Bulgarian President Roumen Radev, a frequent critic of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s government, has hit out at the recommendation for the country to negotiate with the US to acquire F-16 fighter jets, calling it a “triumph of lobbyism”.
Radev was speaking to Darik Radio on December 22, a day after committees that had examined the bids to supply the Bulgarian Air Force with new fighter jets recommended negotiating for the F-16s.
The recommendation was made over a bid by Sweden to supply newly made-to-order Gripens and from Italy for second-hand Eurofighters.
Radev said that 2018 was a year of autocracy and a decline of democracy, and pointed to the recommendation about the F-16s as the final episode of autocracy this year.
“It was a triumph of lobbyism. I do not want to defend one or another type of aircraft – for me, all three are wonderful, I flew them and against them,” said the 55-year-old former Air Force commander and skilled fighter pilot, who resigned from his military career in 2016 to stand as a presidential candidate on a ticket backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party.
“But unlike other people, I defend that the process should be transparent, open and objective,” he said.
“There are two types of choices – the first is when the government says that it will bet on a strategic partnership and pick an aircraft from country X without being interested in details. But this requires political courage and above all a responsibility that is not inherent to our government,” Radev said.
He said that before the work of the committee was over, the parliamentary leader of Borissov’s GERB party, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, had predetermined the choice, and at that while in Washington DC. Borissov had done the same, Radev said, in an apparent reference to the Prime Minister recently having publicly described the F-16s as the best choice.
Radev said that it was no coincidence that in mid-October, he had called for “radio silence” on the matter, as was done all over the world.
He said that he was not commenting on the quality of the aircraft: “All three meet our requirements”.
“But it is not normal to state a position before the committee ends. The Prime Minister said that some pilots told him the F-16 was the best. What was this whole expert group then? Why this farce?” Radev said.
He also criticised statements that the US would respond to inquiries about details only at a stage after negotiations had commenced.
“What does that mean, now we will choose, and then we will understand the conditions? We are putting ourselves in an absurd position.”
Radev said that all the frameworks that had been put in place by Parliament had been swept away. “Negotiations are now starting outside this framework without the sanction of Parliament,” he said.
“Until recently, the same people (the government) blocked the whole process of moderniing the Bulgarian (military) on the grounds that there is no money for pensions. Now suddenly they rushed to buy fighters and the most expensive ones,” Radev said.
“Perhaps my point of view is different from those who are making decisions at the moment – perhaps this deal is not a goal, but a means to achieve some other goals. I do not know what, you have to ask them.
“My goal as Commander-in-Chief is for the Bulgarian military to have the capabilities and to make sure that our pilots fly.”
He said that the F-16s would be the most expensive option, and would not be delivered after two years – the deadline envisaged for the first consignment of eight fighter jets – but at the earliest, after six years.
During that time, Bulgaria would continue to have to invest hugely in maintaining its MiG-29s, Radev said, adding that “to say nothing of the cost of use – that is at least double the cost of the acquisition”.
“Yes, the F-16 is a wonderful aircraft. But will they be able to acquire it at reasonable prices and maintain it?
“For as much as they aspire to perpetuate their rule – both Tsvetanov and Borisov, there is no guarantee that when this plane will begin to operate, they will be in power and will bear this responsibility,” Radev said.