Because of the inflated prices being charged, Bulgaria will no longer rely on Russia to maintain its MiG-29 fighters but could reassign the business to Poland, Bulgarian Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.
Bulgaria, a Nato member since 2004, still uses Soviet-made fighters which for several years it has been paying Russia’s RSK MiG to upgrade and maintain.
An issue for years, unresolved by a succession of Bulgarian governments, is the acquisition of modern Western-made multi-purpose fighters.
When it joined Nato, Bulgaria made a stated commitment to taking its six MiG-21s out of service and acquiring eight modern multi-purpose fighters by 2016. However, with no money currently committed to this purpose, it appears impossible that this will happen within that timeframe.
A defence investment plan approved by the previous centre-right government in 2010 envisaged 100 million leva for the acquisition of new fighters and 50 million leva to further extend the life of the MiG-29s.
In 2006, when Bulgaria made a deal with the Russian firm to upgrade 12 MiG-29s and four trainers, the price tag was a reported $48 million.
In October 2014, Bulgarian air force chief Major-General Roumen Radev said that the maintenance costs of the Soviet-made aircraft to 2029 were almost equivalent to buying new Western fighters.
Signals from the caretaker government of Bulgaria in late 2014 that the country would move away from Russian-made fighters and the consequent dependence on Moscow were met with accusations from Russia of “betrayal” by Bulgaria. These accusations were, in turn, met with a strongly-worded slapdown from Sofia.
Nenchev told BNT on January 23 that maintenance costs of the MiG-29s were inflated because of the several intermediary companies involved on the Russian side.
The current contract with Russia for the maintenance of the MiG-29s expires in September 2015, Nenchev said, adding that Bulgaria was now negotiating with Poland, which offered very good conditions for these procedures.
Nenchev added that Poland was also a fellow Nato member.
In an interview with local media earlier in January, Nenchev said that the equipment that Bulgaria was using at the moment was not compatible with Nato standards, but in conditions of severe economic crisis, it obviously would be very difficult to buy new equipment.
Asked to comment on the statement in 2014 by then-caretaker defence minister Velizar Shalamnov that a specific proposal would be made to the cabinet soon about the acquisition of a new type of military jet fighter, Nenchev said that he had held discussions with the chief of the air force and alternatives would be examined.
Nenchev said that it would be best to acquire new fighters, and in the first quarter of 2015, he would make a visit to the United States.
Asked whether this meant he would seek a donation of fighter aircraft from the US, Nenchev was quoted as saying only that “discussions” would be held.
(Photo of a Bulgarian air force MiG-29: Krassimir Grozev)