Bulgarian Restart

Bulgaria is restarting its fighter procurement initiative following recommendations issued by a parliamentary investigation board that made a review of all aspects of the tender. The board completed its work on September 20 and its report was set for approval by parliament at the end of the month.

According to the report, the combined offer for used F-16s submitted by the governments of the United States and Portugal was disqualified because of the improprieties in the bidding process. The official reason for the F-16’s disqualification was that the payment scheme offered failed to comply with Bulgaria’s requirement for deferred payment. Sources in Sofia also hinted that there were some other deficiencies.

The investigation board issued a recommendation to the Ministry of Defence to rework the RFP and expand the number of countries invited to tender. Sofia plans to buy its new fighter in a government-togovernment deal.

The final decision on how to proceed is in the hands of defence minister Krasimir Karakachanov, although he has claimed on numerous occasions that he will respect the investigation board’s recommendations.

Sofia has a requirement for 16 multi-role fighters – two batches of eight. The budget allocated for the first batch is €767 million to include aircraft, a small package of air-toair and air-to-surface weapons, a simulator, logistics support and training.

In April 2017, the inter-service tender commission announced that the Saab JAS 39C Gripen is the preferred candidate having received the highest score in the evaluation. Italy’s offer for Tranche 1-standard secondhand Eurofighter Typhoons came second. The temporary government in Sofia at the time decided to leave the final decision to the new right-wing government, which entered office in early May.

However, the new government decided to ignore the work of its predecessor and instead supported the establishment of a parliamentary investigation board to review the tender. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov publicly voiced his doubts regarding the need to buy new fighters and claimed that Gripen is far from the best choice for Bulgaria. His right-wing GERB party has voiced its support for the F-16 deal.

President and former Bulgarian Air Force Commander-in-chief Rumen Radev openly opposed the Prime Minister’s stance, claiming his proposals harm the country’s security, and asked for prompt and decisive steps to restore the air force’s ability to meet its NATO commitments. He also declared that the government has ignored expert contributions from the air force, which chose a fighter according to the requirements set out in the RFP.

Saab’s bid has been the subject of a smear campaign by representatives of the ruling coalition and media since early May, that have prompted the company to issue several statements refuting speculation and rumour. The situation was made even more complex after a new unsolicited proposal submitted by Lockheed Martin and the US government in March for new-build Block 70 F-16s. This expensive option is regarded as unrealistic given the relatively small budget available for the required package. Nevertheless, it is the ruling coalition’s preferred choice.

Despite the air force’s requirement for a supersonic fighter, Prime Minister Borisov has hinted that the country does not need newgeneration multi-role fighter aircraft and might be better off with cheaper platforms. He cited the Textron Scorpion as a possible solution, offered at unit price of about $20 million. In June 2015, the first prototype of the Scorpion was demonstrated in Bulgaria.

Another factor in Bulgaria’s indecisiveness is the need to maintain good relationships with Russia to continue maintenance of its existing MiG-29 and Su-25 fleets, which, according to defence minister Karakachanov, could stay in service until about 2030.

Alexander Mladenov and Krassimir Grozev