Chief of US Office of Defense Cooperation in Sofia Mark Imblum: US Soldiers Feel Very Well-Received in Bulgaria
Interview with Mark Imblum, Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the US Embassy in Sofia, for the Bulgaria-US Survey of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency)
Mark Imblum, a Commander in the US Navy, is the Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the US Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is a graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. A former helicopter pilot, he now serves the US Navy as a Foreign Area Officer, specializing in political-military relations with Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Could you present your position and your responsibilities in Sofia?
My name is Mark Imblum. I am a Commander in the US Navy and serve as the Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) at the US Embassy in Sofia. The ODC is an office that does just what the title says. It builds cooperative programs with the host nation. We have like offices throughout US Embassies, or sometimes located within the host nation's Ministry of Defense, around the world.
I work for the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Of course, I also work for the Ambassador as a member of the Embassy Country Team.
Our office's mission statement is to execute security cooperation and security assistance programs for both the US European Command and the US Department of State to build the partner capacity of the Bulgarian Armed Forces as a NATO partner and ally. We carry out this mission through a number of different security cooperation and assistance activities.
What are these programs, what do they entail, and how do they facilitate the defense cooperation between Bulgaria and the USA as NATO allies?
A lot of the programs that we have are actually executed with funding from the State Department.
One of them is the Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The US started this program in the 1960s with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, and then the Arms Export Control Act of 1968 so we have been doing these types of programs for many years. We initiated the FMF program in Bulgaria in 1996.
The funding that we receive is allocated to the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense to use for training, the purchase of equipment, anything from weapon systems, navigation systems, to communication systems, as well as English-language training.
English-language training is an important program, and I think it is very useful for Bulgaria as a NATO member - to help the officers and enlisted personnel not just to speak English but also to communicate in English with respect to tactics, techniques, and procedures. French is another important NATO language of choice, of course, but we offer English-language training. We have about 20 English-language labs around Bulgaria, and actually, other NATO countries have contributed to them as well - the Dutch, for example.
Another example is that under the Foreign Military Financing do have one US-employed English language instructor at the Military Academy in Shumen for a six-month period.
What have been the scope and the goals of the US military assistance to Bulgaria? How are these goals served by the individual programs?
Since 1996, we have obligated over USD 120 M to this program in Bulgaria alone, the FMF. We have provided over USD 170 M to all of our security assistance programs in Bulgaria to date.
The goal behind these programs is to provide training and equipment to other countries, and to also provide long-term sustainability of that equipment. For example, just recently Bulgaria's Minister of Defense Angelov signed letters of request for integrated support of HMMWVs and the ASV-117 Guardian vehicles.
That's very important for the sustainability of this equipment, especially when it is being used in Bulgaria's ISAF missions in Afghanistan.
Our job in that program is to provide this equipment and support. Whatever the capabilities the Bulgarian military might be looking to achieve, we go to our security assistance programs in Washington, DC, and to the various services – Army, Navy, Air Force – and we have experts that can look at specific programs and systems that will meet the capability requirements that the Bulgarian military is asking for.
That's also important because during times with economic constraints we want to make sure we justify the funding properly that fits our strategy of the US European Command and the Department of Defense as a whole, for the Department of State, as it is their funding, and the Ambassador's mission strategic resource plan – as well as the Ministry of Defense's White Paper and the Bulgarian government's strategy.
Another program that's very beneficial bilaterally is the International Military and Education Training Program, and that's also where we will fund officers and enlisted personnel to attend courses in the United States, whether it is for a Master's degree or six-month security studies programs at one of our war colleges, or shorter, specialized professional courses. Once again, it entails anything the Bulgarian military is interested in, and fits both their strategy and ours.
This program started in 1992; it consists of exchange between people – that happens quicker than the other programs. For that program in Bulgaria we have allocated more than USD 20 M. More than 1300 Bulgarian students have benefited from it, some of them being civilian officers of the Defense Ministry.
These courses are not just important for Bulgarians – because we also have other international students there – the American students learn from Bulgarian students on the way they conduct business, their programs, their culture, and likewise, a Bulgarian student may be in a course with students from Chile, India, USA, Australia, Singapore, etc. I think this collaborative effort and exchange of ideas and information is beneficial to everyone.
