The collapse of the communist system in the early 1990s led many countries to review their defense equipment holdings. The nations that had been under the yoke of Moscow had to embark on various programs aimed at perpetuating their combat resources, and this was all the more true in the air domain. This is why several industrial programs were launched, one of the most ambitious of which was the Aerostar LanceR fighter in Romania with the help of Israel.
The fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu at Christmas 1989 led to the end of the communist regime and Romania’s return to the Soviet sphere of influence. At that time, the Fortele Aeriene Romane had about 350 combat aircraft at its disposal: about 20 newly delivered MiG-29 Fulcrum, about 40 MiG-23 Floggers in service for about ten years, and above all dozens and dozens of MiG-21 Fishbeds. The exact number of this type of aircraft in the Romanian arsenal was not well known, as these aircraft used to go back and forth to the workshops of the Soviet manufacturer. In fact the MiG-21 was the only one of the three to be really adapted to the Romanian climatic differences. In addition, there were about ninety locally manufactured IAR-93s developed jointly with the Yugoslav industry.
Attempts were made to acquire new MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, considered at the time to be one of the most modern fighters in the world, but the collapse of the Romanian economy put a stop to the talks. Post-Soviet Russia had just discovered the market economy.
However, in 1992, the Israeli company Elbit Systems offered to help Romania modernize its MiG-21 fleet, or at least part of it. It was a question of adding westernized avionics, revising its engine to zero, and integrating external armament from the Hebrew state. Romania, which was then seeking to get closer to NATO, jumped at the chance. In passing, Elbit proposed to do the same in a second phase with the Romanian MiG-29s.
The official agreement between Israel and Romania was signed in 1993. The future aircraft would be designated LanceR, the capital R standing for retrofitting. It was not the national aircraft manufacturer I.A.R. that was chosen by Elbit but Aerostar. This manufacturer was known until then mainly for having manufactured under license an important part of the Yakovlev Yak-52 training aircraft intended for the Warsaw Pact forces. The year 1994 allowed to choose the 111 aircraft that would be modernized.
These were four-seven single-seat MiG-21M/MF/MF-75s and fourteen two-seat MiG-21UMs for operational transformation.
Three sub-versions of the Aerostar LanceR were planned. First, there was the LanceR A, intended for ground attack and armed reconnaissance, for a total of seventy-one machines. Then there were fourteen two-seater LanceR Bs for advanced training and operational transformation, and finally twenty-six LanceR Cs for pure hunting, intended for air defense and interception.
Basically, the work carried out on the future LanceR A and Lancer B was not particularly advanced, except for a part of the avionics for the second of them. The planes were dropped from scratch, and their armament reviewed and corrected.
The first Aerostar LanceR A squadron was declared operational in July 1997, while the first LanceR Bs were declared operational a few weeks later in September.
It is really on the twenty-six future LanceR Cs that the work of Elbit and Aerostar became clear. Until then, the Romanian MiG-21s had been used for air defence with two R-13 (or AA-2 Aphid according to NATO) infrared-guided air-to-air missiles. From now on, the LanceR Cs could carry four more modern Israeli-made Python 3s.
The Elbit avionics also allowed the LanceR Cs to fly day and night in close formation. The first of these aircraft arrived in units in 1999, and the last in 2003.
Once the Fortele Aeriene Romane had its full complement of Aerostar LanceR Cs, it was able to retire all of its MiG-23s still in service. These aircraft had an availability rate of almost 15%. Their withdrawal from service was a relief for Romanian defense. Even NATO refused to allow them to participate in European exercises.
While the LanceR A and B were wearing shimmering camouflage, the LanceR C were flying in a more discreet grey livery.
From 2005 onwards, the Aerostar LanceR A fleet was frequently grounded. The work carried out by Elbit was often limited to the minimum on these aircraft, which were beginning to show the weight of the years.
Seven years later, for budgetary reasons, the fleet was drastically reduced. All LanceR A’s were retired while the fourteen LanceR B’s were modernized in order to prepare for the transition to the LanceR C.
In 2012, the Fortele Aeriene Romane had only forty Aerostar LanceRs in service. But above all, it no longer flew any MiG-29s; the SnipeR program, similar to the LanceR, never succeeded in demonstrating its capabilities. Romania, which was becoming more and more westernized, sought to acquire American or European-made aircraft. And its choice fell on General Dynamics F-16MLU Fighting Falcons bought second hand from Portugal. As these aircraft were delivered, the LanceR fleet was drastically reduced.
Thus, in the summer of 2020, the Fortele Aeriene Romane had only twenty-eight Aerostar LanceRs. These were twenty single-seaters and eight two-seaters, the latter being capable of air-to-air missions thanks to Soviet-made R-60 missiles (or AA-8 Aphid according to NATO) inherited from the MiG-29s. The LanceR Cs are primarily air defense fighters and are frequently used to identify hostile aircraft approaching Romanian sovereign airspace.
Romania plans to keep its LanceRs until 2026, unless it can afford to replace them completely by then.
A true transitional fighter, the Aerostar LanceR is often considered the most advanced version of the Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed. Although Aerostar has upgraded four of these aircraft for Mozambique, the lack of Israeli avionics does not classify them as LanceRs. None of them has been sold for export.
However, this aircraft is not without its faults, as shown by the hasty withdrawal of the LanceR A.
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