November 9, 2013

Prospects for Technical Re-Equipment of the Armed Forces of Bulgaria. Part 2.

The Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” affords ground to the analysts generation for expressing their point of view regarding the political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and in the world in general, according to their personal geopolitical studies and analyses.


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Andrey Pospelov, Candidate of historical sciences, Professor of the Department of Modern and Contemporary History of Odessa I. Mechnikov National University.

Part 1. State, Challenges and Prospects of Modern Military Reforming in the Republic of Bulgaria

Part 2. Prospects for Technical Re-Equipment of the Armed Forces of Bulgaria

The most difficult in building modern Armed Forces of Bulgaria is to rearm them technically. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the constant lack of funds has yet to allow the Ministry of Defence of Bulgaria to fully implement plans to equip the armed forces of the country, even with those samples that were determined in the early 2000s. Secondly, the new concept of the use of the Armed Forces of the country, the experience of trainings and participation in international operations puts forward the necessity to buy equipment and weapons with new (sometimes super new) tactic-technical characteristics.

The technical re-equipment of the Bulgarian Army, Air Force and Navy is being carried out in accordance with the “Investment Plan for the Armed Forces of Bulgaria for 2011-2020”. This concept document provides for the allocation for the purchase of modern equipment and weapons within 10 years of 2 billion levs, i.e. more than 1 billion Euros. At this, what to buy and, what to upgrade — Bulgarian politicians and the military determined in 2010-2011. However, in the practical implementation of the chosen military-technical concept there are difficulties which the government and the military leadership of Bulgaria have begun to overcome since the spring of 2013.

It is necessary to note that the transfer to the technical standards of NATO Bulgaria began in 1990s. After joining the Alliance, in 2004-2005 Ministry of Defense signed contracts with companies of France, Germany and Italy for purchasing some modern samples of ground, air and naval equipment. Thus, in 2012 Bulgaria was supposed to get 900 Army vehicles “Mercedes G”, several hundred sets of equipment and weapons for Special Operations Forces (special weapons, communications, surveillance, etc.). In Belgium, Bulgaria bought three frigates for the Navy (type E-71) “Wielingen”. The first two frigates, “Wielingen” (F910), and “Westdiep” (F912) Bulgarian side bought in 2007, the third frigate “Wandelaar” (F912), together with mine sweeper-searcher of the “Tripartit”, “Myosotis” (M922) type, were included in the Bulgarian Navy in 2009. The ships were called “Derzkiy”, “Verni”, “Gordy”, “Tsiber” respectively. However, due to organizational and financial reasons, only the first frigate was purchased with the standard missile weapons.

The most comprehensive and radical by samples of the equipment looked the program of modernization of the Air Force. Back in February 2006 for the Bulgarian Air Force with the help of  the United States, in Switzerland, were bought 6 training aircrafts Pilatus PC-9M, one light transport Pilatus PC-12 and one Bell-430 helicopter. At that time, with the Italian company “Alenia Aeronautica” was signed a contract for the supply of 5 military transport aircrafts C-27J “Spartan” (with an option for three more aircrafts). By 2011, the Air Force had received three of these aircrafts, and the rest of them Bulgaria decided to temporarily not buy because of financial problems.

Again because of the same financial problems, Bulgaria did not fully implement the plan for purchasing from the company “Eurocopter” 18 helicopters (within the framework of the 2005 contract): 12 multi-purpose AS-532AL “Cougar” Mk 1 for the Air Force and 6 AS-565MB “Panther” for the Navy of the country. In 2010, the Air Force received all the ordered helicopters, while the Navy in 2011 — only 3 “Panthers”. However, only three machines for the Naval Aviation of Bulgaria are not enough. Therefore, in their composition there remain three Soviet-made anti-submarine shore-basing helicopters Mi-14PL, modernization of which began in 2012. Another four such machines are stored in caretaker status.

The first Bulgarian AS-565MB Panther

Somewhat earlier, the USA and Germany used to pass to the armed forces of Bulgaria, some samples of equipment for free, as part of the programs of military assistance. Thus, to equip the Army were received 37 armored patrol vehicles M-1117 “Guardian”, 25 jeeps “Sand Kat” and 52 HMMWV “Hummer”, meant to be used in international peacekeeping operations. The Air Force received 6 training light helicopters Bell-206B-3.

However, not with all Western models the Bulgarian military were happy. For example, during an operation in Afghanistan it turned out that the U.S. military armored vehicle the M-1117 “Guardian” in all respects is worse than the outdated Soviet BTR-60PB. Famous American army vehicles of the “Hummer” series did not make the Bulgarian peacekeepers happy either. But the infantry combat vehicles designed and made in Bulgaria BMP-23 established themselves in Afghanistan really very well.

