An ad hoc committee of the Bulgarian Parliament set up to investigate the actions of the Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet in the process towards the acquisition of a new fighter jet was to hold its first meeting on July 5.
The first order of business for the multi-party committee, formed at the initiative of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, was to decide its rules of procedure and to decide which documents to request from the Ministry of Defence.
In the Bulgarian media, the ad hoc body is being referred to as the “Gripen committee” for the multi-role fighter jet ranked top in a report by an interdepartmental expert committee examined by the caretaker government.
For President Roumen Radev and his supporters, the establishment of the committee is a partisan political manoeuvre directed against him, a “tribunal”, in the term of the head of state who previously was commander of the Bulgarian Air Force.
In a war of words, GERB parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov has cited media reports to accuse Radev, who constitutionally has no role in government, of interfering in the decision-making process by the Ognyan Gerdzhikov administration that Radev appointed and that was in office from January to May 2017.
In one of its last actions, the Gerdzhikov cabinet examined the expert report on the three bids to supply the fighter to the Bulgarian Air Force. Gripen came out on top, Italy’s offer of Eurofighters ranked second and the Portuguese offer to supply second-hand F-16s was disqualified, apparently for not matching the financial parameters envisaged in the Bulgarian plan to modernise its military.
Amid the tensions between GERB and Radev, he and Borissov held talks at the start of the week at Borissov’s initiative. A statement by the Presidency afterwards emphasised their agreement on matters including military modernisation. However, in the National Assembly, the parliamentary group of Borissov’s party appears determined to continue what it started.
The ad hoc committee has an envisaged lifespan of two months.
According to committee chairperson, GERB MP Emil Hristov, Gerdzhikov will be summoned to the committee.
Radev will not be summoned (in any case, constitutionally the National Assembly has no power to summon the head of state) but members of his staff will be, apparently to answer questions in relation to any engagement between the President’s office and the expert committee on the fighter jet acquisition process.
While Borissov had said earlier, in a meeting with his Swedish counterpart, that talks on the possible acquisition of the Gripen would start within weeks, it remains to be seen whether the process of the parliamentary committee will be left to run its course before talks begin. At the time, Borissov also said that talks about the Gripen could be followed by talks about acquiring Eurofighters.
On July 4, following a panel discussion on the jet fighter acquisition process, public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television released the results of a public opinion poll that it had commissioned from Alpha Research, showing that 70 per cent of Bulgarians polled believed that technical parameters should be the primary consideration in choosing the new fighter.
Twenty-five per cent believed that the main criterion should be the financial and economic conditions.
Saab has emphasised that in a possible deal with Bulgaria, it would be flexible about the financial payment terms while guaranteeing timeous delivery, of the first newly-made fighters within 18 months of the signing of the contract.
Of the three bids, the Gripen is the only one that would see newly-made aircraft delivered to Bulgaria.
Gripen clients now include the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Brazil. India is reported to be looking again at a comparison between new Gripens and the second-hand F-16s.
A 2011 process in India concluded with a choice neither of Gripens nor of F-16s.
According to a report in India’s Financial Express, quoting a former fighter pilot who was one of the test pilot involved in trials, “one of the reasons for the failure of F-16 at the time was that there was no room for any improvements or growth in the aircraft, explained a former fighter pilot who was one of the test pilots involved in trials. Today, the F-16 being offered to India for the IAF has absolutely no growth potential”.
“Therefore, we should not buy these obsolete machines for the IAF. If procured, the aircraft will be in service for the next 40 years, which would be old for the air force,” the test pilot said. “The F-16 is a 40-year-old air frame; all the upgrades that are possible are already done. There is no room for any more growth. A 40-year-old design does have its limitations that cannot be overlooked.”
Separately, a report in Popular Mechanics said that the US Air Force was turning obsolete F-16 Fighting Falcons into remote-controlled drones to be used for target practice, a longstanding tradition as older planes age out.
The dronified F-16s will be used to test new weapons, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the report said.