If Bulgarian Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev keeps to his stated intention, the scheduled cabinet meeting on June 24 could see a proposal tabled on the long-standing issue of the country acquiring new military fighter jets.
The issue has been unresolved for more than a decade, since Bulgaria joined Nato in 2004, and even now prospects are not certain given Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s stated reluctance to commit to spending on military aircraft acquisitions when his priorities are pensioners and the education system.
But it has become ever more pressing, especially given the large questions marks regarding Bulgaria’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters, which are hugely expensive to repair and maintain, and about which a maintenance contract with Russia’s RSK-MiG – Nenchev repeatedly has signalled his reluctance to renew it – and which are, in any case, not up to Nato compatibility standards.
The maintenance price tag on the MiGs is enormous. Nenchev told Bulgaria’s unicameral Parliament, the National Assembly, in March that keeping them going until 2029 would cost 1.6 billion leva. For that kind of money, Nenchev told MPs, Bulgaria could buy a 16-fighter squadron of new or hardly used fighter aircraft which would meet Nato standards and cost much less to maintain.
The Russian-made aircraft are not the only problem facing Bulgaria’s air force. Nenchev told Parliament that there are problems with pilots’ training (while there also have been media reports about pilots leaving the air force, disappointed by low pay and diminishing opportunities for flying hours), an overall lack of financial resources that in turn causes difficulties in getting spare parts, and the maintenance of existing radio-location, which in turn also needs replacing.
According to Nenchev, should the cabinet agree to his plan, the projects would be written in to the programme for the development of Bulgaria’s armed forces to the year 2020.
Again, should there be agreement at cabinet level regarding a plan for a procedure towards acquiring fighter aircraft, and further an agreement about and with a supplier, there would be a lead time of a few years while training on the new fighters proceeded and while the fighters were prepared for delivery to Bulgaria.
Apart from the immediacy of the issue given recent security-related developments on Nato’s eastern borders, notably the Russian campaign against Ukraine, Bulgaria has a standing and unfulfilled commitment to Nato regarding the country making available fighter jets. Bulgaria is committed, under Nato’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence, to conduct air policing. Nenchev told Parliament in March that Bulgaria was at risk of having only two aircraft left to carry out air policing.
His remarks came against a background of a recurring theme that has gained a new prominence since the Ukraine crisis – Russian military aircraft, including surveillance aircraft, brushing Nato air space and sometimes even committing incursions into it. Summer 2014 saw reports of increased Russian military surveillance aircraft flying along the border of Bulgaria’s air space at the Black Sea coast.
Over the years and even over recent months, the story about a fighter jet acquisition programme has had some common themes and also some changes. The contenders to supply a new fighter include the United States, with F-16s – there even was talk earlier in 2015 of Bulgaria getting these “free” (but with no clarity about hidden costs of maintenance, for instance). Diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Sofia back to Washington, as posted online by Wikileaks, have shown US thinking on how to persuade Bulgaria to make a deal with DC regarding F16s.
Further, recent years have seen speculation that Bulgaria could get used F16s from another European country that has used them, with Portugal having been frequently mentioned. In the desultory debate in public about the issue, there have been repeated concerns that for Bulgaria, not quite a country powerfully muscular in its state spending power, buying second-hand would – rather like buying a car – mean a costly acquisition with a lifespan that by definition would be limited, and in coming decades, the problem would recur.
Bulgaria’s northern neighbour Romania, which began its – subsequently stalled for a few years – fighter acquisition process in 2005, agreed on a 628 million euro deal in 2013 to get a dozen used F-16s from Portugal.
For Romania, this 628 million euro price tag did not include, according to media reports, infrastructure upgrades but did include payment for training of 15 pilots and more than 80 technicians. The 2013 deal saw a provision for a 97 million euro payment in advance, for which Romania said it would raise the money through telecom frequency sales.
According to the bill as it was tabled in Parliament for MPs’ 2013 approval, that year’s advance payment would be followed by a 200 million euro payment in 2014 and about 174 million euro in 2015, the year in which the first F-16s are estimated to arrive, with the intention being that they would be ready for air policing duties in 2017, by which time Romania would have paid two further sums, of 168 million euro in 2016 and 64 million euro in 2017. The country also would have to upgrade two airfields.
