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Cablegate: Bulgaria Needs U.S. Support to Break Air Force

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FROM AMBASSADOR BEYRLE

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/11/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL MARR BU
SUBJECT: BULGARIA NEEDS U.S. SUPPORT TO BREAK AIR FORCE
DEPENDENCE ON RUSSIA

Classified By: Ambassador John Beyrle for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C/NF) Summary. Rapidly losing capability, the
Bulgarian Air Force is in dire need of modernization, but
meaningful transformation is made impossible by Bulgaria's
overwhelming dependence on Russian airframes. The use of
aging Russian aircraft not only limits Bulgarian
capabilities, but maintains a crippling dependence upon
Russia for parts and maintenance. Russia has routinely
withheld these in order to exert pressure and extract
favorable decisions. Bulgaria is keenly aware of this
dependency and is reaching out to allies for suggestions on
affordable, NATO-interoperable airframes.

2. (C/NF) Four outcomes are possible: 1) Bulgaria has no
Air Force, 2) it has a weak and Russian-dependent force, 3)
it cobbles together a fleet of limited capacity with European
fighters such as Swedish Grypens, 4) it adopts a U.S. fighter
and becomes a capable, interoperable ally in air operations.
A U.S. multi-role fighter is the only option that will enable
Bulgaria to have an effective Air Force over the longer-term.
Transitioning Bulgaria to a U.S. airframe would drastically
improve Bulgaria's capabilities and draw our two armed forces
into even closer cooperation. Most critically it would
eliminate Russian influence over an entire section of the
Bulgarian military and reduce its leverage over the Ministry
of Defense as a whole. Post has requested DOD provide a
concrete proposal to the Bulgarians for acquisition of a U.S.
aircraft, with the goal of formally presenting this to the
Bulgarians during high-level meetings this summer. End
Summary.

CURRENT CAPABILITIES

3. (C/NF) Saddled with pre-1989 equipment and doctrine, the
Bulgarian Air Force is poorly led, poorly funded and
increasingly unable to perform effectively as a NATO ally.
Their transport fleet is small. It was recently bolstered
with the addition of one C-27J, but the rest consists of a
handful of old non-NATO compatible Soviet AN-12s. With the
exception of 12 non-combat capable Eurocopter AS 532 Cougars,
the helicopter fleet is also in poor shape with only six
MI-17s (equivalent to the Russian MI-8 HIP), six Bell
206B-3,s and two operational MI-24 HINDS. Worst off is
Bulgaria's tactical fighter fleet. Bulgaria maintains a
handful of MiG-21s which will retire by mid-2009. They have
12 fully mission capable Su-25s but have budgeted very
limited funds to fly them this year ) less than 10 hours per
airframe. The Bulgarians rely entirely on 12 aging MiG-29s
to do all NATO Air Policing. As a result, they were forced
to sign a ten million dollar contract with Russia for
depot-level maintenance work required to keep them flying.


THE PROBLEM: DEPENDENCE ON RUSSIA AND MiGS

4. (C/NF) The MiG airframe is the major obstacle to the
transformation of the Bulgarian Air Force. It limits
Bulgaria's capabilities, but more significantly it fosters an
unhealthy dependence on Russia. Because it is still using
Cold War aircraft, Bulgaria lacks western operational
instructions, relying instead on outdated Soviet tactics,
techniques and procedures (TTPs) and logistics. Virtually
nothing in the Bulgarian Air Force has moved forward since
1989. Because of the MiG airframe, the Bulgarian tactical
Air Force is forced to maintain a robust relationship with
Russia simply to keep their tactical fleet in the air. This
allows Russia tremendous influence over Bulgarian Air Force
policies, operations and procurement decisions. So long as
Russian aircraft remain the backbone of the Bulgarian Air
Force it cannot fully transform, modernize or integrate into
NATO.


