Bulgarian President Roumen Radev has once again blasted the government’s handling of the country’s air force fighter jet capability, saying that the cabinet was displaying “a deficit of strategic and statesmanlike thinking” in the defence sector.
Speaking on the sidelines of an innovation forum in Sofia on December 15, Radev said that the government was engaging in “piecemeal spending” without a clear long-term vision on how to build up military capabilities and cooperation with Bulgaria’s partners.
His comments come just two days after the government approved a second tranche of 19.9 million leva (about 10 million euro) for the maintenance of Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters.
At the Cabinet sitting on December 13, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said that the Bulgarian air force received a disproportionate amount of funding for new equipment compared to the navy and land forces, but a large number of its aircraft were not flying.
Borissov singled out Bulgaria’s Cougar helicopters and Spartan military transport jets in particular, saying that the maintenance contracts for those aircraft all would expire at the end of this year. “No one in the military can explain to me why for transportation and the air force alone did we spend such a huge amount of Budget money,” he said, per the minutes of the Cabinet meeting made available by the government’s media office.
Borissov went on to instruct Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov to secure new maintenance contracts before the end of 2017.
“Every day I hear that we should buy more new plains, but no one is talking about how much would maintenance cost afterwards. Most likely, they’ll remain grounded on air fields like the Spartan [jets] and the helicopters,” he said.
Separate from the latest tranche for the MiG maintenance contract, which runs until the end of the year, Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry invited Russia’s RSK MiG last week to sign a four-year framework agreement for the “integrated logistics support” of 15 Bulgarian MiG-29 jet fighters.
The length of the new framework agreement with RSK MiG proposed by the ministry was yet another sign that the Cabinet did not appear to be any hurry to buy new jet fighters. The country’s 2018 Budget, approved by Parliament earlier this month, did not have any money earmarked towards such an acquisition either.
For his part, Radev said that he planned to raise the issue of Bulgaria’s air force capabilities at the next meeting of the consultative council on national security, which he will host on January 9. He said that it was reasonable to invest in the maintenance of the MiG-29 jets, but the acquisition of new equipment should be a priority for the country.
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 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.
(A Bulgarian air force MiG-29 Fulcrum taxis after landing at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, during Thracian Star training exercise on July 13, 2015. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Andrew J. Moseley/Released)