However, the Bulgarian military were satisfied with the Western aviation equipment. It satisfied them to such extant that when in 2011 the government and the Ministry of Defence announced the intention to purchase new fighter aircrafts, Russian manufacturers were not even allowed to the preliminary discussion.

And here it became clear that the military equipment and armament of Western models cannot be “panacea” for the Bulgarian Armed Forces, both, by combat, as well as by financial and domestic political characteristics. Firstly, brand new samples are very expensive, and the country's budget “will not pull” them. “Second-hand” is not always suitable for modernization, and therefore cannot be qualitatively fit into the concept of national defence of Bulgaria. In general, military equipment of Western make, especially the ground one, is often not designed for critical use cases such as peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Also the launched in 2002 modernization of Soviet MiG-29 (14 combat and 4 combat-capable training ones) and a limited improvement of main battle tanks T-72 convinced the Bulgarian politicians in their practical efficiency and low cost.

Besides, since the end of the first decade of the XXI century, Bulgaria began to return to international arms markets, exporting withdrawn from the composition of its own Army equipment and weapons to the countries of the “Third World.” Suffice it to recall a contract with Iraq for delivery in 2012 of 500 MT-LB.

Just how difficult was buying new military equipment for the Armed Forces of Bulgaria in the West, shows the contract for the construction of four corvettes of the “Govind-200” project and a large, but today failed tender for 20 newest fighter planes.

In 2004, the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence announced a tender for the construction of modern corvettes with antisubmarine missiles. May 31, 2005 it was won by the French campaign “Armaris”, which, since 2012, together with Bulgarian enterprises for the country's Navy had to build 4 corvettes of “Govind-200” type, at total 800-900 million Euros. The maximum term of the realization of the contract was limited to the year 2016 when, instead of Naval equipment, the government and the Ministry of Defence are going to implement a comprehensive program of buying new aviation equipment.

Started in Lorient in 2012, the first corvette “Govind-200”
for the Bulgarian Navy is being built slowly. However, in early 2013 in the implementation of the program an unexpected moment turned up. Bulgaria in a fairly limited time frame (2011-2012) built by Ukrainian project SV-01 (code “Kasatka” or  Project OPV-88) for the Equatorial Guinea Navy a corvette “Bata” which by its characteristics is not worse than “Govind-200.” This contract seems to be nothing special, if we do not take into account the unprecedented measures of secret around its implementation and the fact that “Bata” was far not the first sample.

Once this became known, the Commandment of the Navy of Bulgaria in June 2012 addressed the government and the Parliament offering practical implementation of the national shipbuilding program. Developed in 1994-1996, it provided a complete upgrade of the ships of the Navy of the country through the construction of nearly 50 combat and support units. As a consequence, the military-political leadership of the Republic of Bulgaria once again turned its eyes to its own military-industrial complex, as a powerful and modern industry, thanks to which construction of the rest three corvettes “Govind-200” in Varna now is being revised.

Today the decision has been made only on the first phase of the shipbuilding program since 2014 — construction of 4 new corvettes and modernization of 3 frigates of Belgian make. According to the current program of modernization of frigates, they will be equipped with helicopters (of permanent basing or in the case of shortage of funds, of temporary basing) and the latest anti-submarine missiles MM-40 “Exocet” “blok-3” (similar to those that will be installed on the corvettes - 8 launchers). It is possible that in the future the frigate of the Soviet Project 1159 will also be rearmed with similar or different small anti-ship missiles.

Bulgarian frigate URO 41 "Derzky" (former Belgian «Wielingen») after patrolling off the coast of Libya. June 2011

With the implementation of such a program, the Navy of Bulgaria is qualitatively changing its combat capabilities. Aggregate rocket salvo of the Navy of the country will increase both quantitatively - from 9 anti-submarine missiles (5 on the frigate “Derzkiy” and 4 on the corvette “Molnia” of the Soviet Project 1241.1T) to 60-64 (8 on each frigate of Project E​-71 and on corvettes “Govind-200” and 4 on each corvette and frigate of Soviet-make) and qualitatively (the range of the missile launch will increase from 80 to 180 km). Besides, the Bulgarian Navy will have at least six ships of the main classes in Constant Readiness Forces with significantly increased capabilities of anti-submarine warfare, Air Defense and over the horizon targeting. Of these, at least two frigates could be involved in the NATO coalition operations outside the Black Sea.

After 2016 Bulgarian Navy plans to begin construction of new minesweepers and support vessels. The number of maritime helicopters AS-565MB “Panther” is yet to be increased to 6 units, especially for action from the latest upgraded frigates and corvettes.