THE SOLUTION: U.S. AIRFRAME


SOFIA 00000305 002 OF 003


5. (C/NF) Transitioning away from Russian aircraft would
have a far-reaching impact on Bulgarian military
modernization. The specific capabilities of a new airframe
would be secondary to NATO interoperability and the
development of a strong relationship with the United States
Air Force. Bulgaria has begun this process in its other
services. The purchase of a used Belgian Frigate was a
catalyst for transformation of the Bulgarian Navy. Through
Belgian partnership, Bulgarian ships and crews, once entirely
wedded to Russian equipment and doctrine, are now NATO
certified and currently participate in major NATO exercises
in the Mediterranean. The Bulgarian Army has benefited from
the provision of U.S. equipment and vehicles and has
transformed itself considerably through its ongoing
participation in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The
Bulgarian Air Force, however, remains stuck in 1989.

6. (C/NF) Bulgaria knows it can not continue down this
path. It is committed to maintaining a tactical Air Force
and is actively searching for an affordable multi-role
fighter. It is in our interest to ensure that Bulgaria
chooses a U.S. solution. Moving the Bulgarians to a U.S.
fighter would reduce Russian influence over Bulgarian defense
policy, integrate Bulgaria further into NATO and ensure a
long-term strategic relationship with the United States. A
switch to a European fighter such as the Eurofighter or
Swedish Grypen would be an improvement, but still clearly a
second-best solution since none of the Europeans have a
history of providing the technical, logistical and tactical
support Bulgaria desperately needs. It is not a coincidence
that Bulgaria's NATO neighbors Greece, Turkey and Romania
have all opted for U.S. airframes. Additionally, switching
to a European fighter only addresses short-term needs and
does not offer an eventual bridge the Joint Strike Fighter,
the only long-term outcome that would enable Bulgaria to fly
and fight effectively and interoperably with the United
States.

7. (C/NF) Bulgaria has approached the United States
formally in multiple forums requesting information on
available U.S. aircraft. Many top Bulgarian officials are
anxious to transition to a U.S. fighter as soon as possible,
but Russian ties run deep and staying with a Russian fighter
has traction in other circles. European countries have
expressed interest in selling aircraft to Bulgaria and have a
strong lobby. Bulgaria is a special case due to its limited
funds, Russian dependence and critical need for technical and
logistical support. Presenting the Bulgarians with the
standard approach we roll out for other wealthier allies will
not work, but a comprehensive, affordable, sustainable U.S.
offer with full U.S. government support will almost certainly
succeed. Time is short because the Bulgarians are reaching
the decision point: to stay with the Russian MiGs into an
unforeseeable future, or transition to a new aircraft.

8. (C/NF) Previous US Navy and USAF efforts have laid a
good foundation. Now more vigorous DoD contact is needed.
In addition to a concrete offer to present to Bulgarians, a
senior DoD visit for this specific topic in the next few
months would be highly valuable. Finally, we understand that
release of the Joint Strike Fighter to Bulgaria has not been
approved. We need to revisit that decision. This Embassy
was not consulted in the original decision, and we still do
not have clarity on the criteria or decision-making process
that led to that determination.

9. (C/NF) Final Comment: Bulgaria has proved itself a
steadfast ally and reliable partner in international
security, currently ranking as the fourth largest EU troop
contributor in Iraq. Within many Bulgarian institutions,
however, and particularly among the military, there is a
split between younger transatlantic thinkers and older
"default-Russia" forces. It is crucial that we make efforts
now to empower those forces inclined to look toward NATO and
the United States. The Bulgarian Air Force is at a
crossroads. Decisions made in the upcoming months will

SOFIA 00000305 003 OF 003


determine whether Bulgaria ends up with no Air Force, a very
limited capability force, or a fully effective and
interoperable force with a deep connection to the United
States. A U.S. commitment to identify an appropriate
multi-role fighter will lead to a broad institutional shift
inside the Bulgarian Armed Forces and pay very large
dividends in the future. Inaction is an invitation to
Russia, already a dominant force in the Bulgarian energy
sector, to continue to exercise control over significant
sections of Bulgarian defense. It is likely this issue will
be raised when the Bulgarian Prime Minister travels to
Washington and meets President Bush next month. High-level
engagement from Washington prior to this meeting will be
crucial to developing a mutually beneficial proposal and
ensuring a positive final outcome. End Comment.
Beyrle

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