Bulgaria ready to start talks with U.S. on F-16 jet deal

SOFIA (Reuters) - The Bulgarian government has approved a plan to start talks with the United States on buying eight new F-16 fighter jets to replace its ageing Soviet-made MiG-29s and improve compliance with NATO standards, the defense minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: An F16 fighter jet is seen during a military exercise at Ranai military airbase in Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Beawiharta/File Photo

A deal for Lockheed Martin’s F-16V Block 70 would be worth around 1.8 billion levs ($1.1 billion), Bulgaria’s biggest military procurement since the fall of Communist rule some 30 years ago.

The decision still requires parliament’s approval.

Other bidders had included Sweden, with Saab’s Gripen jets, and Italy, with second-hand Eurofighters.

Senior defense ministry and army officials say the F-16 is a multi-role fighter plane that had been tested in battle and had a long lifespan.

The defense ministry has previously said that the United States does not need additional licenses and agreements to supply the war plans with the necessary weaponry and licenses, unlike the offers from Sweden and Italy.

“The government is proposing to the parliament to allow it to start talks with the United States to acquire new war planes,” Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov told reporters.

The center-right coalition government has a thin majority in parliament, which is expected to vote on the move next week.

The plan has spurred heated political debates in the Black Sea country with supporters hailing it as a strategic choice for Bulgaria, whose NATO neighbors are also flying F-16s, while critics accused the government of breaching the tender rules.

On Tuesday, the White House said the United States was ready to work with the government to tailor a deal that will fit Bulgaria’s budgetary and operational requirements. Its bid at present exceeds the tender’s estimated limit, officials said.

“We believe that the F-16 Block 70 offers Bulgaria the best possible combination of price, capability and interoperability with other NATO air forces,” U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said in a statement.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a former air force commander and frequent critic of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, is believed to favor the Swedish bid and has criticized the process as flawed and “a triumph of lobbying”.

Critics have questioned whether the United States can deliver the first two F-16 jets within two years as required and pointed to a U.S. proposal for a one-off payment upon contracting rather than offering a long-term payment scheme as preferred in the tender.

Sweden has expressed its disappointment over the decision and said its offer was well below the estimated budget, provided for deferred payment and was ready to deliver on time.

The question of which warplanes to buy has been vexing successive governments in Bulgaria for more than a decade.

Borissov’s government re-launched the tender in July, after a parliament commission ruled that a previous process which favored the Gripen jets, should be reviewed.

($1 = 1.7057 leva)

Editing by Kevin Liffey and Susan Fenton