If with the prospects of renovation of the Bulgarian Navy ship structure all is more or less clear, the update of the Air Force combat aircrafts is doubtful. Back in 2006, the military-political leadership of the Republic of Bulgaria announced plans to purchase 20 new tactical fighters that should have replaced the MiG-29. For this purpose, in 2010 the Parliament approved estimates for 700 million US dollars, and in January 2011 the Commandment of the Bulgarian Air Force announced a tender. Three alternative variants have been considered one after another.

The first option is to purchase 16 latest U.S. tactical fighters F-18G “Super Hornet”, or 16 of already being used in the USA F-18A/B “Hornet” in tandem or not with 12 obsolete combat-capable fighter aircrafts F-5F “Tiger II”. However, Bulgarians are happy neither with the price nor with conditions of the supply of the aircrafts.

The second option: buying before the end of 2014 eight, and by 2020 another twelve of the latest American and European aircrafts: EF-2000 Typhoon, only being produced or used German Tranche 1 Series, the new F-16C/D Fighting Falcon Blok 52/60 or already in use in the U.S. Air Force Blok 16/32, the latest Swedish JAS -39 Gripen and Mirage-2000-5 and Rafal. An interesting and promising alternative was the not been put to use latest American fighters of the 5th generation F-35 JSF “Lighteng-II” and European (German) MAKO (the latter still exists in the layout). However, at the very beginning of the tender, it became clear that the allocated money won't buy even 8 aircrafts, scheduled for purchase in 2014. Therefore, at the end of 2011, as an option, the Bulgarians began to consider new versions of Russian MiG-29M and MiG-35. However, here again there was no progress in sight — the funds allocated for the purchase of a planned squadron was not enough. Also troubling was the technical complexity of planes of the latest generation.

Israeli fighter «KfirC.60» with the distinguishing marks of Bulgarian Air Force during testing at the airbase "Graf Ignatievo."

The third option: buying from Portugal 5 already used American F-16AM and 3F-16BM or from Israel, 8 to 16-18 “Kfir C.60”. In this variant were interested both, Lisbon, and Jerusalem. Moreover, the most active were the Israelis, that is why they kept reducing prices, offering a variety of concessional supply of their aircrafts, at the same time having radically modernized them. At least one “Kfir C.60” with Bulgarian identification a sign in 2010-2012 was tested at the air base “Graf Ignatievo”. It was a paradoxical situation: the Bulgarian Air Force were trying to replace Soviet aircrafts of the 4th with Israeli planes of the third generation, which had been built at least 7-10 years before the MiGs-29.

However, neither the U.S. (Portuguese), nor the Israeli options suited the Commandment of the Air Force of Bulgaria. And Bulgarian leaders relied on the modernization of the existing in their AF aircrafts of the Soviet model. Especially as the conducted training combats with U.S. F-16C/D Fighting Falcon (in 2012) and Greek Mirage-2000 (summer of 2013) clearly showed the superiority of Soviet aircrafts, not to mention the “Kfir P.60", which, in fact, is a light bomber. Therefore, the new MiG-29 repairs increased the share of these aircrafts' life till 2030-2040. The next step is modernization of the last 14 Su-25 and of 6 to 12 combat helicopters Mi-24. However, the question of buying two dozen of new generation fighters remains on the agenda, but will be reconsidered not sooner than in 2015.

Such insistence of the Bulgarian military and political leadership is explained by one thing: repaired and upgraded Soviet aircrafts being in service with the Air Forces of the country, is only able to provide air defence of the state and rejection of external aggression. However, the range of MiG-29, even for such limited goals is not enough. Nor is enough their number. It is not possible to allocate for joint operations with other NATO countries at least a Squad of combat aircrafts. And this is not in line with strategic tasks of the Armed Forces of Bulgaria, where to participate in international operations is needed neither a classic fighter like MiG-29, nor an armored attack aircraft such as Su-25, but a multipurpose tactical aircraft, characteristics of which are still not fully defined. That is why the issue of purchasing new fighters has been postponed. However, despite the implementation of the “Investment Plan for 2011-2020”, one can state about the reality of buying 20 new-generation fighters for the Bulgarian Air Force before the end of its implementation period.

The first C-27J "Spartan" of the Bulgarian Air Force in Kandahar. May 12, 2013

However, the plan itself is being constantly adjusted. Thus, the successful flights of the Bulgarian C-27J “Spartan” to Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 2013 demonstrated the need of the Bulgarian Air Force in a transport aircraft with long range and carrying capacity. Therefore, without abandoning plans for buying in 2020 two to five new “Spartans”, on the 2nd of September, 2013 Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Bulgaria Simeon Simeonov announced the intention to purchase in the U.S., at least one strategic transport aircraft C-17 “Gloubmaster II”, which will bring the capabilities of the military transport aviation of the Bulgarian Air Force to a new level.

