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After years of stale cooperation within NATO, Bulgaria is ramping up its defenses and finally undergoing its full integration within the alliance. Low military budgets and a full deck of Soviet-era material has until now kept the Eastern State in a state of strategic limbo. Aeronautic choices have been made towards American partners, and armor will presumably be picked in Europe.

 

The resurgence of Russia is pushing Bulgaria out of the woods. The small Eastern State, itself a former Soviet satellite, joined NATO in 2004 but needed sometimes to reposition itself after the massive shift. After 15 years of reorganization, which sometimes led the army to its depths, Bulgaria is taking the restoration of it defense capacities at heart and committing substantial funds and political momentum to become the international partner it aims to be. And Russia will be the big catalyzer for Bulgaria: while Sofia’s defenses were down in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet crumble, so were Moscow’s. But now Russia is back on its feet, and so is Bulgaria. Analyst Nikolas Gvosdev writes: “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been his commitment to revitalizing Russia’s military. Putin, who has noted that Russia’s perceived weakness makes it vulnerable to external pressure and internal disruption, is pushing for increased funding to transform the Russian armed forces from the debilitated remnants inherited from the old Soviet superpower military machine into a smaller, but more modern, mobile, technologically advanced and capable twenty-first century force.” As for Bulgaria, it was still recently plagued with under-funding and national disaffection for the defense world, but Defense minister Krasimir Karakatchanov has succeeded in collecting enough political momentum to set his country on the fast track back to military readiness. According to the Sofia News Agency, “Bulgaria is spending 1.43% of GDP on defense without the cost of military pensions. This is clear from the Alliance’s Annual Report on how much the Allies spend. According to the NATO Annual Report on defense spending for the member states, Bulgaria is in 14th place. Out of 28 allies, only 7 countries exceed the 2% threshold.” In other words, Bulgaria has extracted itself from the military quagmire it was bogged down in for decades and reached the upper half of the alliance in terms of strategic commitments.

 

In order to enact its alliance with NATO, Bulgaria has made the choice in the F-16 resurrection program and order an operational fleet from its US partner. In order to replace its fleet of Soviet Migs and Sukhoïs, which had suffered such lack of maintenance that pilots eventually refused to fly them, Bulgaria had been forced to make certain reluctant choices, such as ask its former Russian partners to intervene and restore the aircraft’s airworthiness. As the situation gradually improved, more serious options were taken, with the choice of Saab Gripen (to reinforce its link to the European partner), and the purchase of used F16s from Portugal. In the end, the newly-elected Prime Minister Boyko Borissov cancelled the bid in favor of new-generation F-16s directly from the United States, in a billion-dollar deal. The Sofia Globe reports: “Bulgaria’s National Assembly approved on January 16 by 130 votes to 84 giving the government a mandate to negotiate with the United States on acquiring F-16 fighter jets. At the beginning of November 2018, Bulgaria’s Defense Minister opened the offers from three countries – the US for F-16s, Sweden for Gripens and Italy for second-hand Eurofighters. In January, a report by a political-military group that assessed the offers to supply the Bulgarian Air Force with a new fighter jet recommended the opening of negotiations with the US to acquire F-16s.” Despite originating in the 1970s, the Fighting Falcon F-16 has aged remarkably well and is actually undergoing a second youth, with many modernized versions being sold across the world. The bid will likely be a considerable leap of Bulgaria’s military capacity.

 

Land forces will be the next step. Sofia is still stuck with a Soviet-originating fleet of battle tanks and armored personnel carriers so old and run down that its majority is stockpiled away and carries little or no military potential. This will be Bulgaria’s opportunity to consolidate its integration within the European side of the alliance. All the while, Bulgaria will need to carefully select its partner. For instance, France and Bulgaria have maintained strong cultural and political ties.On the other hand, Germany could be pushed by its large Turkish population to side with Turkey, against Bulgaria, as Ankara aims to increase its regional influence. Nonetheless, the center of gravity of European defense remains somewhere on the Paris-Berlin axis. France and Germany, at the core of European military defense, have recently joined their forces to mutualize their development capacities and develop new generation battle tanks which rank in the superior global tier, under the impulsion of French and German heads of State. “Since 2015, both companies have been involved in the joint venture company KNDS, KMW plus Nexter Defense Systems, whose headquarters is located in Amsterdam. In 2017, the turnover of KNDS amounted to 2.7 billion euros. Of these, 1.34 billion euros accounted for enterprises of the KNDS group. The revenues from the customers’ orders are estimated at 3.4 billion euros. So future orders will still exceed the turnover”, writes Zeitung. The United States sells few of its M1 Abrams, which is considered reaching the end of its potential life-span, whereas the recent alliance between France and Germany have launched a new momentum in the field of heavy armor, which will carry it way into the 21st century. Washington, which isn’t particularly keen to sell its Abrams tank, would however be favorably impressed with increased intra-European military cooperation – the US have repeatedly expressed their weariness at the lack of military drive in Europe and its excessive dependence on NATO resources.

 

Bulgaria is likely to be a key player in the Balkan area in coming years. Its military was still recently in total disarray, with no consequent budgets, hopelessly outdated equipment and serious personnel shortage. The reforms and revitalization move achieved by defense minister Krasimir Karakatchanov have made the country swerve towards a different destiny and may well make Sofia a major partner in NATO’s balance of powers with Russia.

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