The Bulgarian Parliament’s committees on defence and on budget and finance have approved projects worth well more than a billion euro to acquire new jet fighters and two new naval patrol vessels.
The Cabinet approved the military shopping list, also including armoured vehicles, at the end of March. By Bulgarian law, the large sums of money involved are above the threshold requiring parliamentary approval.
Following the May 26 approval at a joint sitting of the two committees, the proposals will be tabled at a plenary sitting of the National Assembly.
The acquisition of new jet fighters, to meet the standards of Nato of which Bulgaria has been a member since 2004, has been on the agenda of a succession of Bulgarian governments. The country currently has a contract with Poland to keep its ageing Russian-made MiG-29 fighters flying pending the acquisition of aircraft that are up to Nato standards.
It is expected that Bulgaria’s acquisition of new multi-role military jet fighters will happen through negotiations towards an inter-state agreement rather than through a tender process. In July 2015, Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev said that the Cabinet had given him a mandate to negotiate the acquisition of new combat jets.
The Ministry of Defence has been examining three options for the acquisition of a new type of fighter: new Swedish Gripens, the Eurofighter and second-hand US-made F-16s from Portugal.
Defence Ministry officials however are said to believe that the Eurofighter would prove significantly too expensive for Bulgaria.
The choice effectively comes down to Gripens or the used F-16s from Portugal. Sweden and Gripen have underlined willingness to negotiate a package to suit Bulgaria’s pocket, with a deferred payment plan, and point to the record of Gripen acquisitions successfully elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, for example by the Czech Republic.
Advocates of the acquisition of out-of-the-box jet fighters also underline that getting fighters second-hand means that the aircraft would have a shorter life expectancy and doom the Bulgarian taxpayer to facing the big-ticket question all over again in some years’ time.
Unofficial information is that the Bulgarian Air Force would favour getting newly-manufactured jet fighters, but the decision is likely to be a political one.
Air Force chief General Roumen Radev said that any delay in the project to acquire new fighters could be fatal.
The idea is to first get eight new fighters, and further on, another eight. The first half of the jet fighter acquisition would be the more expensive because it would also include various items such as training and simulators.
Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov said that the total cost of the two projects – the fighters and the patrol vessels – as envisaged in the medium-term forecast to 2019, is 2.32 billion leva (about 1.16 billion euro). The contracts will be paid in installments over several years.
The draft envisages 10 million leva for the new aircraft project in 2016 and 114 million leva for the patrol vessels.
For 2017, the funds respectively are 200 million leva and 171 million leva. The sums are the same for 2018. For 2019, the sums are 200 million leva for the jet fighters and 97 million leva for the naval vessels.
According to Goranov’s calculations, in 2020 the budget would have to provide 440 million leva for the aircraft and 147 million leva for the vessels, in 2021 totals of 450 million leva and 90 million leva respectively and in 2022, a sum of 30 million leva for the patrol ships.
For the jet fighter acquisition, it is possible that other potential suppliers could be invited to negotiations, but with the changed international situation, there are indications that countries have become inclined to hang on to their older jet fighters.
In debate on the patrol vessel project, the nationalist Patriotic Front, the influential minority partner in Bulgaria’s coalition government agreement, expressed reservations, with PF co-leader Krassimir Karakachanov alleging that the process of awarding the business was being slanted in favour of a particular Bulgarian firm.
In recent months, senior figures including Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov have spoken of having the ships built at Bulgarian yards.
Karakachanov said that he could write the name of the company that would get the business on a piece of paper and seal it in an envelope that would be opened after the deal was announced, and said he would be proven correct.
Naval commander Rear Admiral Mitko Petev told MPs that if the acquisition of the two new vessels did not happen in the next three years, a crisis would result.
Bulgaria has six warships – three former Belgian frigates and three Russian vessels. The Russian vessels have a further life of no more than three to four years before they would have to be decommissioned.