Bulgaria Announces $680 Million Army Modernization Program, but Will It Ever Come to Pass?

By Dan Darling, Forecast International

Bulgaria plans to implement a BGN1 billion ($680 million) military modernization program aimed at decreasing the army’s dependence on Russian-legacy hardware. The program, announced by Defense Minister Velizar Shalamanov, will run through 2020. The modernization will feature the long-anticipated acquisition of new multirole combat aircraft that will allow Bulgaria to begin phasing out its MiG-21 and MiG-29 fleets. It will also involve the procurement of a new submarine and new naval vessels.

Bulgarian MiG-29s are slated for phase out.
Bulgarian MiG-29s are slated for phase out.

Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry is currently drafting a plan that would see defense budgets rise to 2 percent of annual GDP. Under this plan, defense investment would rise rapidly on a year-by-year basis, as current military expenditures reside at 1.3 percent of GDP.

Throughout much of the 2000s, Bulgaria remained one of a handful of NATO members to meet the minimum standard of 2 percent of GDP allocated toward defense, despite being the poorest member of the Alliance. In 2001, the country devoted just under 3 percent of GDP to defense (2.96 percent), but by 2005, that figure had dropped to 2.45 percent. By 2009, with the Bulgarian economy stumbling under the weight of a Europe-wide recession, defense allocations had dropped to 1.86 percent of GDP and then fell nominally by 23 percent in 2010 as the government pursued austerity measures to keep Sofia in the good graces of the European Commission.

As a result of the decline in defense investment, Bulgaria’s longstanding military modernization effort, titled Plan 2015, was pushed out to 2020 under the most recent Defense White Paper (released in 2011). Plan 2015 involved the purchase of ground transportation vehicles, multirole fighters, naval fighting ships, communications equipment, and a reconnaissance command-and-control system.

The latest modernization plan announcement appears, on the surface at least, to be old wine in a new bottle. The requirements of the Bulgarian armed forces have not changed, only the face heading the Defense Ministry has. The latter itself makes this latest announcement appear tenuous, as Shalamanov is part of the caretaker government of Prime Minister Georgi Bliznashki. With parliamentary elections approaching on October 5, his time atop the Defense Ministry may prove short.

More to the point, requests by Bulgarian Defense Ministers are often given short shrift by sitting governments. An example of this came in 2012, shortly after the release of the most recent defense white paper. Then-Defense Minister Anyu Angelov requested that Parliament keep defense spending at a minimum of 1.5 percent of GDP through 2014 – the result was that expenditure fell to 1.2 percent in 2012.

With a poor economy that is struggling to make headway, readily available funding is simply not there to be doled out. An incoming government sympathetic to defense and perhaps alarmed by events in Ukraine may place a higher premium on military investment, but doing so would require not only increasing annual defense budgets but also bringing greater balance to the way the consolidated defense allocation is then spent. Currently, Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry allocates just 5 percent of the defense budget toward capital investment (i.e., procuring new military hardware and upgrading and maintaining existing materiel). Some 74 percent of the budget is devoted to personnel expenses, rather than the desired 60 percent called for in the Defense White Paper. With limited funding thus allocated so disproportionately, the Bulgarian armed forces remain stuck with their Soviet-/Russian-legacy hardware, despite having entered the NATO Alliance a decade ago.

Unless funding both increases and is doled out more equitably than the status quo – an army forced to rely upon using the equipment of their allies for training purposes when joint exercises are conducted on Bulgarian soil – will remain. But if the next government is less sympathetic toward upgrading the armed forces than it is tackling the country’s myriad problems – which include rooting out corruption, strengthening the judicial system, improving public infrastructure, and adhering to EU budgeting and transparency rules – then the matter becomes moot.