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Bulgarian government backtracks on Gripen selection

By Alexander Mladenov and Krassimir Grozev in Sofia

Bulgaria is to restart its fighter procurement initiative, following recommendations made by a parliamentary investigation board after its review of the decision to name Saab's Gripen C/D as preferred candidate.

The review board – which completed its work on 20 September – indicates that a combined offer of used Lockheed Martin F-16s submitted by the governments of Portugal and the USA was disqualified in an improper manner, preventing a fair evaluation of all submitted bids. Sources suggest that the offer was disqualified because a request for a deferred payment scheme failed to comply with Sofia's requirements.

In its report, the investigation board recommends that the defence ministry rework the requirements contained in its request for proposals, and expand the number of countries which will receive an invitation to participate in the government-to-government tender. A decision on how to proceed sits with defence minister Krasimir Karakachanov.

Bulgaria wants to purchase two batches of eight fighters each, and had allocated €767 million ($900 million) for the first phase, also including a small package of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, a simulator, logistics support and training services.

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In April, a tender commission named the Gripen as preferred candidate, after it received the highest score in its evaluation. An Italian government offer using Tranche 1-standard second-hand Eurofighter Typhoons was ranked in second position. A final decision was deferred until after Bulgaria's new government entered office in early May.

Prime minister Boyko Borisov has questioned the need to acquire new fighters, and suggested that the Gripen is far from the best choice for the nation, and his centre-right GERB party has voiced its support for the option of purchasing F-16s. The US government and Lockheed delivered an unsolicited proposal in March 2017 promoting new-build examples in a Block 70 standard.

Bulgarian president and former air force commander-in-chief Rumen Radev opposes Borisov's view, and notes that the Swedish type complies with the terms of the earlier request for proposals.

Borisov also has suggested that Bulgaria could consider ordering a cheaper combat aircraft, such as Textron AirLand's Scorpion – which visited the country in June 2015.

Another factor in Bulgaria’s indecisiveness on the new fighter procurement stems from its willingness to maintain good relations with Russia, allowing investment in keeping its current MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-25 fleets in operational condition. Karakachanov believes the types could fly on until around 2030.

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