Officials at Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry have begun quietly proposing changing the criteria for assessing the tenders for the supply of multi-role fighter jets for the air force, reports on October 14 said.
This is the latest twist in the long-running saga of Bulgaria acquiring military fighter aircraft that will meet the standards of the Nato alliance of which the country has been a member since 2004, and that will enable Bulgaria to move on from using its diminished fleet of ageing Soviet-made MiG-29s, which for now it is keeping serviceable for air space defence.
The changes in the criteria were drafted after Roumen Radev resigned his post as air force commander to stand as the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s candidate in the country’s November 2016 presidential elections.
Radev is said to have favoured the acquisition of the out-of-the-box new Gripen fighters, which would be made available to the country on a favourable payment plan and, as new aircraft, would have a longer lifespan than second-hand planes.
Reportedly, the changes to the criteria would favour the acquisition of US-made second-hand aircraft.
The main contenders to supply the replacement aircraft to the Bulgarian Air Force are the United States, Portugal and Israel, with second-hand F-16s, Italy, with second-hand Eurofighters, and Sweden, with new Gripens.
The Institute of Defence at the Defence Ministry, headed by Todor Tagarev, has drafted changes to the criteria for the acquisition, which would involve getting 16 fighters in two tranches. For the first eight of the fighters, with related infrastructure and equipment, a sum of 1.5 billion leva is envisaged.
The changes to the criteria reportedly de-emphasise expected lifespan of the aircraft as a factor, from 25 per cent to only five per cent.
Further, a new criterion is introduced, “military co-operation”. This would be an advantage for the US, given that Bulgaria co-operates mainly with the US military, and would be a disadvantage for Sweden, which is not a member of Nato. The institute is said to have put this factor forward as a major factor in making the decision.
The third proposal is to eliminate the multi-purpose fighter factor, which would mean that the air force would need to continue to support the Russian Su-25s based at Bezmer. This move contradicts Defence Ministry plans to get rid of Soviet-made weaponry. It also would be costly because the air force would need to devote more money to support different types of military aircraft.
It is understood that at the time of the first government headed by Boiko Borissov, Bulgaria came close to a deal to acquire used F-16s from Portugal, which would have been third-hand. But the premature end of that Borissov government, when it resigned in the face of cost-of-living protests that turned violent in early 2013, snuffed out the deal.
Romania ended up getting some of Portugal’s F-16s, which have the downside of their limited life expectancy. The rest would be on offer to Bulgaria.
It remains to be seen whether Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry will take on board the changes proposed by the Institute of Defence.
The issue was raised at a meeting of Parliament’s committee on defence, with opposition BSP MP Atanas Zafirov asking whether it was true that the life expectancy of the fighters, which had been the most important criterion, was reduced close to zero as a factor.
The BSP’s Angel Naidenov, who was defence minister in 2013 and 2014, and defence committee head General Miho Mihov, also asked whether there were changes in the criteria for the fighter jet acquisition.
Committee member Valentin Radev expressed dissatisfaction that Parliament had voted 1.5 billion leva for the purchase of new multi-role fighters, yet six months had gone by and nothing had happened.
The project to acquire new fighter aircraft is to be discussed next week at the Ministry of Defence’s defence council.
Air Force commander Major-General Tsanko Stoikov said that the stages and financial parameters of the project remained the same.
Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev said that a letter of intent would be sent to Sweden, Italy and Portugal, and once replies were received, a decision made on who would be granted the project.