Then we also have the Humanitarian Assistance Program, which also began in 1996 and is funded by the Department of Defense. We have spent more than USD 6 M in Bulgaria for such projects.
We are looking at how best to conduct these Humanitarian Assistance projects in many areas in Bulgaria. We have obviously done a lot of work around the joint facilities in Bulgaria, around the bases in Novo Selo and Graf Ignatievo, but we are expanding into other regions. Two weeks ago I visited the mayor of Montana. Two projects have been approved there – for the renovation of a kindergarten and of a home for elderly people with dementia.
HA programs not only support the community but also increase our cooperation and partnership in a very positive way. When we do projects in the areas of the bases, those are humanitarian and civil assistance projects. Our engineers work with the Bulgarian military members – for example, in Zheravna, in July we had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a medical clinic. There were Bulgarian and American military members working side by side there – the same for renovations of a kindergarten in Zimnitsa that were completed in July.
Projects in other areas, such as in Montana, are carried out by local contractors. These contractors are Bulgarian companies that compete against one another for these projects so that obviously creates economic competition. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved. We are fortunate to have this type of funding, and we want to use it in the most beneficial way to the community.
Another key component of our office is the Military to Military cooperation, including the State Partnership Program. Within the Mil to Mil program, military units and personnel exchange information on specific professional specialties.
These exchanges can happen underneath the umbrella of an exercise. Experts from both militaries exchange best practices on a very specific task such as tactical airlift or air regulations. This program is the grassroots part of the US-Bulgarian relationship within your question on our relationship within NATO.
We have done about 1200 of these types of events since the mid 1990s in Bulgaria. We also send Bulgarian military members to visit units in the US as partto do these types of studies.
The State Partnership Program within that Mil to Mil context started in 1993. We have 62 such SPPs throughout the world. The program was initiated with East European countries in the early 1990s.
Under the SPP, Bulgaria and the state of Tennessee have one of the longest standing relationships within 17 years of exchanges. Moldova works with North Carolina, Romania works with Alabama to give you an idea, and the idea here is the exchange of relationships.
I can only speak speculatively that this program will one day reach beyond military relations to include civil and economic ties. Bulgaria is about the same size as the state of Tennessee, and you could potentially achieve a lot of diverse development programs such as relationships between hospitals and other institutions.
We also send government officials to the Marshall Center in Germany. The Marshall Center, located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, is a joint program between the US and German governments, which opened in 1993. Bulgaria has been participating since 1994. Officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Defense attend the Marshall Center courses in areas such as security studies, civil-military relations, stability operations, antiterrorism, anticorruption and English language studies.
All of these programs can be very beneficial to the US-Bulgaria relationship as well as with our NATO and non-NATO partners. That is why I think it is important to get the message out about what our office does. The effectiveness and utility of these programs are not only critical to our partnership in NATO, and the associated missions such as ISAF in Afghanistan, but also to the long-lasting ties between our countries.
How is the defense cooperation between Bulgaria and the United States?
Speaking about our cooperation in NATO – we are joint partners and allies and it's part of our duty at ODC to enhance the capabilities of the Bulgarian military, to make sure they are trained and equipped properly; to make sure that those troops are ready to deploy and to have successful missions in Afghanistan, whether they are providing security there, or whether they are training local Afghan national army to conduct garrison duties or logistics missions.
I should point out a key part of the State Partnership Program with Tennessee. One of the logistics units that deployed on 25 November to ISAF is augmented by Tennessee National Guard soldiers. Bulgarian and US soldiers will operate together in Afghanistan for 6 months. It's important to note that the commander of that unit is a Bulgarian Lieutenant Colonel from the Land Forces.
We also request, based on the needs and requirements of the Bulgarian land forces, the equipment that they need to conduct these operations. We do to the best of our ability make sure that this equipment is provided. A lot of that equipment is provided in theater when the forces are available.
Again, a key part of our partnership is to make sure that they are trained, equipped and sustained during missions.
What are the strongest sides of the Bulgarian armed forces as allies? In what ways and activities are they a real asset?
They are doing an excellent job in Afghanistan now securing the airports in Kandahar and Kabul. Those forces are providing security around the airfield perimeters. They are doing an excellent job there. They are training Afghan National Army members on how to conduct garrison duty. They are also going to provide logistics training to the Afghan army. That's actually where Bulgarian forces are providing concrete support to the Afghan National Army as part of the ISAF mission.
