission-adaptable helicopters. We shall keep the Mi-171Sh helicopters and use them to fulfil tasks within the 1st and the 3rd missions of the Croatian Air Force: the protection of the sovereignty and defence of the territorial integrity of the Republic of Croatia and the support to civilian institutions.

The capacities of the Black Hawk helicopters will provide an entirely new dimension: better characteristics (higher speed and mobility) and integrability with other systems. The load capacity of Black Hawk helicopters is the same as the Mi-171Sh but they have smaller cabins. Regarding the Mi-8, their service period will expire successively from 2023 to 2025.

The Mi-171Sh helicopters came under the spotlight after the overhaul that was allegedly poorly performed. What is your comment on the overhaul, as a commander and a pilot?

Firstly, I am glad about the contracted overhaul, and for the helicopters delivered on time and as specified. What happened later was expected. Otherwise there would not be the warranty term for the overhaul, which comprises disassembly and assembly of a million parts.

The warranty term was very favourable for us, and totalled 18 months and 300 hours of flying hours instead of the usual 12 months and 200 flying hours.  

Given the general situation and the COVID pandemics Croatia and the Russian Federation adopted the preventive measures, which were the cause for the prolongued fault rectification beyond the warranty term. The works were extended because of the quarantine for the Russian experts. 

The warranty risk for all faults occurring in the period will be extended. Put briefly, the completion of the tasks assigned to the 194th Multi-purpose Helicopter Squadron was never at stake. 

No fault occurred that could risk the safety of the crews, passengers, helicopters or the property of the citizens of the Republic of Croatia.

The Croatian Air Force is a segment of NATINADS. Is there room for a major engagement?

The Croatian Air Force is fulfilling the declared commitment. The point of alliance is giving and not only receiving.

Of course, there is always the room to develop new capabilities of benefit for the interests of the Republic of Croatia, and of NATO too. Primarily in terms of modernisation of our radar systems, the procurement of gap-fillers, i. e. deployable radars, the modernisation of combat communication systems for the Croatian Air Force and procurement of medium-range air defence systems. In my view the political decision that Croatia will continue to protect its national air space, including air policing, proves the commitment to contribute to the national security and security of the Alliance.

Combat and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming increasingly employed in crisis hotspots. Does the Croatian Air Force envisage using them too?

Observing the recent crisis hotspots and conflicts yields valuable lessons learned: entrenched armoured forces and “classic” air defence units did not meet expectations and failed combating the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Croatian Air Force is focussed on protection against the systems. Croatia has experts and industrial capacities, and the European Union has financial resources to support the development of systems providing defence against such aircraft. It refers not to the air defence in terms of “radar missiles”, but as electromagnetic spectrum, the “dome” which protects the critical infrastructure from malign unmanned aerial vehicles.

What are the implications of the increase of the HRVCON to KFOR for the Croatian Air Force? Will it be engaged in other international missions too?

In the next five-year period the Croatian Air Force will focus more on its own needs, the training processes, development and acquisition of new capabilities and systems. During that time our engagement in Kosovo will remain at the same level or scale down. We are not considering taking part in other missions at the moment, but could when we reach initial or higher operational capability with new helicopters and aircraft.

The Defence Minister recently spoke of the procurement of new training aircraft ZLIN 242?

The Croatian Air Force has stated the need for additional ZLIN aircraft both because of the recent tragic event in which we lost two members and an aircraft and because of the lesson learned that the increased admission of pilot candidates creates choke points in the assignment and maintenance of the aircraft, their operation and maintenance. Five aircraft is not enough, we need one more as soon as possible and the other one too.

The profession of pilot is responsible and demanding in a particular way, but no matter how professional and commited approach, accidents do happen and for a variety of reasons.

When could the results of the investigation of the crashes of two Croatian Air Force’s aircraft and the tragic deaths of the pilots be published?

I cannot comment the work of the Chief Military Aviation Investigator, who submits the results of the investigation directly to the Defence Minister. The investigations are coming to a close. It is hard for me to talk about the loss of four colleagues. We are a relatively small air force and most of us know each other in person. But the accidents, although sad and tragic and painful for us also showed our solidarity and readiness to help and the determination and the dignity.

How is the operation of the Multinational Special Aviation Training Centre in Zadar proceeding?

The MSAT is very active. It has hosted a few courses this year, and preparations are ongoing for the practical helicopter crew training in 2021, as planned. In the latter half of 2021 we expect the first generation of members of the Croatian Air Force trained and prepared for special air operations.

How do you evaluate the Croatian Air Force’s engagement in the firefighter season and in medical flights?

Like the rest of the services of the Croatian Armed Forces the Croatian Air Force uses the available resources in a decentralised manner to provide better conditions in its barracks and bases. The focus is currently on the infrastructure supporting the maintenance and the use of the helicopters. This includes the living and working facilities. Lučko will be a site of large construction works in the next two years.

The works on the infrastructure for technical maintenance will progress in the Base at Zemunik in the next few years too, and much has already been done regarding the acommodation and messing capacities and is at an appropriate level. We want to bring the living and working conditions to the level expected by the young people who join the Croatian Air Force.

How do you assess the activities of the Croatian Air Force in this year’s Firefighter season and in medical flights?

There were an average number of medical flights, within the expected and planned range. We currently provide 12-13 flights per week at the moment. We had low engagement during the summer but above average in the first half of the year, so the overall engagement falls within the expected range. The important thing is that the Croatian Air Force has exercised its mission to provide support to civilian institutions with the firefighter protection and emergency medical flights and has responded effectively and without incidents to all requests for assistance.   

In 2020 the Croatian Air Force was to host the first international military air show in Croatia, but had to be cancelled. Is it likely that it will take place next year?

The international air show has not been cancelled officially. Under the present circumstances of the pandemic it would not be realistic to predict the situation next year, but we expect that it will gather some 100,000 visitors without risking their health just to see an air show. The primary mission of the Croatian Air Force and of the overall Croatian Armed Force is to protect all citizens of the Republic of Croatia.

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