16 December 2018

Bulgaria- A different perspective on the international relations in the Black Sea

Stefan Danila

Image source: Mediafax

The Black Sea should be a place for tourism, for yachts and sports competitions”, according to Borisov’s prime-minister vision. Bulgaria’s decision to acquire fight aircrafts will only be materialized for economic reasons. Of course, we will not be talking about a corruption shadow, because, we all know, Bulgaria is tide, it is the future member of the Schengen Space!

Bulgaria upkeeps the valability of the MiG-29 and Su-25 aircrafts, at least until 2020.

After many discussions and speculations about the acquisition of some new or second-hand fight aircrafts, on 28th of November 2018, Bulgaria’s government decided to spend a total amount of 128,3 million of BGN[1] ($74,5 million), announcing a long-term investment in two projects to ensure the maintenance and the readiness of the MiG-29 “Fulcrum” and Su-25 “Frogfoot” fighter squadrons, as following: 45,7 million BGN for the MiG-29 and 82,6 million BGN for the Su-25.

These two projects were approved by the government, according to the Provisions of Defence and Armed Forces Law, which is envisaging that when the value of project crosses the 50 million BGN amount, it is approved by the government, and when the value crosses 100 million BGN, it is to be approved by the Parliament. These financial resources were stipulated at the correction of state’s central budget for 2018, at the costs chapter. As the amount allocated for MiG-29 maintenance is just a supplement of the 26 million BGN, already envisaged in Defence Ministry’s budget from Sofia, we can say that the decision about the usage maintenance of these aircrafts for at least two more years, was already taken since the end of last year.

The maintenance will be made by the Russian “Aircraft Corporation” (RSK MiG) producer, based on a framework-agreement signed by both parts in 21.03.2018.

According to the Bulgarian government, the envisaged financial resources to be allocate are sufficient for the whole provision process of the maintenance for six MiG-29A fight aircrafts, single seat, and for two MiG-29UB fight aircrafts, double seats, which would fly 900 hours per year, until 2020. Conclusion, it is not an investment, for long-term one, just a necessity!

According to the Ministry of Defence from Bulgaria, the overhaul and the maintenance for Mig-29 and Su-25 will offer the opportunity to use the current defence capability for a period, until Bulgaria will acquire a new type of fight aircrafts and its readiness process will be accomplished.

We can suppose that they gave up the MiG-21Bis, which were complementing the fighter squadron from Graf Ignatievo, the air base placed 10 km North away from Plovdiv, whereat the Bulgarian air forces are performing the Air Police fight service. The maintenance would provide the minimum flight hours for the pilots training who are doing the mission, up to the flight safety limit (similar with the situation in Romania). Therefore, to perform the QRA (Quick Reaction Response) for Air Policing, they need minimum 16 pilots (with a great effort from the ones involved, they can do it with only 12, for 18 months). Obviously, the flight hours for each pilot would be less than 100, under the allies’ Air Forces Standards. If we add also that the instruments on board are old enough, only analogical, with indications in Metric System, meanwhile the NATO air procedures are in the British System, we can understand the Bulgarian pilots’ mood. The Su-25 aircraft is a striker, which has the same issues according compatibility, being able to use only Eastern ammunition.

We must say that the air base was upgraded with the US air forces support, with a modern Air Operations Center and other facilities. Pilots are proficient in English, know the NATO Air Forces Standard Procedures. They have seen modern avionic systems during the multinational exercises, being envy on the Romanian pilots who are flying with the MiG-21 LanceR.

In these circumstances, it is quite important the statement of the deputy Minister of Defence from Bulgaria, Atanas Zapryanov, from 24th of October, according to which some pilots of the Bulgarian air forces, from the Graf Ignatievo Air Base, have refused to fly with the MiG-29 aircrafts during the planned training exercises, calling on the unsafety of an old aircraft.

The Bulgarian Minister of Defence, Krasimir Karakadzhanow, accused the Bulgarian militaries pilots’ boycott, suggesting the efforts made to upkeep the operability of the Russian fighters MiG-29 and Su-25, underlining that they recently received four new engines for the MiG-29 and six second-hand engines after an agreement with Russia, but the issues related to documents delayed their use.

Therefore, the necessity to acquire a fight aircraft is more and more obvious, and the measure taken is only proving the inevitability of a decision. In order to support the Bulgarian government, the US offered many options, reducing the offer to an eight aircrafts package, although the escadrille, the smallest organic aviation structure, has minimum 12 aircrafts. Of course, it is pretty easy to arithmetically show that less than 14 aircrafts do not allow the commitment, on long term, of the fight service, but the offer was adapted to the financial request and possibilities. By all means, the other bidders (Gripen, Eurofighter) immediately came with similar offers, to upkeep themselves in a too cared-for competition, without a decision.

Even though president Rumen Radev was a MiG-29 pilot, even if Borisov showed a quite reconciliatory policy against Russia, the decision about the maintenance of the MiG-29 and Su-25 aircrafts does not mean that the Bulgarian aviation will remain directed towards Russia for too long, but that it does not want to have another position, being too dependent at this moment. If we consider also our experience during the detachment operationalization up to the mission ready capacity with another fighter, we can say that our neighbors’ assessment on the maintenance period of the Russian aircrafts is optimistic, like other offers also (Gripen proposes the operationalization for the Air Police in 24 months!).

It is already known prime-minister’s Borisov position against the Russian Federation, more reconciliatory than others from North-Atlantic’s Alliance East. If we go back in time, Romania’s initiative regarding a NATO fleet in the Black Sea, from 2016, was strongly at cross-purposes with Bulgarian leader’s opinion, immediately after the insufficient organized visit of president Iohannis. His vision about Black Sea’s transformation in a touristic area, dedicated exclusively to yachts, without military ships, launched at that moment, it was reiterated these days through messages sent after the seizure of the Ukrainian ships by the Russian Federation, in the Kerch Bay. Borisov is harshly criticizing president’s Porosenco actions and policies, reconsolidating his own vision. His statement regarding the inopportunity of the American ships presence in the Black Sea is accentuating a more conciliatory attitude against Russia, joining other states position from Western Europe.

Supporting Bulgaria’s accession in the Schengen Space, starting with January 2019, seems to be an up keeping signal of this pro-Russian policy, the arguments regarding a more efficient fight against corruption being barely unbelievable. Although, in fact, Bulgaria will only have the air and maritime access, being in the same position as Greece, the political message is as clear as day, if Romania will not be accepted. But this decision will make harder the decision about Romania’s accession in the Schengen Space, because that would definitely mean the real accession of Bulgaria and Greece in citizens’ free movement space, without any custom control.

Borisov’s game is quite obvious. On one hand, using a realistic approach, he is publicly suggesting that the Black Sea region may become an unstable and even insecure region. He is taking the visionary stand, starting from the economic reality, stating that the European Union states from the region are contributing with only 1% at the community GDP. Through this strategy, he wants to reveal European nucleus’ lack of interest out of this area and to identify other solutions. The alternative he is offering involves a more reconciliatory relation with Russia and a harsher position against Ukraine.  His message was a little bit different from prime-minister’s Orban one, but is heading towards the same direction. The US cannot neglect Bulgaria, and Borisov knows it.

[1] BGN-leva, Bulgaria’s national currency.