Bulgarian government plans €1.7bn army modernisation programme

Bulgaria’s government decided on May 16 to ask parliament to approve a major programme worth BGN3.26bn (€1.67bn) for the modernisation of the army after months of delays and previous failed attempts.

The decision comes amid criticism that Bulgaria was spending less than 2% of its GDP on the military, despite being obliged to do so as a Nato member. In the 2018 budget, the government has set the spending for defence and security at BGN4.4bn, which is 4.2% of the projected GDP.

In April, the defence ministry announced it will ask the government to approve two acquisition projects, for 16 fighter jets and 150 wheeled armoured vehicles for the land forces. Both were approved at the government’s regular session on May 16 and will be tabled to parliament now.

After the government’s meeting, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov was quoted by daily Dnevnik as saying that there will be “no political or geopolitical preferences” in the selection of the companies to supply the fighter jets and armoured vehicles.

“I hope that if there is no delay in parliament, we can have a signed contract for at least one of the projects,” Karakachanov also said.

If the parliament gives the go ahead, the project to acquire fighter jets will be implemented in two stages. In the first, the government plans to spend BGN1.8bn on the acquisition of eight of the 16 jets as well as other equipment needed for their servicing, and training of pilots.

Karakachanov ruled out the possibility of buying jets from Russian aircraft company MiG due to the sanctions to which that country is subject and because the aircraft should meet Nato standards.

In March the defence ministry signed a framework agreement with MiG for the supply of spare parts and services for 15 of the air force’s elderly MiG-29s in a deal worth BGN81mn.

The acquisition of fighter jets was one of the topics that provoked strong tensions among political parties last year. In October 2017, MPs from the ruling coalition decided to end a procedure to buy new fighter jets from Gripen after the parliamentary committee investigating the acquisition concluded that the ministry of defence should reconsider all three bids already received and give a chance to other bidders as well. The report listed a number of problems with the military project, including the rejection, with no legal basis, of a joint offer from the US and Portugal to sell Bulgaria used F-16 fighter jets.

The second project approved by the government is for the acquisition of 150 armoured vehicles systems, additional equipment and training for three battalion groups. It is expected to cost BGN1.464bn and is planned to be implemented within 12 years.

Several other Nato members in the Central and Southeast Europe region are also investing in defence, amid pressure to meet the 2% target and concerns over Russian geopolitical ambitions.

Neighbouring Romania sealed a $3.9bn deal to buy Patriot missiles in 2017. Poland also signed a deal to buy a Patriot missile defence system for €4.75bn (€3.85bn) on March 28 —the largest such deal in the country’s history. Czech acting Prime Minister Andrej Babis pledged to Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg a few days earlier that the Czech Republic will double its defence budget by 2024, to 2% of GDP.

Meanwhile in Romania, the government agreed to increase its stake in the Daewoo shipyards (Daewoo Mangalia Heavy Industries, DMHI) on the Black Sea coast. Bucharest plans to revive the shipyard by producing military ships, the country’s then prime minister Mihai Tudose said in January.

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