Periodically, the Eurofighter has been mentioned in the context of Bulgaria’s possible acquisition options, but it hardly likely to be a contender on the basis of cost.
When it comes to cost, the authoritative IHS Jane’s compiled an independent report in March 2012 on a cost per flight hour of selected aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-16, Boeing F-18 E / F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and EuroFighter Typhoon.
Allowing for some caveats that variations in calculations could produce differing results, while adding that their calculations had considerable merit and a useful benchmark when considering the costs associated with operating contemporary high performance combat aircraft, the report concluded that the Saab Gripen was the least expensive of the aircraft under study in terms of cost per flight hour.
This was based on reported costs covering fuel used, pre-flight preparation and repair, and scheduled airfield-level maintenance together with associated personnel costs.
“At an estimated $4700 per hour (2012 USD), the Gripen compares very favourably with the Block 40 / 50 F-16s which are its closest competitor at an estimated $7000 per hour. The F-35 and twin-engined designs are all significantly more expensive per flight hour owing to their larger size, heavier fuel usage and increased number of airframe and systems parts to be maintained and repaired,” the report said.
Separately, in its campaigning over the years, Saab Gripen repeatedly has emphasised that in possible government-to-government negotiations between Bulgaria and Sweden, effectively Saab Gripen’s principal in this respect, there is a great willingness for flexibility come up with a financial package suited to Bulgaria’s pocket and needs. Again, not unlike the car business, Saab Gripen even has had leasing deals, for instance – as reported in December 2014 – agreeing with the Czech Republic on extending that country’s lease on JAS 39 Gripen multi-role combat aircraft for a further 12 years.
For Bulgaria, a significant turning point came in 2015 with agreement at a meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security under the auspices of head of state and commander-in-chief President Rossen Plevneliev on reversing the trend in cutting back defence spending to, from 2016, gradually increasing it to a point in the next decade to meet Nato agreements.
That political agreement, which was backed by almost all political parties represented in Bulgaria’s Parliament, may not however mean that Bulgaria will be rushing, so to speak, to the showroom floor, chequebook (or if not, at very least, a pen) in hand.
While air force chief Roumen Radev repeatedly and strongly had underlined the need to start as soon as possible a fighter jet acquisition process, to reverse the decay and to be ready in time for the new jets to take over air policing, any plan presented by Nenchev to whichever cabinet meeting soon would be a hard sell – as it has been through a succession of governments over more than a decade.
It is also hardly the first time that the process seems almost set to come to a turning point. For example, it was in September 2010 that Anyu Angelov, the then-defence minister in Boiko Borissov’s first government, spoke of a tender being announced at the start of 2011 with a view to deliveries starting in 2015 (at the time, the competitors were expected to be the F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon and Gripen).
Nothing came of that, and on this issue – as with so many other things – nothing was achieved by the 2013/14 ruling axis of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The August 2014’s caretaker cabinet defence minister spoke of presenting proposals, but the baton now has passed to Nenchev, in office along with the rest of Borissov’s second government, the centre-right coalition cabinet, since November 2014.
Apart from current Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov, who has little inclination about loosening purse strings, Borissov also tends to come across rather grumpily when any such big-ticket acquisitions are mentioned – perhaps even those such as the Gripen mention of the possibility to defer first payments until after, for instance, delivery.
Since the Corporate Commercial Bank saga began, which led to Bulgaria having to fork out huge sums to cope with guaranteed deposit payments, and against the background of the large-scale foreign borrowing that the country has undertaken, Borissov plainly does not like to hear much about expensive shopping lists.
However, the practical issue now facing Bulgaria, more than ever before as time passes, is the risk as outlined by Nenchev publicly in Parliament and elsewhere, that unless steps are taken, the country could lose its air policing capacity. It may be added that if the reported pattern of an exodus of pilots continues, on top of the costly and dead-end process of trying to keep the old MiGs flying, it could also be a Nato country with air force commitments but hardly an air force at all.
(Photo of JAS 38 Gripen fighters: US Air Force)