In 2019 NATO member Bulgaria is preparing to sign contracts to acquire at least eight new F-16 fighter planes, as well as patrol boats for the Navy, modern armoured personnel carriers for the Land Forces, and for the overhaul of old Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su-25 jets. The bill will total 4.5 billion levs - a staggering sum for Bulgaria where the GDP per capita was only 7304 euro in 2018. Its repayment will probably take 10 years, seriously straining the state budget.And this is only the beginning because these are just several of the government's arms procurement megaprojects. Additionally, at some point soon, the Bulgarian Army's General Staff would like to acquire additional jetfighters to bring the total of new buys to 16, as well as attack helicopters, drones, SAM batteries, modern 3D radars, to repair and modernize existing frigates and re-equip the Special Forces.
The additional costs will certainly amount to billions. The bill is so astronomical because for nearly 20 years successive governments have refused to gradually modernize the armed forces and invest in real combat capabilities, which is indeed the raison d'etre of any modern army. To put it simply - defence can't be reorganized in a year or two. During the past decade, politicians have chosen to spend more than 2 billion levs on improving military transport capabilities, buying planes, helicopters, trucks and light vehicles, but their relevance to national security is negligible.
Furthermore, by faithfully repairing the old Soviet-made, Warsaw Pact-era hardware, they have provided the Russian industrial-military complex with a steady cash flow for decades, a process ongoing for an astonishing 14 years since Bulgaria joined NATO.
|The politically messed-up deal |
Since the first attempt to procure a new type of combat aircraft for the Bulgarian Air Force in 2013, the GERB-led government has never concealed its preference for the US-made F-16. There's nothing wrong with that. The US is Bulgaria's greatest strategic defence partner, and the F-16 is probably the most battle-tested fighter in service around the world. Such a choice can carry additional weight in the era of Trump, who is gradually attempting to marginalize NATO in favour of bilateral defence agreements - a system he perceives as a sort of military insurance.
The right approach to this would have been for the government to announce all its intentions from the outset and assume political responsibility for its decision, rather than hide behind pseudo-competitions with rigged rules which have now tainted the entire process.
At the beginning of 2019, the government effectively suspended the bidding procedure started on its own initiative. Its rules had been rewritten many times and once the result proved unpopular, the government justified its cancellation using dubious arguments. The political-military group in charge of evaluating the offers stated that the Gripen C/D fighter of Sweden's SAAB was superior under the "operational capabilities" criteria, which carries the most weight, while the F-16 Block 70 came first under the "length of the operational cycle". According to unofficial information, confirmed by several independent sources, the F-16 price tag is about 2.1 billion levs, while Gripen's stands about 500 million lower.
In its present form, the selection procedure is a palpable demonstration of the GERB-led government's inability (and unwillingness) to modernize the armed forces. In fact, the government used the proposals submitted by Sweden (Gripen) and Italy (Eurofighter) in the tender as a smokescreen to hide the decision it had already taken in favour of F-16. Also, since Prime Minister Boyko Borissov will probably lack the political will to ask NATO for joint defence of Bulgaria's airspace until the first F-16 arrived in 2020, the country is in the interim likely to continue pouring hundreds of millions into repairing old Soviet-made aircraft.
Bulgaria has been compelled to take urgent decisions about enormous investment in its armed forces and a delay will most likely prove to be impossible. The country is currently under great pressure from the US and NATO to purchase modern Western weaponry. In addition, the government is facing the prospect of having to do so amid growing tensions between Russia and the West and the increasingly unpredictable behaviour of neighbouring NATO ally Turkey. And all that is not to forget US President Donald Trump's overarching isolationism recently embodied in his decision to withdraw from Syria and potentially Afghanistan.
Realistically, there's no current public debate or consensus on national defence priorities, the nature of the army and its designated purpose. The absence of a governmental strategic vision and objective threat assessment automatically seeps into any modernization plans. These are mostly initiated by generals and presented piecemeal, so as to not offend any branch of the military.
The Navy should be a priority if we remember the example of recent Black Sea incidents and restrictions on allied military ships' entry stipulated by the Montreux Convention. On the other hand, if Bulgaria wants to be more visible during NATO operations, then the formation of modern armoured infantry units would be vital. And if, incidentally, the country opted to break the 100% dependence of its Air Force on Russia, the urgent delivery of NATO planes should be most pressing. However, no such political discussion has occurred even though it is clearly needed.
"Sadly, the three current projects that have been approved by parliament and have budget financing planned, signal a balance between the three army branches, but don't cover real needs. And they've been announced as the main, and probably only, projects for the next 10 years," comments Velizar Shalamanov, a former Bulgarian defence minister and former deputy director of NATO Communications and Information Agency.
In his view, no clear priorities have been set out in the modernization programs: "You have the ships one year, jetfighters the next; maybe; if the jet fighters don't work out, the APCs might"Shalamanov believes this approach needs a radical overhaul. He thinks that it's far more important for Sofia to be NATO-compatible and be able to use the joint resources of its NATO and EU partners.
"The real guarantee for Bulgaria's security is participation in allied formations and the ability to host them. It all boils down to the country's preparedness to form multinational forces, supply them through multinational lines, and train them in multinational exercises so that they can participate in multinational operations. These things, whether in a NATO or EU context, are the most important."
|The reluctant ally |
"Equipment and troops have arrived from as far as San Diego in California - over 8,000 kilometres to the west This was supervised by an American movement control team and organized by Bulgarian logisticians."
