The decision by a Bulgarian parliamentary committee to ask the Defence Ministry to re-start the fighter jet acquisition process had negative consequences for the motivation of people in the Air Force, its commander said in a television interview on October 16.
“They feel neglected, somewhat offended, and for this reason this reflects on their further motivation to remain in the Air Force,” General Tsanko Stoikov said in an interview with bTV on the day that Bulgaria marked its centenary of fighter aviation.
Asked if there was an outflow of pilots and engineers, Stoikov said: “Not for now”. He said that if the process did not go ahead, and slowed down, this could lead to an outflow.
This would also be negative for the tasks assigned to the Air Force and the capabilities to acquire and order a new combat aircraft. “Because a negative attitude makes people look for other options,” Stoikov said.
The offence that the Air Force personnel felt lay in the lack of hope and the prospect for their development, he said.
“They are not given the opportunity to fly normally, to carry out their tasks normally on a new aircraft. That’s their dream,” he said.
Asked if the risk of accidents was increasing because of the situation, he said that the reduced aviation resources created the preconditions for accidents.
“We are far below this requirement and this affects their motivation and attitude, realizing the current situation and hoping that things will improve, they still have the hope that things will happen, but they should not they hope in vain and have expectations that are clearly not in line with the specific actions currently underway regarding aviation equipment.”
Already adopted by the National Assembly, the parliamentary committee’s report said that there had been “serious shortcomings” in the process that led to an expert report presented to the Bulgarian caretaker cabinet of the time, earlier in 2017, that ranked the bid by Saab to supply Gripens as the best of the three received.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov initially said, after taking office as head of government for third time in May this year, that negotiations with Sweden on the Gripen acquisition would proceed within weeks. But his GERB party initiated the special committee to look into the earlier process, leading the media to dub it the “Gripen committee”. GERB recently has been openly leaning towards the Portuguese offer of US-made F-16s, with its parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov and others being derisive about the Gripen offer.
Stoikov told bTV that he stood “firmly behind” the expert assessment in the report.
Stoikov said that Bulgaria’s fighter aviation, celebrating 100 years of history “will find it difficult to accept foreign aircraft bearing the combat duty of securing air sovereignty”.
Currently, Eurofighters from the Italian Air Force are assisting the Bulgarian Air Force to guard the country’s borders, in a mission due to end at the end of October. Bulgarian law has been amended to allow foreign air forces to participate in air policing.
Asked if Bulgarian military aviation was “grounded”, he said: “Not yet. I hope it will not be grounded, but I have the feeling that in respect, many people are working to achieve this outcome”.
He said that it was positive to have the contract with Russia’s RFK MiG on the overhaul of the Bulgarian Air Force’s MiG-29s.
The Bulgarian Air Force had enough MiG-29s to ensure that it remained on duty and provided flight training for qualified pilots. But it was not enough to train young pilots to ensure continuity, he said.
Asked if there would be no pilots for a new combat aircraft, Stoikov said: “We do not have such a problem at the moment. We have sufficiently trained pilots that can be trained on the new aircraft and prepared young pilots if the process of acquiring a new combat aircraft is not too slow”.
In 2016, the rival bids that were submitted to Bulgaria’s government were for newly-made Gripens, second-hand F-16s from Portugal, and second-hand Eurofighters from Italy.
Responding to a question of large-scale modernisation of the existing Russian aircraft, Stoikov said that this would be inappropriate for the Air Force “because we have a vision to acquire a new type of combat aircraft”.