Bakalov machine gun - promising weapon adopted for equipping the Bulgarian Army instead of Kalashnikov

Against the background of technical re-equipment of the Bulgarian Navy and Air Force, similar processes in the Army are not so noticeable, but they differ in several key features. For example, in 2011-2012 the military-political leadership of the Bulgaria clearly realized that the mass write-off of hundreds of tanks, armored trains and artillery systems of the Soviet and Bulgarian production (and leaving in the Army no more than 80 tanks, 280 armored personnel carriers and 90 guns with caliber over 100 mm) is a not a good decision. The Army, at a minimum, needs more and not Western models. Meanwhile, existing in units and in arsenals land weapons are enough to equip an army of more than 160,000 people. Besides, the national military- industrial complex, in terms of arming the Army, is not inferior to the famous Western manufacturers. But its support, that is, preserving jobs, is now an urgent political and social task.

Back in June 2011, the former Minister of Defence of Bulgaria Anyu Angelov announced about the beginning of modernization of the Bulgarian Army. Although the politician mentioned just the prospect of rearming the units with new Bulgarian machine guns (without declaring their type) instead of the famous Kalashnikov, we can confidently speak about 4 matching programs.

Firstly, it is an upgrade of 80 to 180 main battle tanks T-72 into the version T-72M2, which is being slowly implemented over the last two years.

Secondly, modernization of at least 150 BTR-50PB for the needs of the Army of Bulgaria and at least another 50 — for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with refusal to further buy American M-1117. At the same time will be implemented modernization of transporters-trucks MT-LB and equipment, created on their basis (not less than 300 units), and production or upgrade of these machines for export.

Thirdly, equipping the Army of Bulgaria with the latest wheeled infantry fighting vehicles “Rossomakha” (development of Terem-Han Krum), tactical-technical characteristics of which comply with current German, French and Swedish ones. At this, has also begun upgrade of Bulgarian BMP-23 (114 units) in terms of enhancing their protection and dynamic characteristics, as well as Soviet-make BMP1 (up to 100 units). Interestingly, even before the decision was made in 2010-2012, Bulgarian Defence Industry had produced at least 50 BMP-23 for the first time since 1991.

And finally, fourthly — equipping motor-infantry units with the latest weapons produced in Bulgaria (the plant “Arsenal”). What specifically this complex will be producing is not officially known. With a considerable degree of confidence we can talk about Bakalov machine gun and its derivatives.

Bulgarian peacekeepers in Afghanistan

A little summery.

A retrospective review of the system of military reforms in the Republic of Bulgaria in recent years shows a number of interesting features that are actually not found in post-socialist and post-Soviet countries.

1. Despite the fact that the military reform in Bulgaria is constantly underfunded, it sticks to well-designed plans for the future, which are almost fully implemented. If mainly due to financial reasons the implementation of these plans is not possible in the coming years, they are only postponed with the prospect of being realized by the end of the plan's dead line (first of all it concerns the modernization of the Army, Air Force and Navy of Bulgaria ).

2. Bulgarian military and political leadership manages to pause and adjust the military reform, based on the strategic and socio-economic interests of the State and its people, and not under the influence of politically pressing trends.

3. The military reform in Bulgaria, while reducing the size of the Armed Forces as a whole and the number of its weapons, has not only led to a reduction, but by a number of indexes — to increase of the military potential of the state as well. Thus, the Navy is now able to act outside the Black Sea, and the Air Force expects to receive the capacity of the strategic maneuver forces. And if now this does not happen regularly, after the implementation of the program of equipping the Navy with latest corvettes and upgraded frigates, and the Air Force — with a great number of transport aircrafts C-27J and C-17, this will be on a regular basis.

4. In carrying out measures for modernization of the Armed Forces of Bulgaria, the  military-political leadership is trying to take into account the experience of the history and experience of the practical use of their own contingents of the Army, Air Force and Navy in the real world of the present (especially in peacekeeping operations). Therefore, the military reform in Bulgaria is constantly accompanied by searches for the most optimal organization-staff structures, weapons and equipment for them. At this, the equipment planned to be put in service, in many ways has completely new for the Bulgarian Armed Forces tactical-technical specifications and features, the definition of which is one of the main reasons for delaying the relevant tenders.

5. Bulgaria is the only country in the post-Soviet and post-socialist space, beginning creation of universal military units to carry out all the tasks defined by the concept of national security. But how effective such units will be — time will tell.