Serbia tests Chinese drones, Russian jets at major exercise

PESTER, Serbia (Reuters) - Russian-made jet fighters, helicopter gunships and tanks fired at ground targets while Chinese combat drones flew overhead on Saturday at the desolate Pester training ground in Serbia’s westernmost region in a show of revamped military power.

The training drill, dubbed Cooperation 2020 and attended by President Aleksandar Vucic and other dignitaries, underlined Serbia’s close military ties with Beijing and Moscow.

In recent years, Belgrade has accelerated defence spending as it seeks dominance in the Western Balkans.

Its military budget rose to around $1.14 billion in 2020 and 2019 - 43% more than in 2018. This year’s military spending represented about 2.4 percent of gross domestic product.

“We are strengthening our army to deter any aggressor, we have no intention to wage any ... conflicts,” Vucic told reporters after the exercise.

For the first time, Serbia demonstrated the use of CH-92A combat drones, the first such deployment of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Europe. It received six such drones in June.

Beijing sees Serbia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at opening new foreign trade links for Chinese companies that have invested billions of euros, mainly in soft loans for infrastructure and energy projects.

For Saturday’s exercise, the Serbian military deployed over 40 aircraft, around 150 vehicles including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and some 2,800 troops.

The Serbian military is loosely based on former Soviet technology and in recent years Belgrade has procured MiG-29 fighter jets and other weapons from Russia, including the Mi-35 helicopter gunships and Pantsir air defence system shown on Saturday.

Serbia, which is a European Union membership candidate, declared military neutrality in 2006. It joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, though it does not seek full membership in the Western defence alliance.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne