The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress on May 30 of a potential $1.673 billion foreign military sale (FMS) to Bulgaria receiving approval by the U.S. State Department. The potential FMS covers a Bulgarian government request for up to eight F-16C/D Block 70/72 combat aircraft, as well as ten F110 General Electric engines (of which two are provided as spares), plus sundry other support equipment.
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The sale would bring a U.S.-sourced fighter platform to an Eastern European member of NATO, marking a recent continuance in the shift from dependence upon Russian-based equipment stretching back to the Cold War era when imposition of Soviet puppet states and its Warsaw Pact counter-NATO edifice dominated the region. Since 2014, countries along NATO’s eastern European flank have focused their defense efforts on recapitalizing their militaries with an eye on procuring non-Russian hardware.
Bulgaria’s Air Force operates a handful of 1980s-vintage Russian-produced MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, the serviceable remnants of a 15-unit fleet. These conduct air-policing duties and serve to protect Bulgarian air sovereignty.
But the aircraft are not a long-term option to fill the Air Force’s combat airpower requirement and under normal circumstances would have likely been phased out years ago.
As far back as March 2004, when Bulgaria joined the NATO Alliance, its government announced an international competition for the supply of 16 NATO-compatible fighters. But the Bulgarian MiG-29 fighter replacement project remains an ongoing saga, one in which political and financial dimensions have stretched a final procurement decision out year after year.
After countless starts and stops leading nowhere, the Ministry of Defense finally received approval by the governing cabinet of its fighter procurement plan on May 16, 2018. The aim is to procure eight to 10 fighters sourced from NATO partners as the first of what may eventually become a two-phase acquisition project. Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov has indicated his preference for new-build combat aircraft at an estimated at BGN1.5 billion ($859 million).
But disagreements during price negotiations with the U.S. prompted Karackachanov to go on Bulgarian National Radio last month and complain about unsatisfactory offers by Washington. During the interview, he noted that Bulgaria’s fighter options were not limited to the U.S. alone; and that if a better price tag was not forthcoming, then the government might turn to Sweden’s Saab for the Gripen or Italy for the Eurofighter.
However, the latest approved offer announced by the DSCA on May 30 appears closer to what the Bulgarian side seeks, with Ministry of Defense officials noting that the discounted price tag is closer to the upper limits of what Sofia is willing to spend. The Bulgarian parliament has granted the government approval to spend above BGN1.8 billion ($1 billion), and Karackachanov noted that at BGN2 billion ($1.15 billion) there is room for discussion once a draft Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) is delivered from Washington in the coming two weeks.
The $1.673 billion estimate announced in the potential FMS deal falls within State and Defense department margins, with some potential equipment items listed in the DSCA notification stripped out to reduce the cost.
Bulgaria had originally hoped to finalize a deal in 2018 allowing for deliveries to run through 2021, with in-service capability initially achieved by 2020. If a deal is reached in the coming months, these timeframes will be pushed out by a year or two.