"Over the last 8 years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined... We should recognize that with these chronic underpayments and growing threats even 2% of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing readiness and the size of forces. We have to make up for the many years lost" With these words US President Donald Trump poured cold water over his European allies and made it perfectly clear that his election mantra for the need of the Europeans to pay "their fair share" was not a gimmick to win thrifty US voters. He meant it.
During his first official visit to the North Atlantic Alliance headquarters in Brussels at the end of May Mr. Trump unequivocally reminded his European allies that security is not for free and they need to increase their defense spending if they want to be taken seriously.
Mr. Trump's message, combined with the lack of assurance that the United States will unconditionally trigger the mutual protection clause enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, seems to have had a sobering effect on the European allies. Although in 2014 they agreed to gradually increase their defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2024, at the NATO Summit in May three countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) announced that they would achieve these levels already in 2018. Only five NATO countries fulfil this criterion at present: the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia. After Trump's premiere in NATO, even the ruling coalition in Germany, which is not in favor of new military expenses, began to reconsider its opinion.
Bulgaria now spends 1.35% of GDP on defense, mid-range among NATO member states. The current GERB-led government plans to increase defense spending to 1.5% of GDP by 2020. This means the real increase is being left to the next government to make.
What are the plans?
The 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have called the Bulgarians "the Prussians of the Balkans" because of their high fighting spirit and their skills on the battlefield. Now, the Bulgarian army is only a pale shadow of the armed forces the country maintained during the Cold War and can't boast either spirit or skill. Most of its equipment is a relic of the Cold War era, and its newer acquisitions are not intended for use on the front line - Spartan transport aircraft, unarmed Cougar helicopters and Pilatus training airplanes.
Soon, if political declarations are to be believed, the Bulgarian army will start receiving new weapons systems, funding for technical support will be increased and investment will go towards creating genuine combat capabilities. The previous government coalition (2014-2016) led by GERB party of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov approved in principle two modernization projects for the armed forces worth more than 2.3 billion levs in total. With these funds, the armed forces were supposed to acquire a squadron of multi-purpose fighter jets and two patrol boats over the next 7-10 years.
Investments are particularly urgent in the field of aviation, as the country protects its skies with 25-year old Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets, the maintenance of which is now fully dependent on Russia.
Mr. Borissov is not a fan of defense spending and armed forces. He has frequently said that military spending is eating away at pensions and refuses to support even the slightest defense measures that might not be liked by Russia. However, systematic pressure from NATO and the United States is obvious and some actions have inevitably been taken.
The most advanced procedure is the selection of a new fighter plane initiated four years ago. In April 2017, during the term of office of the caretaker government appointed by President Rumen Radev (a former fighter pilot and Air Force Commander) the interdepartmental working group of experts tasked with assessing the offers ranked first the Gripen fighters manufactured by Sweden's Saab.
For the time being the elected government led by Mr. Borissov, which took office in May, remains silent if it will follow the conclusions of the working group. One reason is that the ranking of Gripen at the top position is seen as made under pressure from the President. The Prime Minister has repeatedly given contradictory signals on the matter, the last one being a statement that gives priority to the needs of the Army over those of the Air Force. However, the delays in the acquisition of new combat aircraft and the botched public procurement procedure for the maintenance of the Russian-made aircraft currently in use becomes dangerous. In recent weeks, for example, the MiG-29 fighters were grounded due to inadequate maintenance, while during the Briz 2017 military exercise a Panther helicopter crashed into the Black Sea - according to unofficial information due to a pilot error and poor training.
To a great extent, the potential deal for the warplanes is hostage to the personal political animosity between Boyko Borissov and Rumen Radev. This might benefit the Army which has been neglected to date. The government is now pushing forward a project to acquire a new type of armored personnel carrier (APC). This is actually fair, as land forces have been taking the brunt in NATO expeditionary operations.
If all procurement projects are approved, the cost of modernizing the Bulgarian army in the coming years will reach 3.5 billion levs. And perhaps defense spending will reach the targeted 2% of GDP, which will surely please the defense industry companies.
What do Bulgarian Armed Forces intend to buy?Air Force
The Air Force urgently needs a squadron of NATO-compatible multi-purpose fighter jets. Without a major overhaul the life span of the Soviet-made MiG-29s currently in use will soon expire, while their maintenance is becoming more and more expensive. As a result, they need to be grounded for longer periods of time. The parliament approved in June 2016 a possible acquisition of new fighter planes for 1.5 billion levs. Depending on the type, the Air Force could receive 8 or 10 multi-purpose fighter jets.
The potential suppliers include Sweden with new Gripen fighters, Portugal and USA with second-hand F-16 MLU and Italy with second-hand Eurofighter Tranche 1. Even though the defense ministry's own expert group ranked Gripen first, the GERB-led government is not in a hurry to approve the choice and start negotiations. It might even choose a different plane and supplier.
The new combat aircraft need to reach operational readiness in three years after the contract is signed. Saab declared that they could supply the first Gripens in 18 months. The Air Force hope that they could receive funding for eight more planes after 2024.
Bulgaria has pushed for the acquisition of two corvettes, although the previous priority of the Navy was the modernization of the two Belgian E-71 class frigates. Both ships are already in use, but need new electronics, radars and missiles - both anti-ship and anti-aircraft.
The upgrade of existing ships would provide additional combat capabilities to the Bulgarian Navy in the short term and with less money. Nevertheless, in June 2016 the parliament approved about 820 million levs for two new corvettes, the first of which should be ready within 5 years after the selection of a contractor. According to unofficial information, eight companies have expressed interest in participating in the race.
Among them are DCNS, Fr. Lurssen Werft GmbH & Co. KG, BAE Systems, DAMEN, Fincantieri, Navantia, ThyssenKrupp and the Bulgarian MTG-Dolphin. During the last presidential election, the then Patriotic Front candidate and current Minister of Defense Krassimir Karakachanov called the project a fraud and announced that the winner had been predetermined. Unofficially, different sources claim that the winner is the MTG-Dolphin shipyard. However, since he became Minister of Defense, Mr. Karakachanov has done nothing to re-evaluate the project.
The land forces were the only branch of the military ignored by the Parliament in June 2016. The Minister of Defense Krassimir Karakachanov, however, might change the priorities. He prefers the acquisition of a new armored personnel carrier.
According to preliminary estimates, the re-equipment of a mechanized brigade consisting of three reinforced battalion groups will cost between 1.0 and 1.2 billion levs. The military want to acquire 238 pieces of combat equipment and pay for their maintenance throughout their lifecycle of at least 20-25 years. For the time being, a procurement procedure has not been approved by the Parliament. The Defense Ministry has twice sent enquiries for information to various companies, including U.S. based Textron and General Dynamics, Germany's Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, France's Nexter, Italy's Iveco, Finland's Patria, Austria's Steyr-Daimler-Puch, Israel's Plasan, Patria's Polish license-produced Rosomak APCs and two Turkish companies. According to unofficial information, requests for binding bids will be sent in the autumn.