By Martin Dimitrov
Bulgaria’s government has asked parliament for a mandate to negotiate with the US on buying F-16 jets – drawing complaints from rival bidder Sweden, and from Bulgaria’s own President.
The Bulgarian government has asked parliament for a mandate to negotiate with the United States on buying new fighter jets, Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov said on Wednesday after ministers met in Sofia.
It means that Bulgaria plans to move ahead with the purchase of
Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 Viper jets to replace its aging fleet of
Soviet-era Mig-29 planes.
The other two offers – for Swedish SAAB Gripen fighters and second-hand Italian Eurofighter Typhoons – are not longer being considered.
“We have an assurance from the White House that the price [for the jets] will be lowered,” Karakachanov said on Wednesday, adding that the other option was to restart the bidding procedure and postpone signing a deal for a year-and-a-half.
The decision follows a month of diplomatic pressure from Washington, and a controversial report of the multidisciplinary expert commission on the selection of new jets that had to consider three offers.
The report, published on January 20, listed the US and Sweden as the main contenders to sell Bulgaria fourth generation multi-purpose jet fighters for an estimated 750 million euros.
But while it described the Gripen jets as best fitting the technical
and financial criteria set out by the political leadership, it
recommended the F-16s instead.
Karkachanov immediately endorsed the US jets. The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, said on December 22 that it had learned of the Bulgarian decision “with great disappointment and concern”.
An FMV official, Joakim Wallin, underlined that the criteria set out by the Bulgarian Defence Ministry in the tender procedure gave the Gripen an advantage over the F-16s.
On the eve of the Council of Minister’s ruling on January 9, the White House issued a statement welcoming Bulgaria’s military modernisation and underlining the capabilities of the US-made jet.
“We believe that the F-16 Block 70 offers Bulgaria the best possible combination of price, capability and interoperability with other NATO air forces. If the F-16 Block 70 is selected by Bulgaria, it will serve Bulgaria’s air force capably and reliably for decades to come,” it read.
The statement was preceded by a number of US diplomatic pushes at the end of 2018, including a phone call on December 18 between the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov.
After the telephone call, the US issued a press release underlining that “the United States looks forward to completing final negotiations with the Bulgarian government”.
The decision to move forward with the F-16 purchase pitted the government against Bulgaria’s President and former air force commander, Rumen Radev.
On January 6, he complained that the tender had become “mired” in other issues.
“I insisted on following the procedure and the financial framework, which would have guaranteed an optimal decision, regardless of the type of aircraft. The government did completely the opposite – it assigned the winner against all the rules and even promised to pay a huge sum in advance,” he lamented.
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