Bulgaria’s parliament has approved a $1.3 billion purchase of eight fourth-generation F-16C/D Block 70 Fighting Falcon multirole fighters. Bulgaria will receive the first eight F-16s ordered in 2025.
Sofia paid $1.25 billion for six single-seat F-16C Block 70s and two two-seat F-16D Block 70s in July 2019. Bulgarian F-16s and Slovakian F-16s will both receive General Electric F110 engines.
Delivery delays are quite inconvenient. The Bulgarian Air Force anticipated receiving its first batch of F-16s between 2023 and 2024. However, because of the Covid-19 epidemic and the relocation of F-16 production to the Greenville factory, the F-16s are expected to arrive between 2025 and 2027.
At the same time, the current Bulgarian MiG-29s will arrive in December next year, owing to Poland’s assistance. Warsaw will supply Bulgaria with two new RD-33 engines for MiG-29s, and Polish businesses will refurbish six additional engines. Following that, Bulgarian airspace will be unprotected for several years, with the operational capability of eight Bulgarian F-16s estimated only between 2027 and 2028. The Bulgarian Air Force will only be able to allocate two backup F-16s after that. Bulgaria, like the Baltics, will most likely be protected by other allied aircraft.
The purchase of the first eight F-16s, the largest arms sale in Bulgarian history, sparked considerable controversy. The purportedly unfavourable conditions related to the small amount of ammo purchased were criticised. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a former Bulgarian Air Force commander, even blocked the purchase of the F-16. However, the parliament later overruled it.
The Republic of Bulgaria’s commitment to long-term contracts without national consensus and conviction on mutually acceptable parameters of the agreement is particularly concerning, said Radev, adding that Bulgaria requires a multirole aircraft, which is attained not only via its capabilities, but also through a comprehensive package of equipment, accessories, and training. According to Radev, the public needs to know whether the contract has this effect. He said that Bulgaria did not order any precision-guided bombs, instead opting for 24 “dumb” Mk. 82 bombs. Furthermore, the contract only covers the training of 12 pilots instead of 16 and 65 technicians instead of 75.
However, Bulgaria will benefit from pilot training, on-the-ground training, and joint exercises with the United States and other partners as part of the F-16 network. It also implies increased regional military cooperation.
The purchase of eight more F-16s was regarded as a formality. A full-fledged squadron will consist of 16 aircraft, and picking another type of aircraft would be logistically impossible. According to the Bulgarian portal Epicenter, the intended purchase was authorised by the Bulgarian parliament “after two hours of tumultuous debate” with a majority of 162 votes – 49 MPs voted against it, and 11 abstained.
The largest opposition group, the BSP (Coalition for Bulgaria), which included communist, left-wing, socialist, and “green” parties, was particularly opposed. The F-16s are “paper aeroplanes,” according to the BSP, and the money was intended to be used for “social and economic activities.”
Bulgaria will get the first F-16 of the second order in 2027. Bulgaria will receive F-16s five years after the deal, whereas Poland will receive 12 South Korean FA-50 light fighters barely half a year after the order. The FA-50s are difficult to compare to the far more competent F-16s, but due to the Russian threat, Poland has chosen delivery speed and quantity over quality, which it can expect in five or six years at the most.
The far more powerful FA-50PL, which is still in development, is expected to arrive in Poland as early as 2025. Of course, it should be noted that the United States is primarily focused on F-35 manufacturing, with the American industry capable of producing 150 high-end F-35s every year.
The second procurement of Bulgarian F-16s already contains laser/satellite-guided JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) family and Paveway bombs, as well as precision-guided small bombs, GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs.
The maximum sales offer for Bulgaria from the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) was $1.67 billion and included a large package of ammunition as well as highly advanced technologies such as the Sniper reconnaissance-targeting container and ROVER (Remote Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) ground data terminals for advanced instructions. ROVER enables guides to receive photos from Sniper canisters, which is essential for Close Air Support missions.
However, Bulgaria only released “1.3 billion dollars” for the purchase. As a result, it is clear that it did not take full advantage of the DSCA’s capabilities. As a result, it is unclear what ammo package Bulgaria will receive with the second batch of planes.
In any event, the arrival of the F-16 represents not only a replacement for the MiG-29 front-line fighters but also a significant extension of the Bulgarian armed forces’ capabilities. While the Bulgarian MiG-29 is primarily utilised for air-to-air combat, the multi-purpose F-16 can destroy targets on land, sea, and air.
A strike by eight Bulgarian F-16s, each carrying two AGM-158C LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles), for example, can destroy half of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. However, one LRASM missile, including all essential support equipment, costs approximately $5 million. The state will spend another million dollars each year on pilot training in the employment of LRASM munitions, including test firings. Not to mention the necessity to construct the appropriate support infrastructure and put in place other support survey systems.