Since 2006, the replacement of the Bulgarian Air Force’s MiG-29 Fulcrums has been bandied by successive governments. Nevertheless, today it constitutes one of the paramount priorities of the Bulgarian defence apparatus.

Having entered NATO in 2004, Bulgaria still relies on its outdated soviet MiG29s to ensure its air force core task. As stated in the Program for the development of the defense capabilities of the Bulgarian armed forces 2020, the Bulgarian air force is primarily appointed to ensure the air space sovereignty, alone or with the backing of NATO nations. Facing its pertaining duties, Bulgaria’s unwavering willingness to harmonize its main air force jet fighters with NATO compatible standards is far from a surprise. To pave the way for this in depth military reform, Bulgarian government initiated a defence budget enhancement program to raise the army FY16 budget to 1.35%, 1.5% in FY18, up to 2% in FY24 (NATO budget compliance threshold).

Hence the purchase of a new multi-purpose aircraft is of an utmost importance and represents a substantial effort for the tight state budget with €767 million dedicated. Within this amount, half of it will be dedicated to a first batch of eight jets in the 2018-2020 delivery period while the rest will be devoted to a second batch of eight jets with a post 2022 delivery. The bid package also includes besides the aircraft supply, flight training and trainings for the technical staff, air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, logistics, ground equipment and other related goods and services.

The tender for the aircraft supply has been held between Dec 9th 2016 and March 13th 2017 with three materials shortlisted bearing air force officials’ interest:

  • JAS-39 Gripen C/Ds: brand new from Sweden
  • F16 A/Bs: mid-life Portuguese units upgraded by Ogma (with logistic package from US Lockheed Martin).
  • Eurofighter Typhoon T-1 standard: second hand units from Italy.

The interdepartmental working group appointed by the prime minister, opened the submitted proposals in the presence of representatives of Italy, Portugal, the USA and Sweden. The working group, chaired by the Air Force Commander Major-General Tcanko Stoykov will start analyzing and evaluating responses on March 14th and should hand in its conclusion in a month.

However, partiality allegations have recently strained the tender process. Criterias have been modified to lower the weight attributed to “expected shelf life”, supposedly to advantage the fate of used Portuguese F-16.

In the meantime, Bulgarian officials signed a maintenance agreement with Poland, thus validating the loosening strategic ties with Russia, to put up-to-date its aging MIG-29 fleet. Bulgaria spent €36 million last year on acquiring new engines and other spare parts for its current 15 RAC MiG-29 fighters (further €16 million maintenance spending expected). The MiG 29 useful life extension will help to back-up the Bulgarian air force transition towards a fully operational and modern jet fighters fleet.

With the incoming renewal of most of NATO F-16 fleets (Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Turkey), the Portuguese F-16 choice could be more sustainable for the tight Bulgarian military budget by providing a wider pool of spare parts in order to lower maintenance costs on the mid-long term and to enhance optimization of its component overhaul.

Another advantage for the F-16 bid is the recent choice made by neighboring Romania. Bulgarian air forces would lean on neighboring air forces, operating the same jet fighters, with obvious interoperability benefits during joint air policing operations. Hence, this multi-purpose aircraft program should allow Bulgaria to fully comply with its NATO mission frame, adopted during the Wales’ organization summit, i.e. to provide security to NATO southern flank.

Furthermore, as regards with equipment investment doctrine (Program for the development of the defense capabilities 2020), Bulgaria is tilting toward a tighter cooperation with NATO agencies. This in order to enhance its planes integration within the organization’s framework, to get highest NATO financial and economic leverages in fixing prices and to harvest outcomes for the development of the Bulgarian subcontractor industry.

As defence budget in Bulgaria is severely outstretched, the air force is not to buy state of the art new fighters jets. Indeed, the three shortlisted aircrafts are all three fourth generation birds. Moreover, two of the contenders offer second hand aircrafts. Even if it seems to have more chance to win the adjudication, the F-16 will have to face the harsh competition of the Eurofighter Typhoon, also second handed. At the opposite, the Gripen, with its more modern standard, has already been widely exported and might be a serious challenger with consequences for incoming tenders in Europe (Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Written by Nicolas Charrié (Analyst) for OIDA Strategic Intelligence



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