Bulgaria’s centre-right coalition Cabinet approved on March 30 2016 three military investment projects, with the shopping list including acquisition of a squadron of new multi-role fighter aircraft and two naval patrol boats.
With a price tag of three billion leva (about 1.5 billion euro), the projects will by law require approval by the National Assembly.
The investment projects also include the continuing airworthiness of Bulgaria’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters, a legacy of the country’s Warsaw Pact past. The idea is to keep the Russian-made fighters flying to protect Bulgarian air space as the country embarks on the long-delayed acquisition of multi-role fighter jets it needs to get up to Nato standards.
The government said that the modernisation projects – the acquisition of the fighters and the patrol boats – would be the largest in recent years, would increase the operational capabilities of the Bulgarian military and would go towards meeting Bulgaria’s commitments to collective defence.
A new type of fighter would overcome Bulgaria’s deficit of capabilities to neutralise a wide range of air, land and maritime threats. Achieving the acquisition of the fighters would bring with it full interoperability with the air forces of Bulgaria’s Nato and EU allies.
Ensuring the airworthiness of the MiG-29s was directly associated with the project to acquire new combat aircraft, to ensure the capability of the Bulgarian Air Force to guard the country’s air space and ensure the air sovereignty of Bulgaria in Nato’s integrated air and missile defence system.
Pending the acquisition of the new fighters, there would be a transition period in which the MiGs would play a role.
The patrol boats would enable the Bulgarian Navy to achieve the skills necessary to participate in a wide range of Nato and EU maritime operations, the government said.
Given the significant financial burden, this project would be implemented over five years and the construction and equipping of the new vessels with various types of weapons would be carried out in three stages.
Also to be submitted to the Cabinet for approval is an investment project to develop Bulgaria’s mechanised brigade through equipping the land forces with a new infantry combat vehicle.
The acquisition of the new type of armament is essential for national security and defence of the country, to implement the mechanisms of the NATO collective defence and common security and defense policy, the statement said.
On the issue of the fighters, Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev told reporters that there were sufficient MiG-29 fighters currently to protect Bulgarian air space. He said that there were seven flying, and with the engine maintenance and repair programme, this could rise to 12.
He said that the intention was to get a squadron of new fighters, meaning 12 to 19 aircraft.
Nenchev expressed confidence that the National Assembly would approve the acquisition proposal.
He said two options were being discussed, second-hand or new jet fighters. The expected spending was about 800 million to 900 million leva. Nenchev said that all the rules and requirements of the Public Procurement Act would be followed.
Over the years since the jet fighter acquisition process attempts began, there have been three possibilities. One is the acquisition of new Gripen fighters, with the manufacturers offering Bulgaria a flexible payment plan for the acquisition, another is the Eurofighter, and the third is for Bulgaria to get second-hand US-made F-16 fighters.
Nenchev said recently that if the new modular patrol boat was built in Bulgaria, the price tag would be about 30 per cent cheaper. The project has gained in priority, moving up against the previous naval priority of modernising the frigates acquired from Belgium some years ago.
As to the new infantry combat vehicles, the pending issue comes against a background of Nenchev having, earlier in March, halted a public procurement tender for more than 41 million leva for the delivery of 13 armoured combat vehicles.
Bulgaria’s land forces need about 250 machines, including armoured combat and auxiliary equipment for three battalion groups. The expected price tag is about a billion leva, to be paid off over six to seven years.
(Photo, of Gripens on patrol in Iceland’s air space: Nato)