Bulgarian Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov has held talks with Russia’s RSK MiG about possible costs of the company overhauling 15 of the Bulgarian Air Force’s Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters.
Karakachanov, who is also one of the deputy prime ministers in the third Boiko Borissov government, was reported by Bulgarian National Radio as saying that his idea was for specialists from RSK MiG to come from Russia to assess what the cost of an overhaul project would be.
He said that no matter what conclusion the parliamentary ad hoc committee investigating the jet fighter acquisition came to, the timeframe for payments for the acquisition would have to be re-examined by the National Assembly.
Karakachanov added that he was also looking at options for overhauling the Bulgarian Air Force’s Russian-made Su-25 aircraft. The Air Force has about 12 to 14 of these, dating back to the 1980s.
The Defence Minister’s statements are among the latest twists in the prolonged saga of the state of Bulgarian military aviation.
For years, the Russian company was contracted to maintain and service the MiG-29 engines. But at the time of the second Borissov government, the business was transferred to Poland, much to the chagrin of Moscow. The defence minister of the time, Nikolai Nenchev, currently is facing criminal charges in connection with the handling of the MiG-29 overhaul contracts. Nenchev denies wrongdoing.
In 2016, Bulgaria moved to shift the MiG-29 engine overhaul business back to Russian hands.
A Nato member since 2004, Bulgaria has not yet finalised the process of acquiring new fighter aircraft that would meet the alliance’s standards, though the issue has passed from the hands of one government to another over the years.
A main reason for the MiG-29 engine overhaul projects, which come at very high cost, is to keep existing aircraft serviceable for air policing of Bulgaria’s borders. Currently, other allied forces also assist, such as Italian Eurofighters.
In 2016, Bulgaria issued a formal call for bids to supply new jet fighters. It received three, one from Sweden to supply made-to-order new Gripens, while Italy offered second-hand Eurofighters and Portugal offered second-hand US-made F-16s.
A report by an interdepartmental expert committee ranked the Swedish Gripen bid as the best, placed Italy’s Eurofighter bid second and disqualified the Portuguese offer on financial grounds.
This report was presented to the January/May 2017 caretaker government, but subsequently, on the return to power of Boiko Borissov, his GERB party has initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the process. GERB parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov has publicly alleged that Radev interfered in the process.
The parliamentary ad hoc committee has until about September to complete its work, and Defence Minister Karakachanov has said that no steps will be taken in the process until the committee announces its conclusions. This has happened in spite of Borissov having said several weeks earlier that negotiations would go ahead with Sweden and with Italy, though he later also said that the country would negotiate with all bidders.