Bulgaria saw a day of drama as Bulgaria’s air force chief submitted his resignation, apparently in frustration as the state of the air force made it impossible for him to do his job – but then withdrew his resignation after a talk with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov.
Major-General Roumen Radev (52) was appointed commander of the Bulgarian Air Force in 2014, having been its second-in-command since 2011. His air force career began when he was appointed as a pilot in 1987.
A Nato member since 2004, Bulgaria has been grappling for years with the problems of its ageing Soviet-era air fleet, including the much-delayed process of acquiring new multi-role jet fighters.
The coalition government in office since November 2014 approved, on September 30 2015, a programme for the development of the country’s military capabilities up to 2020. It envisages the introduction of multi-purpose jet fighters in 2018, an issue about which Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev was given a mandate earlier in 2015 to conduct negotiations – the latest in a succession of defence ministers to have such a mandate, to varying degrees of earnestness.
Bulgaria also is caught up in controversy over the contract to repair and maintain its remaining Russian MiG-29 fighters. This has been the subject of a very costly contract with the Russian MiG plant for years, but Nenchev has been working on transferring the business to Poland, which could do the job for much less money – although Russia has challenged the move, saying that the Polish plant lacks the licences required to certify the work.
In turn, the move has been seen as a step by Bulgaria away from ties with Russia and a means of working within the Nato camp. It has irritated pro-Russian opposition parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Ataka, the latter one of the two smallest parties in the National Assembly.
Further, on September 30 it was announced that Bulgaria’s Parliament would be presented with legislation that would allow the task of the country’s air policing to be shared with air forces from other Nato countries, which in turn would be given the legal right to use weaponry should an aircraft from a non-Nato country intrude on Bulgarian airspace.
All of this was followed by the sudden announcement on October 1 of Radev’s resignation. No reasons were given initially, although it was known that he had been pushing as hard as possible for movement on the acquisition of new jet fighters – something of a sine qua non for an air force chief.
A government statement soon after the announcement that Radev had submitted his resignation said that Prime Minister Boiko Borissov had held a conversation with him.
During the conversation, Borissov was briefed in details on the problems facing Bulgarian military aviation.
These problems included the number of operable fighters for combat duty, air policing and flight training being woefully inadequate, a shrinking number of trained pilots who, in turn, were flying dangerously little, increasing the risk of serious accidents. Opportunities to train young pilots were decreasing.
For months, the number of flights had been restricted because of a lack of fuel.
The commitments on the part of the leadership of the Defence Ministry regarding contracts to repair and supply MiG-29 were not being met.
The project developed by the team for the acquisition of new fighter aircraft, with a specific programme backed by motivations, had not been submitted for discussion by the Cabinet, in spite of commitments undertaken.
Radev said that his resignation had no political motives. “My main reason is the lack of a clear prospect for combat aircraft and my inability as commander of the Air Force to provide professional development for our pilots and engineering and technical staff and to ensure health and lives,” he said.
Borissov made a commitment that in drafting and adopting a new budget for military aviation, the sum would be increased by 80 million leva (about 40 million euro) to meet the most pressing needs.
Borissov and Radev agreed that the Air Force chief would prepare a detailed estimate of the funds to be submitted to the next Cabinet.
They expressed confidence that the budget increase will get the necessary support from the National Assembly, because the future of the Bulgarian military aviation is a national cause, according to a government media statement.
Earlier, news of Radev’s resignation resulted in calls from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Ataka for Defence Minister Nenchev’s resignation. Both parties have been critical of moves to take the MiG-29 repair business away from Russia and Ataka said that the joint air policing would enable Turkish Air Force aircraft to enter Bulgarian airspace unimpeded. Turkey is a Nato member and, in the ultra-nationalist worldview of Volen Siderov’s minority party, the latter-day incarnation of the Ottoman empire which previously ruled Bulgaria for 500 years.