Bulgaria’s accession to NATO in 2004 challenged the country’s army to modernize its armaments and replace obsolete military equipment. This is a multi-stage process, based on a series of political decisions and a consistent implementation of a long-term strategy. Bulgaria must catch up with the other CEE members of the Alliance, which have already completed or are in an advanced stage of modernizing their armies and are already in the capacity-building process. What Bulgaria is planning, how that plan is being executed, and what opportunities we should look forward to in the near future are critical considerations.
In February 2021, the National Assembly adopted the Program for Developing the Defense Capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria 2032 (or Program 2032), a critical long-term strategic document defining the development framework of Bulgaria’s defense policy. Program 2032 envisions the acquisition of defense capabilities to occur in two stages: from 2021 to 2026 and from 2027 to 2032. Consistent with that, a Draft Plan for the Development of the Armed Forces until 2026 (Plan 2026) has been developed as the main medium-term strategic document of the Armed Forces, organizing and ensuring the implementation of the first stage of Program 2032. It is to be adopted by a future Council of Ministers.
According to Program 2032, the complete modernization of the Bulgarian army will cost about EUR 15 billion and will involve the development of 180 new defense capabilities. Therefore, it is envisaged that defense expenditures will increase up to 2% of Bulgaria’s GDP by 2024, and they are required to remain at least at that level for the period after that, depending on the growth of the country’s economic opportunities.
This increase in defense expenditures has already begun with the signing of two major contracts: an approximately EUR 1 billion acquisition of eight F-16 Block 70 multi-role fighters from Lockheed Martin in 2019, and an approximately EUR 500 million acquisition of two patrol ships from German shipyard Fr. Lurssen Werft GMBH & CO.KG in 2020. In December 2020, another contract for over EUR 40 million was signed with Bulgaria’s state-owned company TEREM for the modernization of 44 tanks, including the modernization of other equipment necessary to increase the overall combat capabilities of the tanks. However, as TEREM facilities cannot carry out the main modernization activities, a significant part of the funds might be redirected to another company.
A significant project that has been on the agenda for almost ten years is the acquisition of 150 armored vehicles for the ground forces, which is worth about EUR 750 million, and which is currently at a deadlock due to the dissonance between the set budget and the two competing offers. That is why the Ministry of Defense commissioned TEREM to prepare a report on the possibility for the machines to be built within Bulgaria’s military-industrial complex. Based on the report, the next Bulgarian government will have to decide whether to increase the project budget or assign it to a Bulgarian company.
Among the priority projects envisioned in Plan 2026 are the acquisitions of 3D radars for near and far surveillance: five radars for long-range detection and two for short-range detection, all at a combined cost of between EUR 150-200 million. The hope is that the radars can be supplied by 2023-2024, as they complement the capabilities of the new F-16 Block-70 fighters, which are expected to be in service in the next couple of years.
Other priority projects in Plan 2026 include the acquisition of submarines, the modernization of the E-71 frigates, and the development of the full operational capacity of the Command for Communication and Information Support and Cyber-Defense, as well as the acquisition of remotely controlled systems, including the acquisition of a strategic and operational command and control system.
The modernization of the Bulgarian Armed Forces has triggered an unprecedented wave of large-scale public projects in the past couple of years. The goals declared in Program 2032 suggest the formation of a sustainable trend, envisioning many more such projects in the pipeline, as long as defense and security continue to be a top priority for future governments.