For years, Bulgaria has delayed again and again the modernization of its armed forces. Even though a member of NATO since 2004, Bulgaria's army still relies on old Soviet arms. Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, however, appears to have served as a wake-up call, and a batch of major Western arms purchases could be clinched by the end of this year.
In particular, Sofia is looking to acquire warships and weapons for its coast guard, according to Prime Minister Denkov, who has said Russian threats in the Black Sea have caused concern in Sofia. After pulling out of a crucial deal in July that allowed the export of Ukrainian grain, Russia has attacked Ukrainian ports and infrastructure in and around the Black Sea in a thinly veiled attempt to block or deter vessels from shipping Ukrainian agricultural goods to world markets.
Bulgaria now has some 5 billion levs ($2.7 billion) in arms deals at various stages of negotiations with Western arms manufacturers after years of on-again, off-again efforts.
Although Bulgaria has been a member of NATO for nearly 20 years and should spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense -- an alliance requirement that few members actually meet -- its attempts to upgrade the country's armed forces have fallen flat, leaving Bulgaria's military still reliant on outdated Soviet-era weapons.
In fact, only two major arms deals have been signed in recent years. One, in 2019, for the acquisition of eight F-16s costing more than 5 billion levs from Lockheed Martin, the U.S. company that makes the fighter jets. (In 2022, the Bulgarian government extended the deal and ordered another eight F-16s from the U.S. aerospace giant.)
The other deal was for two multipurpose modular patrol vessels (MMPV) -- small warships that can counter air, sea, land, and undersea threats -- to be built jointly in Bulgaria by the German shipyard Luerssen and the Bulgarian subcontractor Delfin.
While Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent saber-rattling has rattled nerves in Sofia, the Kremlin can still count on support in Bulgaria and not only on the political fringes.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has consistently opposed providing Ukraine with large-scale military aid. He has been accused of having a pro-Moscow stance and once called Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, "Russian" during a 2021 presidential debate. During his July 6 visit to Sofia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reportedly had a frank exchange with Radev over his reluctance to arm Ukraine.
Such Kremlin-friendly views and attitudes, however, haven't stopped Bulgaria from beefing up its forces, a scenario being repeated across Europe since Russia's 2022 attack on Ukraine. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in its latest annual review of global military spending: "Military expenditure by states in Central and Western Europe totaled $345 billion in 2022. In real terms, spending by these states for the first time surpassed that in 1989, as the Cold War was ending, and was 30 percent higher than in 2013."
"The invasion of Ukraine had an immediate impact on military spending decisions in Central and Western Europe. This included multiyear plans to boost spending from several governments," said Diego Lopes da Silva, a senior researcher with SIPRI's Military Expenditure and Arms Production Program. "As a result, we can reasonably expect military expenditure in Central and Western Europe to keep rising in the years ahead," he said in a press release accompanying the report's release on April 24.
Bulgaria needs a lot of new equipment to modernize its armed forces: mainly armored vehicles, radar systems for the air force and navy, new artillery systems compatible with NATO standards, air-defense systems, and drones. Most of the weapons on that wish list were mentioned by Bulgarian Defense Minister Todor Tagarev in a speech earlier this month at the opening of the academic year at the military academy in Sofia.
In the National Assembly, Bulgaria's 240-seat unicameral parliament, Tagarev is not only finding support but also a sense of urgency, crucially from parliamentarians from the center-right GERB party and We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB), which in tandem formed a ruling coalition in June after a series of interim governments and five snap polls in two years.
"This rearmament, firstly, must be done quickly, and secondly, it must be done systemically," said Hristo Gadjev, a member of the GERB party and chairman of the defense committee in parliament, in comments to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
A blueprint to rearm the country's military was expected to be submitted by the Defense Ministry to the National Assembly by November for a vote, Gadjev added, but recent reports suggest that may be delayed, amid rumblings of opposition.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party, the ultra-right Revival party, and other pro-Russian parliamentarians voted "No" in 2022 on purchasing another eight F-16 fighters. While that party and others are likely to vote against any military modernization program, the PP-DB and GERB have enough votes in the National Assembly to push through the anticipated program.
With no agreed-on military modernization framework in place, arms talks are continuing, with negotiations to acquire combat vehicles and weapons systems for navy and coast-guard ships reportedly the furthest along.
Russia's aggressive moves in the Black Sea region, including mining its waters and firing missiles into Ukrainian ports on its shores, have caused great concern in Sofia. Moscow's saber-rattling has only ramped up since Russia unilaterally withdrew in July from the Black Sea grain deal. And Russia's invasion appears to be creeping closer to Bulgaria. On September 18, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry said suspected drone wreckage had been found on the country's Black Sea coast.
"That's why we started buying missiles for the coast guard so that no one dares to approach our Black Sea cities," Bulgarian Prime Minister Denkov said in a Q&A session on Facebook on September 7, adding that belligerent talk in Russia suggested Ukraine may not be the Kremlin's only desired target.
"Russian politicians have repeatedly said that after Ukraine, the Baltic republics and Moldova [are next]. It is high time that Bulgarian citizens open their eyes that there is an aggressor who wants to regain imperial influence," Denkov told media and the public taking part in the Facebook event.
