Bulgarian Parliament Ratifies F-16 Deal

July 19 (BTA) - On first and second reading on Thursday,
the Bulgarian National Assembly ratified 2.1 billion leva worth
of contracts on the purchase of eight F-16 Block 70 fighter
aircraft from the United States for the Bulgarian Air Force and
the provision of related equipment and technical support.

On second reading, 123 MPs voted in favour of the ratification
bill, 78 were against it, and 2 abstained from voting. The
ratification was supported by GERB, the Movement for Rights and
Freedoms (MRF), and VMRO, and opposed by BSP for Bulgaria,
Volya, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB),
and Ataka. (VMRO, NFSB and Ataka are the members of the United
Patriots coalition, which is the junior partner in the larger
ruling coalition dominated by GERB. BSP for Bulgaria is the main
 opposition force.)

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Krassimir
Karakachanov described the ratification as "a crucial step
forward in upgrading the Bulgarian Armed Forces, which has been
discussed for more than 12 years now." "It was about time we
stopped prevaricating," Karakachanov said.

He noted that the US Congress may cover 60 million dollars of
the price but the decision is still pending. This is the best
deal from the point of view of the technical parameters of the
aircraft and the potential of the Bulgarian state, he said.

Air Force Commander Gen. Tsanko Stoikov said practical steps are
 yet to be made towards mastering the F-16s: Bulgarian pilots,
engineers and mechanics will be trained to ensure full use of
the aircraft's potential.

Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov said: "We in the Economy
Ministry do not know much about aircraft but we have complete
confidence in the experts who have been working on the project.
If I were to make the proposal today, it would be the same."

Earlier in the day, Yulian Angelov (United Patriots/VMRO) asked
the Ataka party why they would not support a deal proposed by
their Economy Minister.

During more than three hours of parliamentary debate before the
final vote, Defence Committee Chair Konstantin Popov (GERB) said
 the people have been waiting for too long to see the Air Force
upgraded, and the waiting is coming to an end. "If we ratify the
 contracts, we will buy cutting-edge aircraft with superb combat
 capabilities, and we should be proud of it," Popov said.

The supporters of the deal stressed the technical advantages of
the chosen type of fighters, while their opponents disapproved
of the price of the deal and the lack of compensation clauses
for potential non-compliance of the US side.

Those who spoke in favour of the project said that the US offer
met the Bulgarian requirements to a maximum degree, would make
it possible for Bulgaria to achieve full interoperability in the
 air and on the ground with its allies, and would open up new
prospects for strategic partnership and military-technical
cooperation with the United States.

Vladimir Toshev (GERB) noted that the price of the package
includes the cost of maintenance until 2045. His fellow party
member Valentin Radev said: "The expenditure has many dimensions
 to it. We are buying what our military has told us to."

Milen Mihov (VMRO) noted that the purchase of this high-tech
aircraft is the first step forward in Bulgaria's re-armament in
30 years.

Mustafa Karadayi declared the full support of his MRF for the
contracts, noting the party's consistent Euro-Atlantic policies.
 "This is a strategic decision for our national security, but it
 is just one step," the MRF leader said.

Volya leader Vesselin Mareshki reacted to Karadayi's words by
saying that this is "the most extortionate" deal which is "most
dangerous" for Bulgaria's national security. He reiterated his
view that this much money had better be spent on healthcare, on
boosting pensions and funding sports.

Nikolai Tsonkov (BSP for Bulgaria) argued that Armed Forces
modernization should go simultaneously in all three armed
services: the Ground Forces, the Air Force and the Navy.
According to Tsonkov, the conditions of the F-16 deal will wreck
 the Armed Forces.

The National Assembly voted 91-120, with 1 abstention, to turn
down a proposal by BSP for Bulgaria to postpone the F-16 deal by
 six months. The proposal was put forward by BSP's Nikolai
Tsonkov after Volya, too, expressed a similar view.

Defence Minister Karakachanov said a six-month postponement will
 not make the price of the deal any lower. The US offers for the
 four contracts are valid until September 3, 4 and 5, after
which the price cannot be reduced, he said.

The Defence Minister noted that the expenses which have to be
incurred for the F-16 project will not delay other projects for
upgrading the Armed Forces. "The other projects are going on,
too. Offers have already been submitted for the ships. The
armoured vehicles project was launched by the Defence Council on
 Wednesday," Karakachanov said.

Critics in the debating chamber said the price of the deal is
too high; disapproved of the arrangement to pay it in a lump
sum; noted that it will push Bulgaria's defence-spending-to-GDP
ratio above the 2 per cent mark; and warned that the F-16
package has been scaled down, which implies limited capabilities
 of the aircraft.

"The F-16 Block 70 aircraft is not yet available in the US, it
is still being designed, and it will not be bought even for the
US Air Force," Roumen Gechev (BSP for Bulgaria) said. Moreover,
the supplier will not bear responsibility in case of failure to
fulfill any of the contract clauses, he warned. According to
Gechev, the actual price of the deal will exceed 3 billion leva
because the jets will not be delivered in full package.

Tasko Ermenkov (BSP for Bulgaria) said that if Bulgaria ratifies
 the F-16 deal, it will join a small group of seven NATO
countries, including the US, which meet the requirement for
public spending on defence to be at least 2 per cent of GDP.
"But look at those countries, their economies, their welfare
systems," Ermenkov said.

NFSB is opposed to the deal, above all because it finds the
price exorbitant, the party leader, Valeri Simeonov, said. He
offered his "condolences" to Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov
over the "unforeseen expenses" he has to take care of. "Rather
than focusing on the technical parameters, the MPs should think
about how the National Assembly will look after approving a deal
 under dictation," Simeonov said. According to him, it is
ridiculous to suggest that Bulgaria's air policing capabilities
can be bolstered by eight airplanes which are to be delivered in
 four years.

Dessislav Choukolov (Ataka), too, drew attention to the
circumstance that Bulgaria will pay for the purchase in a lump
sum now but will not get the first plane until 2023. He
reiterated the nationalists' view that the US' use of four
military bases in Bulgaria free of charge should have been taken
 into account during the F-16 negotiations.

* * *

Volya leader Vesselin Mareshki will send an open letter to US
President Donald Trump, questioning the F-16 deal between
Bulgaria and the US.

Mareshki read the letter addressed to the US President at a news
 briefing in Parliament on Friday. In the letter he asks
President Trump as a last instance to halt "this extortionate
deal". "Don't push Bulgaria into this financial abyss, don't
condemn to poverty a worthy European people," the letter reads.
It also states that if a deal is fair then it should be
beneficial for both countries which has not been the case.

The letter has been signed by all Volya MPs.

Mareshki said he would send the letter already on Friday.


Source: Sofia