Bulgaria’s Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said on December 28 that the planned four-year framework agreement for the maintenance of 15 Bulgarian Air Force Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters was likely to be signed in mid-February 2018.
Earlier this month, the Defence Ministry invited Russia’s RSK MiG to begin negotiations on the contract, worth 81.3 million leva, hoping to close the deal before the end of the year. But the ministry had to cancel after a Ukrainian company lodged a complaint with Bulgaria’s competition watchdog.
Karakachanov, who initially described the complaint as “sabotage”, told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television on December 28 that he would not “insert intermediaries in the fighter jets contract. There will be direct talks with RSK MiG.”
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 has vacillated on the topic, raising the prospect of new delays if Parliament is asked to approve an amended military procurement proposal.
(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.)