Bulgaria still seeking replacement for its aged MiG-29 fighter jets

Despite recent efforts to upgrade the MiG-29 (NATO reporting name: Fulcrum) multirole combat aircraft of the national air force, Bulgaria is still seeking for a replacement for these fighter jets, according to the country`s top military officials.

Bulgaria still seeking replacement for its aged MiG 29 fighter jets 001 A BuAF MiG-29 fighter jet
(Credit: Bulgarian MoD)

On March 19, Defense Minister of Bulgaria Krasimir Karakachanov told local media outlets that Israeli F-16C/D fighter jets would be invited for the tender aimed at the replacement of the MiG-29 multirole combat aircraft of the Bulgarian Air Force (BuAF). The official added that the Boeing corporation had already offered its F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters. According to Karakachanov, the F-16 (General Dynamics, the United States), Typhoon (Eurofighter, Europe), and JAS-39 (Saab, Sweden) aircraft would also be requested in either brand new or used condition.

Therefore, both manufacturers and operators of the abovementioned air platforms were offered to participate in the tender.However, the minister did not outline any prospect for the program`s further implementation. The replacement process seems to be delayed until the mid-2020s due to uneasy financial environment.It should be mentioned that the BuAF has already started the overhaul of its MiG-29 fleet.

On March 6, Karakachanov announced the selection of the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RSK MiG, a subsidiary of the United Aircraft Corporation) as the sole provider of maintenance for 15 BuAF MiG-29-family fighters. According to the announcement, RSK MiG would be maintaining Bulgaria`s Fulcrums until 2022. On March 22, the press department of the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense (MoD) said the contract worth BGN81.3 million (about EUR40.5 million) with the RSK MiG corporation had been signed.The Russian company will provide spare parts and maintenance help while the maintenance process will be handled by Bulgarian technicians at the Graf Ignatievo airbase near Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

The contract will result in the restore of 12 MiG-29A (Fulcrum) single-seat multirole combat aircraft and three MiG-29UB (Fulcrum) twin-seat operational trainers. "It [the contract] thus restores the airworthiness of the [Bulgarian] Air Force fighter jets and ensures their operation, including the performance of air space security tasks," the MoD said in a statement.

In his speech to justify the modernization of the MiG-29s, Karakachanov stressed that the maintenance of the MiG-29 fighter jets is the most cost-effective solution to bring the capabilities of the BuAF to the modern level. According to him, the MoD had previously invited Poland to maintain the MiG-29 fighters; however, these works were shut down after repair of six engines, as Poland had no license to overhaul Fulcrums. "If Bulgaria wants a military, [then] it must maintain its equipment. The MiG-29s can be used until 2029-2030, why should we throw them out," Karakachanov said cited by the Sofia Globe newspaper.

The minister added that the use of Soviet-originated pieces of equipment could not withdraw Bulgaria`s commitments to the North-Atlantic alliance (NATO).The decision to maintain BuAF MiG-29s in Poland had been made by the defense minister of the second Boiko Borissov administration, Nikolai Nenchev. This is noteworthy that Nenchev is being trialed over this deal; however, the former politician neglects any charge.Bulgaria`s MoD has been mulling the MiG-29 replacement for a long period of time.

For instance, the intention to acquire Israeli F-16 fighters jets dates back to 2013, when Israel offered to Sofia 25 Fighting Falcon multirole combat aircraft decommissioned by the Israeli Air Force. The Elbit Systems company and the Israel Aerospace Industries consortium were planning to overhaul and upgrade the fighters; however, the deal fell through.In Autumn 2017, Sofia intensified its efforts to procure eight new combat aircraft, with the F-16, the Typhoon, the F/A-18, and the JAS-39 being the main potential competitors.

In late October, Karakachanov showed a lack of interest in the acquisition of the Gripen. However, he did not reveal any reason for such a decision. The minister did not disclose the volume of the probable deal; at the same time, media said it was about BGN1.5 billion (approximately USD900 million).Therefore, now there are three favorites, namely, the F-16, the F/A-18, and the Typhoon. However, the Bulgarian government seems to defer the acquisition due to financial reasons. Thus, the BuAF is expected to get new fighter jets in the late-2020s.

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