In the first week of December 2020, the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence announced the purchase of 98 new armored vehicles and the modernization of 44 Soviet-era T-72 tanks for a cost of over €100 Million in total. Along with Bulgaria’s recent purchase of F-16s from the United States and plans to acquire two new German-made patrol ships for its Navy, this is another instance in a recent series of government decisions with the intent of expanding and modernizing the Bulgarian Armed Forces. Surprisingly, the Minister of Defence, Krasimir Karakachanov, also announced that there are plans to procure one or two submarines. Instead of focusing on traditional military warfare, Bulgaria’s modernization efforts should focus on newer technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), supplied by Western allies, to effectively participate in low-intensity and unconventional conflicts, and provide the Bulgarian military with cost-efficient technology to monitor its borders and assist in collective security efforts, including humanitarian responses.
This mass modernization of the Bulgarian Armed Forces may be seen as a step in the right direction by those abroad in Europe and NATO, and domestically by supporters of a larger and more effective Bulgarian military. But these events also raise the following questions: Why is Bulgaria expanding its armed forces with such speed in the middle of a pandemic? Why is it modernizing outdated Soviet-era machinery rather than purchasing new technology? And why would Bulgaria need submarines? Many of these decisions, especially thаt regarding submarines, could simply be pandering to the electorate in the run-up to the elections next year, or be nepotistic and corrupt dealings, the like of which are commonplace throughout Bulgaria, especially since both the purchase of armored vehicles and the tank modernization project were handed to Bulgarian firms with no public procurement competition whatsoever.
Bulgaria, which is currently ruled by GERB, a center-right party led by Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard of Communist Bulgaria’s longest-serving dictator, Todor Zhivkov, recently made headlines for another reason: its objections to North Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, citing unresolved historical issues. Similar to the earlier spat between North Macedonia and Greece, this conundrum is fueled, on both sides, by nationalistic sentiments. Many analysts have noted that Bulgaria’s objection is nothing more than a populist attempt to deflect attention away from the ongoing anti-corruption protests which began in July 2020. Similarly, the ongoing modernization and expansion of Bulgaria’s military forces can easily be seen as yet another turn to populism and an attempt by the government to distract protesters, thus deflecting attention away from its abysmal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. With over 8,000 deaths and 200,000 infections in a country of slightly less than 7 million, the Bulgarian government has failed to keep the virus under control. Additionally, amongst the populace, conspiracy theories are widespread, and anti-Western vaccine sentiment is high, fueled primarily by Russian propaganda efforts.
Despite being a member of NATO, Bulgaria’s military strength has greatly weakened in the last couple of decades. While never a relatively large military force, Bulgaria was an active member of the Warsaw Pact and was well equipped by the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, however, much of Bulgaria’s equipment either fell into disrepair or was smuggled out and sold on the black market. However, the country still possesses a large indigenous defense industry and was ranked as a medium-sized small arms exporter according to the Small Arms Survey.
Bulgaria lies at the heart of the Balkans and has an extensive coast on the Black Sea, which has long been strategically important, especially regarding Russian containment. Despite the recent decision to modernize the Bulgarian armed forces, and the need to increase forces in the region, due to an emboldened Russia, Bulgaria is unlikely to reach the 2% of GDP, under NATO requirements anytime soon. Given the COVID-19 recession, it seems unwise for the Bulgarian government to be spending millions on fixing outdated Soviet tanks and purchasing new armored vehicles, especially during a time of questioning traditional military technology. The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has shown that with the rise of modern technologies, such as bait drones and loitering munitions, old technologies have become more vulnerable. Although tanks, due to their versatility and heavy firepower, still hold an important place in any modern army, they are slowly becoming behind the times, especially in unconventional conflicts and with the democratization and development of the precision strike complex.
In a time of economic and security turmoil, vast spending on modernizing antiquated equipment is neither effective nor efficient. Upgrading Bulgaria’s current T-72 Tanks will cost almost €2 million per unit, and each new armored vehicle will cost €250,000. While the refitting of a certain number of tanks, and the purchase of armored personnel carriers would be beneficial to the armed forces, and the purchase of American F-16s is a step in the right direction, Bulgaria currently doesn’t produce or purchase UAVs, despite having the funding, capacity, ability and licensing necessary. With its strategic location, the Bulgarian armed forces, and its allies, would benefit greatly from Bulgaria pursuing its own fleet of drones, or even its own indigenous drone industry.
Rumors have surfaced that Bulgaria is in talks to buy six Bayraktar TB2 UAVs from Turkey, which would make it the first European nation to own TB2 drones. Having seen action in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Syria, the TB2 can reach an altitude of 24,000 feet, has a range of up to 150 kilometers, and can carry payloads of up to 120 pounds. Bulgaria’s plans to acquire Turkish UAVs might still be in their early stages, but any purchase of TB2 drones by the Bulgarian forces would be a mistake. Not only have some of Bulgaria’s main allies, including the United States and Germany, imposed export restrictions on UAV components to Turkey due to its internationally criticized military operations abroad, but also Turkey’s major development and questionable use of drones have further strained its relationship with NATO. If Bulgaria is to move forward with purchasing UAVS, either unarmed for surveillance and intelligence or armed, its closest allies, especially the United States, can offer better options than Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2. This will ensure greater interoperability, cooperation, and efficiency, while also minimizing the likelihood of any friction between Bulgaria and its allies.
As Bulgaria is currently a potential weak link in the Western-allied defense chain and security system, instead of planning to build submarines, and since, despite the pandemic, the Bulgarian Chief of Defence plans to go forward with the modernization of its armed forces, Bulgaria should work with its allies in NATO and beyond, to procure reconnaissance drones, while leveraging its current industrial capacity to begin its own UAV production facilities. Avoiding cheap and unreliable UAVs, for example from China and Turkey, Bulgaria should work with the United States, Germany, and its other closest allies to expand its capability into the sphere of uninhabited aerial vehicles, as some of its neighbors have already done. Bulgaria could then use these to monitor both its maritime and land borders, and assist in collective security efforts, and humanitarian efforts, in the Balkans.