Analysis: This is why Bulgaria needs to introduce a new advanced trainer/light attack aircraft

Bulgaria new trainer jet M346
Leonardo M-346 advanced trainer/light attack aircraft.

After 15 years of reorganization, which at times has pushed the military into the background, Bulgaria is taking to heart the restoration of its defense capabilities and is committing substantial funds and political momentum to become a good international partner.

Despite the nation is still plagued by economic problems and national disaffection for the armed forces, Defense Minister Krasimir Karakatchanov has managed to garner good political support to strengthen the Bulgarian armed forces. According to NATO's annual report on member states' defense spending, Bulgaria is in 14th place thanks to the 1.43% of GDP investment in defense. Out of 28 allies, only 7 countries exceed the required minimum threshold of 2%. Basically, Bulgaria has emerged from the military quagmire in which it had sunk for decades and has reached the top half of the alliance in terms of strategic commitments.

This military momentum saw its peak with the acquisition of eight modern Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 fighters in 2019. Sofia has decided to favor the aircraft produced in the United States, with which it has a long partnership, to replace the old MiG-29 and Su-25 jets. This acquisition will lead Bulgaria to take a significant leap forward in air power. However, there still remains a flaw in the Bulgarian Air Force fleet which is represented by the obsolete L-39ZA trainer jet.

With the introduction of the modern F-16, the purchase of an advanced training aircraft becomes critical to enabling the Air Force to train modern fighter pilots. According to Lockheed Martin, "The F-16 Block 70 features technologies developed for the 5th Generation F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor fighters." It is clear that training now needs to be aligned with much higher parameters than in the past.

Bulgaria originally asked for 6 single-seat and 2 double-seat F-16s, but few have noticed that the official order includes 8 all single-seat Vipers so the Bulgarian Air Force will have no chance to train its pilots at home.

The option of sending student pilots to the US may be an alternative, but many countries are discarding it due to the high cost.

Furthermore, a modern jet trainer could bring additional benefits to Bulgaria. It can also be used for light attack missions when the capability of a frontline aircraft is not required. Bulgaria's prime minister Boyko Borissov said last September that the 8 new fighters are not enough. The introduction of additional F-16s would result in much higher acquisition and operating costs for the nation than a light attack aircraft.

Today the only Western light attack/jet trainer "ready for use" is the M-346FA (Fighter Attack). The other options on the market are currently more immature and would take many more years to join the Bulgarian Air Force fleet. The Boeing T-7A, for example, is still under development and even when it goes into production, the assembly line will be occupied for several years by the USAF fleet. Bulgaria also has already consolidated relations with Leonardo thanks to the previous purchase of the C-27J Spartan.

The M-346FA would ensure the Bulgarian Air Force to train its pilots at home, conduct low-cost reconnaissance/attack missions and allocate the remaining funds to replace old Soviet-era helicopters, as well as modernize ground forces.

Written by Matteo Sanzani
Photo Credit: Italian Air Force