With these words, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praised the Bulgarian logistical units on the occasion of Trident Juncture, the largest North Atlantic Treaty military exercise since the end of the Cold War, which took place in Norway at the end of last year. The Bulgarian servicemen, according to off-the-record briefings stripped of the need for diplomatic etiquette, were held in high regard.
Yet similar praise is a rarity when it comes to Bulgaria's participation in NATO. Officially, the Alliance always expresses its gratitude for Sofia's role in the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. Still, unofficial comments suggest that Bulgaria has been seen to approach its role tentatively.
Opinions at home aren't flattering either, irrespective of political affiliation. Two former defence ministers - Angel Naydenov from Bulgarian Socialist Party and Velizar Shalamanov, presently from the liberal formation Yes, Bulgaria - have stated that the country isn't exploiting membership to its full potential.
Fact is, Bulgaria is one of the least active members of the Alliance. It openly avoids its obligations to the pact, especially when it comes to a show of strength designed to deter potential aggressors - like deployments in the Baltic republics. The country only participates in NATO exercises with small formations usually having only logistical functions. The idea of setting up a NATO naval coordination centre in Varna, on the Black Sea coast, has come to nothing. At a political level, obligations to the Alliance also seen to have been pushed back. Traditionally, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov doesn't represent the country at NATO summits, and he practically never visits its headquarters when in Brussels. Bulgaria's international partners have to guess its political positions since they often contradict the president and prime minister's public statements. At a time when all the talk is about a multibillion rearmament program, it can hardly remain unnoticed that Sofia, for all intents and purposes, doesn't utilize its main defensive resource - its membership of NATO.
Lack of resources is the easiest explanation for Bulgaria's minimal deployments when participating in NATO training exercises and its Fast Response Force. Currently, 75% of the military budget is used to pay wages and social security contributions for the army's servicemen and women, and as a consequence, funds for expensive exercises are usually unavailable. Unless they're provided by allies, which usually means the US.
In 2018, NATO conducted 104 exercises, 37 of which under Article 5 - the collective defence of member states in times of crisis. According to Bulgaria's Defense Ministry, the country's army took part in 10 such exercises. In the last few years, that ratio has remained stable, but the number of personnel taking part is on the wane. Bulgaria sent 50 soldiers to the latest NATO exercise Trident Juncture. This is just a few more than Latvia, whose army is six times smaller. In 2015, Bulgaria sent 280 members of its military to take part in Trident Juncture. This decrease is rather alarming in view of the Bulgarian army's preparedness within NATO.
Bulgaria is one of the few members not to have sent any units to the NATO countries bordering Russia. Instead, in 2016, right before the Warsaw summit that discussed an increased presence on NATO's eastern flank, the Bulgarian prime minister declared his preference for demilitarization of the Black Sea. He shared this position in Sofia and Brussels, but never in Moscow, even though it's precisely Russia that has been increasing its military presence in the region ever since the 2008 war with Georgia. The four NATO battle groups (each the size of a reinforced battalion) deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, include such exotics as two service people from Iceland (which doesn't have an army) and a reconnaissance platoon from Luxembourg. Even Italy, which is constantly attempting to lift sanctions against the Kremlin, has several units permanently stationed in Latvia.
Aside from Bulgaria, only Portugal, Turkey, Hungary, and Greece have failed to send military units to the four countries bordering Russia. One can only conclude that Bulgaria is among the camp of countries trying to court Moscow (with the exception of Portugal).
Former defence minister Angel Naydenov also believes that the current plan won't lead to reform in the armed forces. "When we speak of the army's modernization, we can't reduce everything to large projects. During my tenure, we had a program that consisted of at least nine projects and it reflected, generally speaking, the armed forces' need for defensive capabilities. These projects were to a large extent guided by risks and threats - at the time non-immediate, outlined in various strategic reports," Mr Naydenov says.
Another former defence minister - Todor Tagarev, also believes that a clearly formulated modernization strategy is absent: "All rearmament should be program-based. When you buy new weaponry, you need to figure out what to do with the old one, what to do with the people, the infrastructure, what capabilities you're creating, how are you going to maintain them, how you will withdraw the old equipment and decommission it. The current government offers nothing of the sort."
Mr Tagarev is convinced that any modernization program should be accompanied by a portfolio of projects and should receive long-term support from the government and, preferably, parliament too. Instead, the military "strategists" of the ruling GERB party have scrapped the modernization strategy blueprint "Bulgaria in NATO and European defence 2020" developed during Mr Shalamanov's tenure.
"When there's no such program, the government makes pointless moves, some of which we already know about, and others we discover almost by accident. Like, for example, the additional 40 million levs allotted to the maintenance of the Air Force's communication and navigation systems. This seems completely absurd to me, and I haven't heard any discussions on the subject. This is nearly half the cost of a complete modernization of the air surveillance system with three ultramodern 3D radars, which are easy to operate and don't require permanent monitoring," comments Mr Tagarev. "At the moment, it rather demonstrates a lack of capacity for managing such large-scale projects. For example, the Su-25 repairs, where the price ended up being twice the allotted budget; there was a drastic discrepancy between the financial framework and the final cost," adds Angel Naydenov.
"The present government is clearly incapable of managing the modernization. It would be better for smaller, priority projects to use the services of NATO's agencies NSPA and NCIA. The eradication of the squandering and dubiously effective spending in the East can only happen through a strategic partnership with the West, and the participation and hosting of multinational formations," sums up Velizar Shalamanov.