Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s coalition Cabinet decided on January 9 to ask the National Assembly to approve the opening of negotiations with the United States on the acquisition of F-16 fighter jets for the Bulgarian Air Force.
Earlier, on December 21, a military and political committee recommended the F-16 option, over the bids by Sweden to supply new made-to-order Gripens, and an offer from Italy of second-hand Eurofighters.
The committee said that its decision was based on the US having offered to deliver a complete package, of fighter aircraft with armaments and equipment fitted, unlike the other two offers.
Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said that the decision was about starting negotiations, not about a purchase.
The government also wants the National Assembly to agree to deviating from the financial parameters that Parliament previously approved, of 1.8 billion leva for the fighter jet acquisition.
The US offer exceeds the approved price parameters but Washington has indicated it may be willing to amend its offer.
“The United States remains committed to working with the Bulgarian government to tailor the final scope of its potential F-16 to its budget and operational requirements, while still offering superior capabilities,” the White House said in a statement on the eve of the Bulgarian Cabinet’s January 9 meeting.
Karakachanov said: “I will not hide that in the course of the negotiation process over the past few months we have had certain assurances that the price will be adjusted – the price offered by the United States”.
He said that the White House statement on January 9 “also clearly shows that Washington also has an understanding of the negotiation process and the financial parameters set out in our updated project”.
Bulgaria’s Chief of Defence General Andrei Botev said that the joint committee had “done a good job”.
Botev expressed hope that the contract could be concluded on the very best terms for Bulgaria as soon as possible. “So I hope the National Assembly also mandates the government to continue the negotiations so that a contract can be concluded,” he said.
Bulgarian Air Force commander Major General Tsanko Stoikov said that this was “a historic moment” because the process had got further than it ever had in the past 10 years.
Modernisation of the Air Force was essential, Stoikov said. “You are all familiar with the problems we have with the maintenance and operation of the already aging aviation equipment,” he said.
“The planes are new, modern, with the latest equipment and armaments, so we will be able to carry out the tasks that are now set for the performance of the Air Force,” Stoikov said.
The starting of negotiations with the US on the F-16 has been backed by Borissov’s GERB party, though there is some division in minority coalition partner the United Patriots on the issue. The F-16 option has been been opposed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and by President Roumen Radev, a former Air Force commander and regular critic of Borissov’s government.
(Photo, of an F-16 Viper: Lockheed Martin)