The Modernization of the Bulgarian Air Force Can Go Awry
"A very important priority for the next government must be to ensure full readiness for the acceptance of purchased and already paid F-16 fighter jets and to achieve full operational capability very quickly once they arrive - say, by 2024-2025. But it must be achieved on the horizon of the next government." This was announced on Friday during the political consultations on "National Security" by the former Minister of Defense Todor Tagarev, who is currently an expert on military issues of the leading parliamentary party "We Continue the Change". Rapid achievement of this goal is key, as the new NATO fighters will be the platform on which to reform and modernize our Air Force as a whole. They are directly related to the acquisition of new three-coordinate NATO radars and possibly in the near future - the replacement of the army's anti-aircraft missile systems, which are Soviet-made and will hardly be able to work in sync with NATO fighters.
What are the risks for the Air Force at the moment?
However, full operational readiness is unlikely to really happen in the period 2024-2025, as former Minister Tagarev would like. The reason is that the assembly of the fighters is delayed due to the pandemic and due to problems with external subcontractors in the logistics chain, as Greg Ulmer, vice president of the American corporation Lockheed Martin, which produces F-16s in Greenville, South Carolina, admits to Aviation Week and Breaking Defense. The company's previous goal was to hand over the first machine of the new Block 70 model for the needs of the Bahraini Air Force at the end of 2022. Аccording to the statement of the Vice Marshal of Bahraini Aviation Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Khalifa during the air show in Dubai, however, the delivery of the first fighters for the country will be sought by 2024. "We are currently behind on schedule by about 12 months," confirms Greg Ulmer of Lockheed Martin. The corporation did not say exactly which foreign subcontractor was delaying the production of the fighters. However, it is known that components for the fuselage of the F-16 Block 70 must be made by the Indian industrial giant Tata, and the wings - by the Israeli state defense corporation IAI.
"We continue to take proactive action with the F-16 Program Office, our suppliers and our international partners to mitigate the impact and increase production efficiency, including by hiring more than 300 employees at our plant in Greenville, South Carolina." commented for "Capital" representatives from Lockheed Martin, without giving more details about the delay and possible new delivery times. The company only added that it has already added more component suppliers to the program, such as the concern's plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and PZL Mielec in Poland.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Defense unofficially commented for "Capital" that so far they have not received notification from the United States that there may be a delay in supplies to Bulgaria and that they hope the US corporation will be able to catch up with the internal redistribution of resources. However, this will not be easy, as before the Bulgarian eight machines Lockheed Martin has to produce 16 units for Bahrain and 14 for Slovakia. Under our agreement with the United States, the fighter jets were to be handed over to Bulgaria 48 months after the conclusion of the agreement, which was ratified at the end of July 2019. In the context of current developments around the pandemic, however, delivery seems physically impossible in 2023. According to the plan, our country was to receive two ready-made machines in the autumn of 2023, four - in the spring of 2024, and the last two - in the summer of the same year. The Chief of Defense, Admiral Emil Eftimov, also spoke about this recently.
There is also a subtle point in this case - "transferring to the Bulgarian side" does not mean the immediate adoption of armaments, let alone the transition to full operational capabilities. Before that happens, the F-16 fighters must pass several weeks to several months of tests in real conditions in the United States and take off by Bulgarian pilots, who are currently being trained to use them at the US Air Force Academy.
Possible political consequences
The possible delay in the production deadlines of the Bulgarian F-16s may entail more political consequences on Bulgarian soil. The reason is that the caretaker government has already started the procedure for the possible purchase of the second batch of eight fighters, which our country has generally committed to acquire. At the end of the summer, the acting Minister of War Georgi Panayotov sent to Washington the so-called Letter of Request for Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LoR for LOA) - a letter-request for preparation of a draft contract, in which there is a "precise breakdown of values by components, systems, services, etc.". According to "Capital", the response from the American side is expected sometime in late February or early March.
It is important to note that the parameters of the US binding offer in question will be valid only for a certain period of 3-4 months, during which the government and the Bulgarian parliament will have to decide whether to conclude a new interstate agreement with the United States or not. At the end of Borissov's rule, Lockheed Martin announced that if our country quickly ordered the second eight F-16, it would eventually receive them together with the first order. But if the offensive for a new contract to order more fighter jets coincides with US acknowledgments that there are difficulties with the timely delivery of the first batch, this fact is likely to give more and more convincing arguments to opponents of the subsequent deal. Moreover, the implementation of any large-scale military projects in the conditions of the economic and social crisis caused by the pandemic will be extremely complex and politically "difficult to sell" to the Bulgarian taxpayers. Especially when our country has prepaid BGN 2.2 billion for fighter jets, which is not sure exactly when it will receive.
And more obstacles
Achieving the full operational capability of the new F-16s will also be problematic due to delays in repairing and modernizing the infrastructure at Graf Ignatievo Air Base. According to the statements of the acting Minister of War Panayotov, the previous government has distributed and prepaid huge sums to "its favorite companies" (of the order of at least BGN 184 million), which, however, are delaying or not even fulfilling their commitments. According to him, this will at best delay the completion of the project and the certification of the air base by 6-8 months, which in turn may prevent the new NATO fighters from being accepted by the Bulgarian Air Force in time.
The rearmament with the F-16 is also likely to lead to a reform of the anti-aircraft missile forces. Velizar Shalamanov, a former caretaker defense minister and current national security expert for Democratic Bulgaria, hinted at something similar during political consultations on the new government. "Immediate replacement of anti-aircraft systems is needed, because there is no way for an F-16 to fly in Bulgarian airspace if it works with complexes of the type we have. In 1999, NATO asked us to turn them all off so that their F-16s could fly over. 16 ", he said during the talks.
In principle, the Ministry of Defense has developed technical specifications for a possible order for a new air defense, but such a project has neither been discussed in parliament nor included in the group of the army's top-priority modernization programs. The purchase of new anti-aircraft missile systems would cost between several hundred million and several billion, depending on the type of systems, their range and the quantities we are ready to acquire. It is possible that our country will initially focus on a more cunning option, using systems for ground launch of long-range anti-aircraft missiles AMRAAM, which in principle we have already ordered for the armament of the new F-16. However, such systems will be only a basic solution, as they are designed only for short and medium distances, ie. have operational-tactical rather than strategic importance for the defense of NATO's eastern flank.
/Momchil Milev, Capital
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