BUCHAREST (Reuters) – NATO member Romania has grounded its remaining fleet of military MiG 21 LanceR jets as of Friday given their “considerably high accident rate”, and will speed up a planned purchase of second-hand F-16s from Norway, the defence ministry said.
The move was unrelated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shares a 650-kilometre (400 mile) border with Romania.
Romania will continue to fly its small fleet of F-16 fighter jets acquired from Portugal, the ministry said, while allied states also have jets deployed to the country for enhanced air policing missions as part of NATO efforts to boost its eastern flank, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Romania bought its first F-16 jets from Portugal in 2016 as it works to phase out its communist-era MiGs. The ministry said it would speed up the process to buy an additional 32 F-16 jets from Norway, which will give it an additional two air squadrons.
“The available resources of the aircrafts from the three squadrons ensure … their operation for a minimum of 10 years and will form an air capability of transition to fifth-generation F-35 jets,” the ministry said.
The last accident involving a MiG 21 took place in early March when a jet on air patrol crashed, killing the pilot. Seven soldiers sent to find him on a search-and-rescue helicopter mission also died in a separate crash.
Romania, a NATO member since 2004, plans to raise defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product next year from 2% at present, President Klaus Iohannis said in March.
The country currently hosts over 3,000 NATO troops and will have a permanent alliance battlegroup stationed on its territory.
More than 714,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border into Romania since Russia began what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)