The acquisition of coastal defense missile batteries, which Denkov mentioned, is expected to cost some 50 million levs and will be armed with RBS-15 Mk3 cruise missiles that are manufactured by the Swedish company Saab. Those missiles have already been purchased for the two new patrol ships on order, giving Bulgaria's armed forces increased compatibility between its ships and coastal artillery.
The two MMPVs were purchased in 2020 when Krasimir Karakachanov from the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE was defense minister. Karakachanov opted for the ships without the missiles, so as to keep the costs down and make the deal more palatable to parliamentarians who would have to approve it.
The missiles were added to the order in August 2022, when their purchase was approved by the caretaker government led by Galab Donev. That took a little bit of ingenuity. With parliament dissolved, acting Defense Minister Dimitar Stoyanov staggered the requests so as to keep the needed funding at a minimum and obviate the requirement for parliamentary approval. By law, the National Assembly needs to approve any military purchase valued at 100 million levs and above, while those worth 50 million levs or less only need approval of the Council of Ministers, the nation's top executive body.
Exactly how or where the RBS-15 Mk3 missiles will be deployed is not clear, but Bulgarian officials are eager to add them, especially given their widespread usage elsewhere. Sweden has them mounted on Scania trucks and deployed on its shores. Croatia does the same, although the vehicle of choice is the Czech-made Tatra. In Finland, they are mounted to Finnish-made Sisu military vehicles.
For years, Bulgaria's military has had the acquisition of infantry carrier vehicles (ICV) at the top of its list. Per NATO commitments, they are needed to outfit two battalion battle groups. While there have been talks and tenders, an acquisition still hasn't been confirmed.
In 2021, the Defense Ministry nixed talks with two companies over the potential purchase of ICVs -- Finnish-based Patria and General Dynamics of the United States -- saying that their offers of more than 2 billion levs were higher than the amount the National Assembly had approved. The failure to fill this need was deemed "critical" by Defense Minister Tagarev in his recent lecture at the military academy.
But recently, hopes were buoyed when, on September 1, the U.S. State Department approved the sale for $1.5 billion of 183 "Stryker-family" ICVs, as per Sofia's request, and other military hardware to outfit them, including machine guns. Part of the deal calls for the manufacturing of some components to be carried out in Bulgaria, as well as maintenance and repair work.
Representatives of General Dynamics, which produces the Stryker armored vehicles, are due in Sofia in the coming weeks for negotiations, although a deal is reportedly not imminent. Any purchase must get a final seal of approval from both the U.S. Congress and Bulgaria's National Assembly.
The Bulgarian military is also shopping around for new radar systems for its air force to replace its Soviet-era systems, which are not compatible with the F-16s that are expected in 2024. Moreover, given a lack of replacement parts, upkeep of Soviet-era equipment is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, according to the Bulgarian Defense Ministry's latest annual report on the status of the country's armed forces.
Offers have come from Lockheed Martin, Israel's Elta, Italy's Leonardo, Spain's Indra, and the French firm Thales. Bids were due to be officially opened earlier this month, but that looks to be delayed until after the Defense Ministry's modernization blueprint has been approved.
For the Bulgarian cabinet, the acquisition of at least seven radar systems -- five stationary and two mobile -- is considered a priority. When first proposed in 2019, a total budget of 390 million levs was envisioned. But now inflation -- along with rising costs linked to increasing global military demand due to Russia's war on Ukraine -- has meant that estimate has risen to more than 400 million levs.
When the GERB-led government was in power between 2017 and 2021, the favorite to win the radar deal was thought to be Lockheed Martin, whose systems are in service in 30 countries around the world, 15 of them NATO members. Elta is also viewed as a top contender, having won several tenders in Europe in recent years and its ELM-2084 radar being put to the test in Israel. The Bulgarian military has also expressed satisfaction with the offer from Thales.
Like the Stryker deal, the radar system purchase could first be negotiated at the government level before any final deal is inked. There has reportedly been good progress in talks regarding the purchase of radar to equip the two new military vessels. In late August, a notice was posted on the U.S. procurement website that the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Keyport, will contract with Sperry/Northrop Grumman to design, supply, install, and integrate radar equipment on the new Bulgarian warships.
Bulgaria's military is also in the market for 155 mm howitzers, with weapons worth 500 million levs required, according to the Defense Ministry. The Ukrainian military has made good use of Cesar howitzers on the battlefield, which has increased demand for the weapons.
Talks are also expected to start later this year on the acquisition of new air-defense systems. Shorter-range systems, which could cost up to 500 million levs, are expected to be first on the list. As with the anti-ship batteries, Bulgarian officials are seeking systems that can use ammunition already in stock. One option would be to use AIM-9X missiles bought for the incoming F-16 fighter jets. The NASAMS air-defense system is compatible with these missiles, but they have a shorter range of only up to 35 kilometers. In the longer term, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry has also expressed interest in acquiring U.S.-made Patriot missile-defense systems.
Given the huge sums of money involved, Ivo Mirchev, a PP-DB lawmaker who also sits on the parliamentary defense committee, said modernizing Bulgaria's armed forces will take time. "It won't be done right if it's rushed…. We must be extremely careful, because it is all about taxpayers' money," Mirchev said, adding that the growing perception that Russia poses a threat should add urgency.
"Yes, there is a threat from Russia. Bulgaria needs to defend itself, but this should not happen right away in a few months with contracts worth billions being concluded."
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