The Bulgarian National Assembly’s defence committee voted on June 5 to approve 3.5 billion leva military modernisation projects involving the acquisition of fighter jets and armoured infantry vehicles.
The projects will be put to the plenary of the National Assembly because the sum involved is substantially over the threshold for which parliamentary approval is required by law.
The projects were approved with the votes of defence committee members from the two groups in the governing coalition, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB and the nationalist United Patriots.
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Volya party, the fifth and smallest in Parliament, abstained.
Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said that in spite of the BSP having abstained, the discussion in the committee meeting had been “constructive”.
In recent weeks, Karakachanov has said repeatedly that he hopes at least one of the military modernisation projects will be finalised by the end of 2018.
Borissov’s Cabinet took the decision on May 16 to ask for parliamentary approval for the projects.
The proposed spending includes 1.8 billion leva, VAT included, for the acquisition of 16 fighter jets in two stages of eight each. The first stage envisages a payment period of 10 years.
The other item is for the acquisition of 150 for infantry combat vehicles, systems, additional equipment and training for three battalion groups, for which spending of 1.46 billion leva is proposed.
In early 2017, the caretaker cabinet of the time made a step towards progress in the fighter jet acquisition process, when it was presented with a report that rated the bid by Sweden’s Saab for Gripen fighters as the best. However, amid political manoeuvring, matters went back to square one and the process is being re-started again.
At the previous stage, bids to supply the aircraft were received from Saab, and from Italy, to supply second-hand Eurofighters, and from Portugal, to supply second-hand F-16s. More recently, Karakachanov has hinted at the possibility of getting second-hand F-16s from Israel.
Borissov is due to visit Israel in mid-June 2018.
Bulgarian Air Force commander General Tsanko Stoykov said that a new methodology would be used to define the criteria for selecting the fighter jet.
Stoykov said that Bulgaria would be looking for offers for US-made F-18s and F-16s from the United States, Portugal and Israel, and Eurofighters from Germany and Italy, and wanted bids for French-made Rafael aircraft and Sweden’s Gripen. Offers could be for new or second-hand aircraft.
The first fighter jets should be delivered within two years of the signing of the contract, and of the second tranche of aircraft, between the fifth and seventh year.
During this latter period, the Bulgarian Air Force’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29s would gradually be withdrawn from service.
Karakachanov, responding to a question from opposition MPs why there was an option to acquire the fighter jets from non-Nato countries, said that he preferred getting new aircraft, but an inquiry had been made to Israel because it had several squadrons of F-16s produced in the US.
Sweden, while not a member of Nato, is a fellow EU country, while Israel offered aircraft produced in a Nato country.
BSP MP Tasko Ermenkov said that the party was abstaining from voting because the Bulgarian domestic industry had no capacity to participate in the modernisation of the military.
Movement for Rights and Freedoms MP General Simeon Simeonov said that the party supported all the projects.
Parliamentary defence committee chairperson General Konstantin Popov of GERB said that he expected that the projects would be approved by the National Assembly plenary by the end of June 2018.