Bulgarian President and former Air Force commander Roumen Radev has effectively sided with the MiG-29 pilots who declined to take part in training exercises this week, saying that dissatisfaction among the military is “understandable”.
Radev, himself a fighter pilot, posted a comment on Facebook after, for two days, Bulgarian Air Force pilots at the Graf Ignatievo base did not take off for scheduled exercises, reportedly because of safety concerns and low morale. The pilots were reported to have said that they were “psychologically unable” to fly.
It was unacceptable to insult the honour of “the people with the epaulettes”, Radev said, and called for a responsible attitude towards national security issues.
The tensions in Bulgaria’s security sector were “alarming,” Radev said.
He said that the personnel crisis in the Bulgarian military had worsened. “Police and firefighters strike, military pilots stop scheduled flights”. The dissatisfaction among those in uniform was understandable, Radev said: “There are social, technical and psychological reasons for it”.
Radev, in a sideswipe at the government, described the political responses to the problem as “inadequate”.
“Worthy Bulgarians are accused of greed, rebellion and criminal behaviour. Many risk their lives in the exercise of their official duty.
“To demand from these valiant men the behaviour of a kamikaze can only be tolerated by politicians with the impeccable morale of a samurai.”
Political pathos could not replace decisions of governance, he said.
The Defence Ministry leadership has been insisting, in the face of reports that the reasons that the Graf Ignatievo pilots did not fly included worry about the state of their ageing aircraft and disgruntlement about the delay in getting new fighter jets, that it is proceeding with the process of MiG-29 engine overhauls and towards modernisation of the air squadrons.
According to an October 26 report by Bulgarian National Radio, Deputy Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov told the parliamentary committee on defence that the pilots who had refused to fly were “unaware” of the ministry’s plans to overhaul the MiGs and acquire new aircraft.
He described the situation as a “disciplinary problem, from the point of view of co-ordination”.
Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov repeatedly has emphasised that the government’s proposed Budget 2018 includes 100 million leva for salary increases for military personnel.
Official reports presented to Parliament have said that low pay discourages people from seeking to enlist in Bulgaria’s military.
Regarding the Graf Ignatievo pilots, reactions from within the coalition government have included Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov as saying that the refusal of the pilots to participate in the exercises “verged on treason”.
Radev, elected in 2016 on a ticket backed by the socialist opposition, has been a frequent critic of the government’s approach to military modernisation, repeatedly calling for it to be speeded up.
Bulgaria’s military modernisation is meant to include not only the acquisition of modern fighter aircraft to meet Nato standards, but also armoured vehicles for the infantry and two new patrol vessels for the Navy. In respect of the latter process, the Defence Ministry said on October 25 that one bid had been received to build the ships. Media reports identified this bid as having come from a Bulgarian company.
The fighter jet acquisition process was stalled again this year as domestic political manouevring overturned a process that had led to an interdepartmental expert committee ranking a Swedish offer to supply new Gripen multi-role fighters as the best. In the course of this saga, a special parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the matter, in a move that Radev described as a “tribunal” directed against him.