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Gripen tops shortlist for Bulgarian fighter deal

Bulgaria's government has announced the Saab Gripen C/D as the preferred candidate in the country’s new combat aircraft competition.

Sofia late last year issued a request for proposals for the purchase of eight multirole fighters, to be delivered by 2020. Another eight of the selected type would be contracted in 2022 under current plans.

On 26 April, the government announced that a selection board had reviewed the three submitted offers, received in mid-March. These were for used Tranche 1-standard Eurofighter Typhoons from Italy, modernised Lockheed Martin F-16s from the USA and Portugal, and new-build Gripens. Bulgaria had asked for the deal to be conducted under a government-to-government agreement.

Defence minister Stephan Yanev says Sweden's Gripen proposal has been ranked first, followed by the F-16 bid and finally the Typhoon offer, but provides no further details.

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Sources in Sofia indicate that the Swedish offer was preferred because its approximately €511 million ($558 million) price tag was less than the F-16 bid, which was valued at around €767 million. The Gripen bid also proposed the delivery of first aircraft within 18 months, supported by a deferred payment scheme to relieve the financial burden on Bulgaria’s defence budget.

The bidding companies have yet to comment on the preferred bidder selection.

Bulgaria's procurement procedures now require the defence minister to be granted a mandate to begin negotiations with the preferred bidder and enter into a government-to-government purchase agreement. This will then have to be ratified by the nation's government and parliament.

A new right-wing, nationalist government is due to be established in Bulgaria in early May, and its attitude towards the fighter tender and preferred bidder decision is not yet clear. It could even decide to hold parallel negotiations with the Swedish and US/Portuguese teams.

Sofia's requirement includes air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, ground support equipment, training and logistics support.

The Bulgarian air force has been pursuing its new fighter programme for more than 12 years. The service retired the last of its RAC MiG-21bis fighters in December 2015, leaving its air defence to a fleet of 15 MiG-29s. Fewer than half of these are kept in airworthy condition, however, due to severe problems related to a lack of spare parts and technical services.

By Krassimir Grozev and Alexander Mladenov in Sofia

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