While waiting for the F-16s, Bulgaria is getting closer to a potentially Swedish or French interim fighter
BELFAST – The Bulgarian government appears to be closing in on a deal for an interim fighter jet 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 the delivery of F-16 Block 70 aircraft to Sofia from 2023 to 2025, following Supplier COVID-19 problems, meaning they wouldn’t be operational until around 2028.
Thus, Bulgaria needs an “interim” guy to replace a MiG-29 fleet we expect be unusable due to maintenance issues from the end of 2023, a spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense (MoD) told Breaking Defense in a statement.
“Until the F-16s reach full operational capability around 2028-2030, interim fighters will have to be used to carry out the air policing mission in Bulgarian airspace,” the carrier explained. -word.
The acquisition of interim fighters began with the sending of letters from Bulgaria to the United States, Sweden, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, detailing the possibility of leasing used planes. The Netherlands, Spain and Italy have all since confirmed they were unable to meet demand, according to the Bulgarian MoD Spokesperson. The spokesperson didn’t say how the United States has responded, and a State Department official said they weren’t commenting on “potential/pending arms transfers.”
“Sweden and France responded favorably to our request,” the spokesperson said. “We have entered into discussions with [both]…to explore the possibilities of [the] acquisition of interim fighters. We haven’t received any offers yet. »
Sweden could offer Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D Aircraft with France able to launch its Mirage 2000 or Rafale aircraft. The Swedish and French governments did not respond to requests for comment.
In order to solve the maintenance problems of the MiG-29, Bulgaria also held discussions with Polandas the latter also operates the aircraft and could offer Bulgaria a way forward to potentially sustain its 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 Security and Defense Cooperation Agency in April 2022. The Bulgarian National Assembly adopted “Phase 2” of the capital expenditure plan for the second tranche “earlier in November”, the Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed. Last month, the State Department said the F-16s “will provide Bulgaria with a fleet of modern multirole combat aircraft, supporting Bulgaria’s ability to defend its airspace, enhancing regional security and improving the Bulgarian Air Force’s interoperability with the United States and NATO”.
Lockheed initially disclosed COVID-19 supplier issues on the F-16 Block 70 program in November 2021, two years after Bulgaria ordered the jet, admitting the main source of disruption was related to a “subset aircraft major”, without identifying the foreign supplier. Those issues now appear to be behind the manufacturer as it plans to “significantly” ramp up production of the fighter jet through 2023, according to a Lockheed spokesperson.
“The first F-16 Block 70 jet has completed the final assembly and verification (FACO) and painting phases [and]…is now preparing for its maiden flight, which we expect will take place early next year.
The spokesperson also explained how plans are materializing to partner with Bulgaria once its planes are finally delivered.
“Today, Bulgaria is building the necessary infrastructure, training pilots and developing maintenance personnel to support F-16 operations as the planes arrive in the country,” the spokesperson told Breaking Defence, making reference to the “robust industrial participation package” planned by the Eastern European nation. “In fact, Bulgarian pilots have already gone to the United States in recent years to train.”
NATO’s 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, compliant fuel tanks and a extended life of 12,000 hours, according to the manufacturer.
It also estimates that “almost” 700 F-16s are currently operating in Europe.
The recapitalization of Bulgaria’s fighter fleet comes as it tries to steer clear of political wrangling over whether to supply arms to Ukraine – a fierce debate that nearly led to the collapse of the coalition government.
A compromise to help repair Ukrainian military equipment was initially agreed, but Bulgarian lawmakers reportedly approved a “first shipment of military aid” to Kyiv on November 3, according to Bloomberg. Such a move will be welcomed by Ukraine, but is unlikely to fully restore Bulgaria’s damaged image on the international stage.