I know that the Bulgarian armed forces are going through a force structure review right now under Minister Angelov's leadership. I am a mid-grade officer as a commander, and in my humble opinion I have ultimate respect for Minister Angelov because of the reforms he is carrying out. It is not easy in these times of economic constraints to do so.
Reforms come down to budgetary constraints. However, wherever we can help to make sure that the Bulgarians troops are operational and ready, we will assist. Regarding the navy, I should mention that their frigates have participated in "Active Endeavor" in the Mediterranean doing maritime interdiction operations.
That's something we want to work greater with them, to make sure they are equipped and funded for operations at sea – to secure free trade and sea lanes from illegal trafficking. That's one area Bulgaria has been a good participant.
With respect to the air force, we recently had a very successful exercise in Bulgaria. We had US Air Force F-16s flying out of Graf Ignatievo and C-130s training out of Plovdiv. The F-16s worked on air combat with the MiG-29s and MiG-21s and Su-25s. The C-130s worked with the C-27s of the Bulgarian Air Force on tactical airlift. We did a lot of Mil to Mil exchanges under the umbrella of these exercises.
Speaking for regional cooperation as well, we have the US Marine Corps' Black Sea Rotational Force. That's an air ground task force that visits different countries within the Black Sea region, and they came this past summer to conduct peacekeeping operations at Novo Selo with Bulgarian Land Force units.
This summer they will return to train on counterinsurgency operations and peacekeeping with Bulgarian units that will deploy to ISAF. We want to expand that regionally as well – multinational partners coming to the joint facilities, to Novo Selo to train. That is all at the invitation of the Bulgarian armed forces collaboratively with the US armed forces.
We had Serbian military officers that observed the training between the Marines and the Bulgarian Land Forces this past summer, and – I can speak for the US side – we are open to training with any regional partners.
How would you characterize the level of interoperability between American and Bulgarian forces?
That's a very important question because that is what we are always striving to achieve in order to effectively conduct operations together. That's an ongoing challenge that we have had for many years even with our partners such as the British or the French.
I served for almost three years in an exchange program with the French Navy as a helicopter pilot within a French squadron and deployed on their aircraft carrier, and I could see that we work well together with the French, Italians, Spanish, British at sea but there are always challenges on how equipment matches up together – especially communications equipment but that's something we are always working to achieve, and that our office has to be cognizant of and working with the Bulgarian armed forces when they make a request for certain equipment – to make sure that that equipment is NATO standard or NATO compatible. That's a work in progress and something that we want to make sure we get right all the time.
And interoperability doesn't just go for equipment, obviously. That's between people. That's why that language training and exchange of ideas are important, that part of interoperability.
So I would say that with our newer NATO members I see a lot of cooperation, and, quite honestly, they are making huge contributions to ISAF missions in Afghanistan, and that can only enhance the relationship of the Alliance and interoperability as well.
How have American soldiers and officers felt in Bulgaria with respect to the way they have been received by the Bulgarian population?
Speaking from an American perspective, US soldiers feel very well received in Bulgaria. They are excited to be here, to train and work with the Bulgarian forces. I visited Novo Selo back in June and observed great training between a Bulgarian company alongside an American battalion.
As far as the personal relationship, I think the exchange of relationships is great. I see these guys going out and enjoying a shopska salad and other traditional Bulgarian food. It is a beautiful country and they love working with Bulgarians.
I have only positive feedback from our men and women in uniform, and we really appreciate with sincere gratitude when we are well received by the communities around the joint facilities and provided with wonderful hospitality around Bulgaria.
Lastly, I can point out the example of one US naval engineer (Seabee). In 2008 he led some humanitarian assistance projects around Novo Selo. He has recently retired and told me that his time when he was doing temporary duty in Bulgaria was among the greatest experiences of his naval career – and that's more than 20 years he spent in the US Navy.
He requested to our office that the US flag for his retirement ceremony be flown over the US Embassy in Sofia on Veterans' Day (an annual US holiday on 11 November) because he felt such a deep connection working with the Bulgarian population. In short we genuinely appreciate working with our Bulgarian partners.
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