Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry continues to press for new combat aircraft to replace the Bulgarian Air Force’s Soviet-vintage MiG-29 Fulcrum fleet. Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev told local media on January 13 that if a contract is signed by year-end 2016, the new fighter fleet could be brought into service within a three-and-a-half-year timeframe.
The assumption, of course, is that the long-standing MiG-29 replacement program will finally move forward enough during the current year to result in the inking of such a contract. But if past is prologue, it is unlikely an agreement for the acquisition of new-build multirole fighters of the likes being sought by the Bulgarian Defense Ministry will ever be signed.
But if we change the term “new-build” to just “new” – all while understanding what “new” might mean in the context of Bulgarian defense – then such an agreement moves from being a low-percentage possibility to an option with much stronger odds.
The replacement of the Bulgarian Air Force’s MiG-29 Fulcrums has been bandied about by successive governments since 2006.
Retaining a minimal level of combat aircraft strength has been an issue for Bulgaria since March 2004, when the country became a NATO member. At that time, Bulgaria’s air power fleet consisted of legacy Soviet models, including 14 Su-25s (retired in 2012) along with the MiG-29s. But membership in NATO immediately pushed Bulgaria’s prospects in a more Alliance-compatible procurement direction, thus eliminating Russian-derived platforms from consideration.
When a Request for Information (RFI) was sent to five potential candidates regarding a reduced-in-scope procurement of 12 fighters and four two-seat trainers in August 2006, all of the vendors were Western. The fighter types included Boeing’s F/A-18E/F, Dassault’s Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen, and Lockheed Martin’s F-16C/D.
The real problem, however, was less the vendor in question than the financial underpinnings of any deal. Featuring one of the poorest economies in the European Union and with limited funding resources, Sofia continued kicking the can down the road on its fighter acquisition plans, with cheaper alternatives – such as the procurement of around eight secondhand F-16s from retired U.S. Air Force stocks – examined and dismissed.
Meanwhile, as year after year passed with little progress on a fighter acquisition, questions surrounding the serviceability of the Bulgarian Air Force’s 1980s-vintage MiG-29s became paramount as age and wear and tear on the fleet began whittling down the number of operational fighters.
In March 2015, Defense Minister Nenchev testified to the Bulgarian Parliament that as result of wear on the MiG fleet, the country was at risk of soon having just two aircraft left to carry out air policing.
By this point, however, Bulgarian leadership – traditionally favorable toward Moscow – had soured on the idea of defense cooperation with Russia in light of the Kremlin’s behavior along its shared borders with NATO and destabilizing actions in Ukraine. As a result, Nenchev announced on July 6 of last year that the Bulgarian Air Force would ax its aircraft support ties with Russia and would instead sign a maintenance-repair agreement with Poland (inked on October 22, 2015). Under that agreement, Poland will lend Bulgaria two of its own MiG-29 engines on a temporary basis, while repairing the engines of six Bulgarian MiGs.
On top of this step, Bulgaria now plans to tender for six new MiG-29 fighter engines by the end of the month, as per an announcement by Nenchev on January 12. The step would appear to provide Bulgaria with a cushion with which to keep its fleet operational while awaiting the arrival and transition into service of a successor platform.