By Alexander Mladenov & Krassimir Grozev in Sofia
Bulgaria’s government has postponed taking a final decision on the selection of a new-generation fighter until later this year, while the nation also considers making significant investments in the maintenance of its RAC MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-25 fleets.
In late June, Bulgaria’s newly elected parliament decided to establish an investigation board to review all aspects of the fighter tender. This followed the announcement by a temporary government in late April that the Saab Gripen C/D was the preferred candidate in country’s new combat aircraft competition.
The Swedish bid, using new-build aircraft, was ranked ahead of proposals with Tranche 1-standard Eurofighter Typhoons from Italy, and used Lockheed Martin F-16s promoted by the USA and Portugal. The combined US/Portuguese offer was disqualified, reportedly after failing to meet several key requirements, including a deferred payments scheme.
Sofia had requested information on an eight-aircraft deal to be completed under a government-to-government agreement, with deliveries to occur by 2020. The deal – which was also to include a small package of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, a simulator, logistics support and training – has an allocated budget of €767 million ($900 million). The plan calls for another eight of the same type to be purchased between 2022 and 2023.
Bulgaria's new right-wing, nationalist government, which entered office in early May, has criticised the preferred-bidder decision. The parliamentary investigation board is expected to complete its work by the end of September, although this could be extended by up to a further two months.
The government says it will wait for the board’s final report before deciding how to proceed, but prime minister Boyko Borisov has hinted that he would prefer to acquire new-build fighters, due to their longer service lives.
Meanwhile, defence minister Krasimir Karakachanov has called for the air force's current fighters and strike aircraft to receive funding to maintain their airworthiness. The service operates 15 MiG-29s and 14 Su-25s, but he says that in early August only eight and four, respectively, were in a serviceable condition.
Karakachanov says he has held talks with representatives of RAC MiG about the options for maintaining the MiG-29 fleet.