Bulgaria’s long-delayed process of acquiring new fighter jets for the Air Force looked set to stall again as Prime Minister Boiko Borissov hinted at continuing to use the few flying ageing Soviet-made fighters for a further 11 years.
This is the latest in a long line of twists in a saga that has continued through a succession of Bulgarian governments, none of which has taken the step of finally getting the country multi-role fighter jets to bring the Bulgarian Air Force up to the standards of the Nato alliance of which the country has been a member since 2004.
There appeared to have been some progress when in late April 2017 the Ognyan Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet considered an expert report on three bids to supply fighters, ranking Sweden’s Gripen top. While Portugal has offered second-hand US-made F-16s and Italy second-hand Eurofighters, Sweden is offering new aircraft, to meet deadlines and with a competitive payment plan. Gerdzhikov left a final decision and negotiations to Borissov, who at the same time was expected to return as head of government.
But on May 24, Borissov said that Bulgaria’s MiG-29s and Su-25s could fly a further 11 years with overhauled engines. He indicated that equipping the land forces with armoured vehicles and the navy with patrol boats would have higher priority than new fighter aircraft.
Local media pointed out that military experts believed that continuing to fly the Russian-made planes would add up to expenses, over the coming years, that would be the same as buying modern Western aircraft.
In connection with the Nato member target of spending two per cent of GDP for defence, Borissov said that this money had to come from somewhere and the country had different priorities.
“There is plenty of time until 2021 (the deadline for the increase in defence spending). The military should carefully and sparingly say where to put the money.”
Borissov added: “Let’s see if it’s right to take aircraft straight away or to look at land forces, ships…”
Bulgaria faces a possible somewhere between 2.5 and three billion leva in defence acquisitions, to get the eight new fighter jets, two new patrol vessels and 250 armoured vehicles.
Back in 2015, the then-head of the Air Force resigned because, he said, he was unable to fulfil his duties because of the state of the air fleet and other operational issues. Borissov talked him out of resigning. Later, the Air Force chief resigned his post, in 2016, going on to win election as President Roumen Radev on a ticket backed by the opposition socialists.
The deals to overhaul the MiG-29 engines have been fraught with controversy. Hugely costly, the business was initially done by Russia. Then, with then-Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev playing a key role, and notably to reduce defence sector dependence on Moscow, a deal was struck with Poland to overhaul the engines of the ageing aircraft. Nenchev now faces criminal charges in connection with the deal. He denies wrongdoing.
Borissov has hinted that the engine overhaul could be done at the recently-nationalised Avionams plant near Plovdiv. But this would require the co-operation of Russia, which would have to provide the necessary documentation. Moscow complained vociferously when the business went to Poland, and alleged at the time that the agreement was illegal, because Poland was not licensed to overhaul the Bulgarian Air Force engines.
Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, a co-leader of the nationalist United Patriots that is the minority partner in Borissov’s third government, said recently that the new government would review afresh the analysis of the bids to supply aircraft by Portugal, Italy and Sweden.
According to unconfirmed media reports, by Russian agency Tass, Karakachanov said that Bulgaria should produce its own vessels and armoured vehicles for the military.
In May 2016, Karakachanov, then an MP for the Patriotic Front, hinted at corruption in the acquisition for the navy, saying that he would write the name of the company that would win the tender in an envelope, and this would be confirmed when the decision was announced.
Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov has, unsurprisingly, been cautious about the big-ticket shopping list of the armed forces, indicating that next year he would not be falling in line with the military’s ambitious requirements for budget allocations.
Radev, attending the Nato summit in Brussels on May 25, criticised Borissov: “I think that the daily changing of positions, priorities, is not working in the interest of the security of Bulgaria”.