Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted on July 19 to approve the ratification of the four contracts for the country’s $1.25 billion acquisition from the United States of eight Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft.
At the end of a debate lasting close to four hours, the first-reading vote was 124 in favour, 83 against and with three abstentions. The second-reading vote followed soon afterwards, with 123 in favour, 78 against and two abstentions.
The ratification was supported by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and by one of the three constituent parties of government minority partner the United Patriots, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov’s VMRO.
Against were the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), as well United Patriots parties Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Volen Siderov’s Ataka, and Vesselin Mareshki’s populist Volya party.
The four contracts are: F-16 Block 70 aircraft and associated support; Munitions in support of the F-16; Sidewinder AIM 9X Block II Missiles, associated material and services; and Multifunctional Information Distribution System Joint Tactical Radio System (MIDS JTRS) (5) and related support and equipment.
In the course of the first-reading debate, a proposal by the BSP to postpone the vote by six months was rejected. Karakachanov said that delaying a decision would not see the price go down.
Soon after the debate began, BSP leader Kornelia Ninova called for Borissov to be asked to come to the National Assembly, accusing him of lying because he had said the money for the deal was available because of actions against contraband and the “grey economy”. If this was true, why was Parliament being asked to approve borrowing money, Ninova said.
Mareshki called for head of state President Roumen Radev to be asked to come to the National Assembly because he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and as a fighter pilot and former Air Force commander, a specialist on the issue.
Neither Borissov nor Radev came to the Assembly. Borissov was in Varna, inspecting projects, while Radev was in Rozhen at a folklore festival.
Those in favour of the ratification argued that it was key to the much-delayed modernisation of Bulgaria’s Air Force. General Konstantin Popov, a GERB MP and former Air Force commander, praised Borissov for his “courage” to insist that the deal goes ahead, after decades in which previous governments had not got to this point.
GERB’s Vladimir Toshev said the ratification was a step that “guarantees us national security and the healthy orientation towards Western values, Nato and the EU as a full, quality and predictable ally and member”. Gemma Grozdeva of GERB said that the deal would mean Bulgaria being a real, rather than nominal, member of Nato.
Those against mainly objected to the price. Simeonov told Parliament that for the price, Bulgaria could buy twice the number of aircraft, European-made.
He said that the argument for defending air space was not valid, as neighbours Turkey had 600 aircraft and Greece 350. For a much lower cost, Bulgaria would be better off restoring its missile bases for air defence, he said.
Simeonov said that the decision was being taken at the dictate of the United States, and he criticised what he called the “servile” attitude of the Bulgarian Parliament and government.
Ataka MP Dessislav Chukulov said that Bulgaria had other options, of aircraft made in Europe and in Russia, and with the F-16s, the country would face huge maintenance costs.
BSP MP Roumen Geshev attacked the project at length, arguing that the real cost would be more than three billion leva, not the 2.2 billion the government spoke of.
The F-16 Block 70 did not actually exist, apart from on the drawing board, according to Geshev. The US military itself no longer acquired F-16s, because it had much more modern aircraft, he said.
Dwelling on the provisions of the contracts, he described them as disadvantageous to Bulgaria. Responding to hecklers, Geshev said: “Have you read the contracts?”
Bulgaria got money from the EU but was giving it to its competitor, Geshev said.
GERB MP Toma Bikov asked the BSP: “When will you leave the Warsaw Pact and join Nato?”
Karakachanov said that the deal was a decisive step to modernisation. For 12 years, there had been talk about this, but it had been only talk, he said.
The three military modernisation projects (the fighter aircraft, two naval patrol vessels and 150 armoured infantry vehicles) would all be carried out in the term of this government, he said.
Were the BSP in power, it would be choosing the same aircraft, Karakachanov said, pointing to the aircraft acquisitions by Romania, Greece and Slovakia.
Some had asked why Bulgaria was not acquiring F-35s, Karakachanov said. These were much more expensive and Bulgaria would spend a long time in the queue for them, he said.
On July 19, as separate items on the agenda of the National Assembly, were a vote on amending the 2019 Budget Act to accommodate the F-16 deal, and a vote on ratifying a contract between Bulgaria’s Economy Ministry and Lockheed Martin on industrial co-operation.
(Photo: Lockheed Martin)