A day after Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov voiced doubt that Gripen was the best choice for a new fighter jet for the country’s Air Force, a parliamentary ad hoc committee was poised to call for a rewrite of requirements and a request to bidders to submit new offers.
The committee was set up earlier in 2017 to investigate the bid process, which saw an interdepartmental committee of experts rank Gripen as the top offer, for technical and financial reasons.
The report by the expert committee was scrutinised by the Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet. After coming to power as Bulgaria’s head of government for the third time, Borissov initially told his Swedish counterpart that negotiations on a Gripen acquisition would proceed within weeks.
But that was followed by complicated flip-flopping on the issue by Borissov and his GERB party, which returned the process to the prolonged delays and uncertainties that have plagued it for years.
In recent days, Borissov and Bulgarian President Roumen Radev – who commanded the Air Force before resigning to stand for election as head of state – were at cross-purposes again, in spite of a supposed show of unity some months ago on the process of modernisation of Bulgaria’s military.
Radev earlier characterised the appointment of the parliamentary ad hoc committee as a tribunal directed against him. Radev, who won election in 2016 on a ticket backed by the socialist opposition, had input earlier in the acquisition by virtue of being the Air Force chief.
Reports on September 19 said that the ad hoc parliamentary multi-party committee would call on the Defence Ministry to make changes to the programme for investing in new jet fighters for the Bulgarian Air Force.
A rewritten project should eliminate ambiguities and doubts about restrictive requirements regarding the implementation of the payment options, according to the draft recommendations.
The report recommends that Bulgaria should submit a new call for proposals to the countries that put in bids, once Parliament had approved the changes.
The draft report said that the committee “highly appreciated” the work done so far on the project, but adds that there was a “lack of political leadership” and control of the process, as well as a regulatory vacuum.
According to the report, the involvement of external Air Force experts was “limited” and their expertise had not been used. It said that the final result had been distorted and serious doubts had arisen regarding the effectiveness of the spending of public funds.
There were three bids in response to the 2016 request for proposals – Sweden with an offer to build newly-made Gripens to order, deliver within an 18-month deadline after the contract signing and provide for a flexible payment plan. Portugal offered second-hand US-made F-16s and Italy, second-hand Eurofighter Typhoons.
Borissov’s September 18 comments were the most discouraging yet from him regarding the Swedish bid, saying that he doubted that Gripen was the best option and asking, “are these fighters what we need now?”
Borissov said that all the military modernisation needs, counting naval patrol vessels, armoured vehicles and the jet fighters, added up to 10 billion leva (about five million euro). He said that Bulgarian defensive doctrine called for land vehicles first.
It remains to be seen whether, in the face of this governmental chopping and changing, Gripen would be willing to proceed with a process that in all these years has had unpredictability as its sole predictable element.
Some within government circles would prefer to see Bulgaria accept second-hand F-16s – which would have a shorter life-span by definition – in the belief that this would be received positively by its United States ally. Portugal is understood to want to raise cash towards buying F-35s partly by unloading its old F-16s.
Speaking to reporters in New York, where he is due to address the UN, Radev said that he believed that Borissov was being misled by his advisers regarding the choice of a jet fighter.
Radev said that the Gripen choice had been made after a fully transparent procedure. He denied giving an opinion on this type of aircraft.
Radev urged Borissov not to divide the country and its crucial sectors into portions and urged him not to change his decisions every day. “National security is not built on changing your position every day,” he said.