Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry has invited Russia’s RSK MiG to sign a four-year framework agreement for the “integrated logistics support” of 15 Bulgarian Air Force Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters.
The notice, posted on the Procurement Agency’s website, is dated December 6 and comes several months after Bulgarian Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov held talks with the Russian company, in July 2017, on the possible overhaul costs.
The proposed deal is the latest twist 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 Boiko 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.
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, upon returning to the prime minister’s office, Borissov and his GERB party have initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the process.
Uncertainty over the acquisition of new fighter jets – no money was earmarked towards that goal in the 2018 Budget Act passed by Parliament earlier this month – and safety concerns about the MiG fighters were reportedly the main concerns that prompted Bulgarian fighter pilots to refuse training flights on back-to-back days in October.
The length of the new framework agreement with RSK MiG proposed by the Defence Ministry does not appear to point towards a swift resolution of the fighter jets acquisition deal.
(A Bulgarian air force Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter aircraft assigned to the 3rd Air Force Base flies over the flightline during joint Nato air policing at Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, September 8 2016. US Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Joe W. McFadden.)