SOFIA, BULGARIA — In two years, in 2025, Bulgaria should receive the first manufactured Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 fighter. It is already on the production line at the plant in Greenville, South Carolina. The main assembly of the fighter is currently underway.
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Bulgaria placed an order for eight fighters of this model in 2019. At the end of the same year, the government led by Mr. Boyko Borisov then made a 100% advance payment for the order. Two years later, in 2022, the Bulgarian Parliament approved the purchase of eight more fighter jets. Thus, in the following years, Bulgaria will gradually receive the 16 F-16s. According to experts, this process can take a period of ten years.
The F-16 order is part of Bulgaria’s plan to modernize the Bulgarian army. Currently, the Bulgarian Air Force [BAF or VVS] performs its daily missions with 11 obsolete Soviet MiG-29UBs. These are twin-seat fighters that have infrared sensors. The NATO designation is Fulcrum-B.
Not all of the 11 available fighters are operationally ready, however. Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, the Bulgarian legislators had a hard and difficult time accepting new modernization. Such decisions were hindered mainly by political differences than by effective actions in favor of the Bulgarian army.
Today it is even more difficult to think about any kind of modernization or purchase of spare parts. The BAF needs to repair the engines of its MiGs, as well as supply spare parts. The war in Ukraine made it even more impossible to serve the Bulgarian combat aviation. Even if it wanted to, Sofia can no longer buy the necessary equipment and components from Moscow, since Russia has declared Bulgaria an enemy state after providing military aid to Ukraine.
The need for a modern combat fighter for the Bulgarian combat aviation, in the specific case the F-16, is becoming more and more tangible. Our army is facing the threat that at the end of 2023 our MiGs will not be able to fulfill their role. At the end of last year, the Chief of the General Staff of the Bulgarian Army, Admiral Emil Eftimov, expressed the opinion that Bulgaria will have to look for leased fighters to take over the role of the MiG-29 until the first F-16s arrive.
According to the Bulgarian general, it is preferable for these to be F-16s. Of course, there is logic in such a request. However, “this rent” may last much longer than we expect. For example, in 2025 the first F-16 should arrive. However, it is insufficient to fulfill the urgent operational missions. I.e. one F-16 lease may continue into the end of this decade.
The first F-16 was supposed to arrive in Bulgaria this year. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly complicated military orders and contracts, and not only Bulgaria, but almost the whole world was affected. The plant’s move from Texas to South Carolina also played its part in the delay.
The Bulgarian government of Bulgaria, which agreed to order American F-16s, has been repeatedly criticized by the opposition and experts. In truth, the choice of the F-16 is a political decision, not a decision based on technical performance.
A similar impression is left by the fact that the former Minister of Defense Mr. Krasimir Karakachanov signed the report of the appointed internal political-technical commission for the selection of a fighter jet to the Prime Minister in 2019, in which the other candidate – the SAAB Gripen is rated higher in terms of technical indicators.
The delay of two years for the first F-16 added fuel to the fire, as the Swedish company SAAB was ready to deliver all eight fighters within 12 to 16 months. The then Prime Minister Borisov justified the decision to choose the F-16 with the fact that the Swedish company did not offer the armament of the fighters in the price.
The poor condition of the Bulgarian Air Force, which is perhaps one of the most vulnerable of the NATO member countries at the moment, was also described in the Pentagon Leaks documents. It is clear from them that there was a real opportunity for Bulgaria to send its MiG-29s to Ukraine. But not only us, but also the Pentagon sees that this is very difficult to implement, due to the complex situation in which the Bulgarian combat aviation has fallen.
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