BELFAST — The Bulgarian government looks to be edging closer to reaching an agreement for an interim fighter aircraft after holding talks with Sweden and France, while the southeastern European nation awaits American F-16s.
The potential acquisition of the jets was prompted by Lockheed Martin when it delayed delivery of F-16 Block 70 aircraft to Sofia from 2023 to 2025, following COVID-19 supplier issues, meaning they wouldn’t go operational until 2028 or so.
Thus, Bulgaria requires an “interim” type to replace an aging MiG-29 fleet that’s expected to be unserviceable due to maintenance issues from the end of 2023 onward, a Bulgarian Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokesperson told Breaking Defense in a statement.
“Until the F-16s reach full operational capability around 2028-2030, interim fighters will have to be used for the purpose of carrying out the Air Policing mission in the airspace of Bulgaria,” the spokesperson explained.
The interim fighter acquisition started out with Bulgaria sending letters to the United States, Sweden, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, detailing the possibility of leasing second-hand aircraft. The Netherlands, Spain and Italy have all since confirmed they are unable to meet the request, according to the Bulgarian MoD spokesperson. The spokesperson didn’t say how the US responded, and a representative for the State Department said they don’t comment “on potential/pending arms transfers.”
“Sweden and France have responded favorably to our request,” the spokesperson said. “We have initiated talks with [both]… to explore the possibilities for [the] interim fighter acquisition. We have not received any offers yet.”
Sweden could offer Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D aircraft with France in a position to either pitch its Mirage 2000 or Rafale jets. Both the Swedish and French governments have not responded to requests for comment.
In a bid to resolve the MiG-29 maintenance issues, Bulgaria also has held discussions with Poland, as the latter also operates the aircraft and could offer a way forward for Bulgaria to potentially service their fleet beyond 2023.
A first tranche of eight F-16 Block 70 fighter jets was agreed between Bulgaria and the United States in 2019 with a second tranche of eight approved by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in April 2022. Bulgaria’s National Assembly passed “stage 2” of the investment expenditure plan for the second tranche “earlier this November,” confirmed the MoD spokesperson. Last month the State Department said the F-16s “will provide Bulgaria with a fleet of modern multi-role combat aircraft, supporting Bulgaria’s capability to defend its airspace, bolstering regional security, and enhancing the Bulgarian Air Force’s interoperability with the United States and NATO.”
Lockheed originally discclosed COVID-19 supplier issues on the F-16 Block 70 program in November 2021, two years after Bulgaria ordered the jet, admitting that the main source of the disruption was linked to a “major subassembly of the aircraft,” without identifying the foreign supplier. Those problems now look to be behind the manufacturer however as it plans on “significantly” increasing production of the fighter jet throughout 2023, according to a Lockheed spokesperson.
Assembly of Bulgaria’s first F-16 Block 70 has started at Lockheed Martin’s Greenville, S.C., production facility, alongside other models on order for Bahrain and Slovakia, the spokesperson said.
“The first F-16 Block 70 jet has completed the Final Assembly & Checkout (FACO) and paint phases [and]… is now preparing for its first flight, which we anticipate will occur by early next year.”
The spokesperson also detailed how plans are coming together to partner with Bulgaria once its jets are finally delivered.
“Today, Bulgaria is building the necessary infrastructure, training pilots and developing maintenance personnel to support F-16 operations when the jets arrive in country,” the spokesperson told Breaking Defense, referring to the eastern European nation’s planned “robust industrial participation package.” “In fact, Bulgarian pilots have been in the U.S. the past few years already for training.”
The NATO interoperable aircraft features a series of key capabilities and technologies including Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a “modernized” cockpit, conformal fuel tanks and an extended service life of 12,000 hours, according to the manufacturer.
It also estimates that “almost” 700 F-16s are currently operating in Europe.
Bulgaria’s fighter fleet recapitalisation arrives as it tries to move on from political infighting over whether to supply weapons to Ukraine — a fierce debate that almost led to the collapse of the coalition government.
A compromise of helping to repair Ukrainian military equipment was originally settled on, but Bulgarian lawmakers were reported to have approved a “first military aid shipment” to Kyiv on Nov. 3, according to Bloomberg. Such a move will be welcomed by Ukraine but is unlikely to completely restore Bulgaria’s wounded image on the international stage.