One of the last former Warsaw Pact members to operate Soviet made fourth generation MiG-29 twin engine fighters, Bulgaria’s parliament has approved the retirement of the aircraft. The platforms are set to be replaced with Western made fighters, of either European or U.S. origin, under a $2 billion spending plan which will also include the acquisition of 150 armoured combat vehicles. The Bulgarian Air Force claims the country’s MiG fleet remains in good condition, and in March 2018 the service commissioned upgrades from Russia for the fighters to keep them viable in modern combat under a $51 million contract - despite pressure to seek alternative sources. With Bulgaria having joined NATO in 2004, the gradual replacement of Soviet made arms with Western alternatives remains part of a wider trend taking place in the USSR’s former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. These new jets would be more NATO compatible, allowing them to better engage in joint combat operations alongside other members of the alliance.
While a number of former Warsaw Pact members including Slovakia and the Czech Republic having abandoned the MiG-29 for lighter and overall less capable single engine platforms such as the U.S. F-16 and Swedish Gripen, both of which lack the MiG’s heavy armament and high manoeuvrability, speed, operational altitude as well as its state of the art infra red tracking systems, Bulgaria appears set to acquire high end U.S. made platforms which are more capable than the MiG-29. The Bulgarian Air Force has requested an offer from Boeing for its F-18E Super Hornet medium weight twin engine fighter, a more costly but far more advanced platform than the F-16 or European made combat aircraft. Should the country acquire an advanced variant the F-18E, possibly the Block 3 variant which can deploy up to sixteen air to air missiles compared to the F-16’s six and is equipped with state of the art avionics, Bulgaria would field among the most advanced air to air combat capabilities in Europe - which in Eastern Europe would be rivalled only by Belarus and Ukraine’s Su-27 and Su-30 heavy air superiority fighters.
Though the F-18E was designed primarily as a carrier based platform for the U.S. Navy, a number of states have acquired the twin engine fighter for ground based operations including Switzerland, Kuwait, Canada and Australia among others. While a small contingent of F-16 fighters similar to that acquired by Slovakia is set to have a negligible impact in a major war between NATO and Russia, and such platform are poorly suited to engaging even the lightest of Russia’s air fleet, the F-18E Block 3 would have a significant impact on the balance of forces in Eastern Europe in Bulgaria’s favour, and if operated effectively by capable pilots would make it a leading aerial power in the region. While it is not guaranteed that Bulgaria will opt to purchase the F-18E, with the F-16 and Gripen representing less costly options and a number of states offering second hand jets at lower prices, the Super Hornet remains a highly attractive option given its elite capabilities.