Representatives of Russian aircraft company MiG are expected to hold talks with Bulgarian officials on September 20 on the repair of the Bulgarian air force's elderly MiG-29s, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov told journalists after a September 19 parliament hearing on the government’s plans to buy new fighter jets.
Bulgaria is reportedly considering reopening the fighter tender, in which Sweden's Saab, with its JAS-39 Gripen, had been chosen as the preliminary winner. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and President Rumen Radev are arguing over the issue and a parliamentary committee is investigating the procedures employed by the government to select the supplier. This has delayed the decision on the purchase of new fighter jets, forcing Sofia to rely on the Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters currently used by its air force.
“When you have enough fighters you can repair them, but keeping them in the hangars makes no sense. We must also pay attention to the fact that the two processes [buying new fighters and repairing existing ones] must run in parallel,” Karakachanov said, weighing into the dispute between Borissov and Radev. He added that the delay in buying fighter jets is not critical, since the country can repair its existing Russian jets.
Karakachanov is the leader of Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO), the junior ruling partner of Borissov’s GERB. IMRO’s nationalist stance has given rise to concern among Bulgaria’s Nato allies.
He made the announcement at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and Nato, as Russia and Belarus engage in their largest military exercise in years. The week-long exercise, codenamed "Zapad", or "West", will see the two eastern armies train according to a number of strategies in a hypothetical conflict with Nato.
However, Karakachanov argued that Russia was not “an immediate threat” to national security (as opposed to the Islamic State), because “one can negotiate” with Russia.
The ministry of defence plans to buy 16 fighter jets in two batches. In the first stage, eight aircraft will be acquired in the period 2018-2020. The cost of the first eight planes and related infrastructure was previously estimated to be up to BGN1.5bn (€767mn).
In March, Bulgaria received three proposals for supplying jet fighters – new Gripens from Sweden, used Eurofighters from Italy or used F-16s from Portugal. The US was expected to provide a logistics package and armaments for the F-16s if they were chosen.
On April 26, the then caretaker government confirmed the recommendation made by a working group and made a non-binding decision to pick the Swedish offer. The interim government also disqualified the offer for the F-16s. However, Sofia is now understood to be reconsidering the decision.
The parliamentary committee is expected to recommend the government resume the procedure from the point of bidding. The committee found irregularities related to a change in the selection procedures during the process, Bulgarian Mediapool daily reported.