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Politics, Finances Dominate Bulgaria's Military Reform

October 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The alliance hopeful strives to modernize its defenses on a limited budget while downsizing its armed forces.

The former Warsaw Pact nation of Bulgaria is battling fiscal restraints and holdover communists as it strives to achieve its primary defense goal  of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The country is wrestling with cultural changes in its transition to a Western-style democracy with civilian control of its defense establishment. Military leaders once trained to operate in possible Warsaw Pact actions against the West now see the nation’s civilian leadership providing full support to alliance operations against its former allies.

While the country is beginning to reap the rewards of a market-based economy, needed military modernization programs must compete for still-scarce government funding. Hoping to be invited to join the Atlantic alliance in its next round of enlargement, Bulgaria has embarked on an ambitious plan to bring its military forces and infrastructure up to alliance standards. It seeks to serve as a major alliance security asset in a region characterized by instability and unpredictability.

However, Bulgaria’s former ally, Russia, is less than enthused about the prospect of any more of its erstwhile partners being added to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stable. The broadening gulf between the one-time leader of the pact and its formerly close ally was emphasized during the Kosovo crisis when Bulgaria denied Russian forces overflight rights while opening its skies to NATO aircraft supporting the operation.

The southeastern European nation has established a new military strategy designed to meet the conditions necessary for NATO membership. The strategy places significant importance on command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems. This reflects a desire to interoperate fully with NATO forces across the entire range of alliance operations.

“Bulgaria could bring a lot to NATO,” says Georgi Ananiev, Bulgaria’s defense minister. In a SIGNAL interview, Ananiev cites the former Warsaw Pact stalwart’s new commitment to democracy and its strategic location between the troubled Balkan areas to the west and NATO members Turkey and Greece to the south. Bulgaria has excellent relations with all of its neighboring countries except Serbia, he stresses.

The United States has worked with Bulgaria to establish multinational peacekeeping forces in the region (SIGNAL, April 1999, page 49). This effort began less than two years ago, and by year’s end these forces will be operational. They will be headquartered in Bulgaria, even though it is a non-NATO nation.

If it achieves NATO membership, Bulgaria will not try to carve out a country-unique niche for itself, Ananiev warrants. When it is admitted to the alliance, Bulgaria’s role will be “that of a full member,” he emphasizes.

Bulgaria faces several challenges in its attempt to gain entry into NATO, the minister states. The former Warsaw Pact nation had to establish relationships with its new allies, the member nations of NATO. Partnership for Peace (PfP) exercises helped build confidence among participants, he notes.

The biggest challenge to bringing Bulgaria into NATO is the wide-ranging reform of the nation’s armed forces. At the heart of this effort is restructuring the country’s defense community to meet NATO standards. The difficulty, Ananiev notes, lies in the differences between the types of armed forces typical of NATO and the old Warsaw Pact.

The major part of these reforms must be completed in 2002, when NATO is expected to issue its next set of invitations to prospective member states. The complete set of reforms is slated to be finished by the end of 2004—an effort and time frame Ananiev describes as ambitious.

“We must work actively with NATO member countries, especially the United States, during the reform process and to ensure interoperability,” he states.

The most difficult aspect of this reform has been the necessary downsizing of Bulgaria’s military, Ananiev declares. This encompasses personnel reductions in the Ministry of Defense as well as the armed forces. “It is a question of the fate of people, but there is no other way to have a combat-ready and capable armed forces meeting NATO member country standards,” he emphasizes. This downsizing requires reducing a force of 98,000 people to a force of about 45,000 that is interoperable with NATO.

High on the list is equipment modernization. Much of Bulgaria’s Warsaw Pact gear, the last of which was obtained about 10 years ago, would be approaching obsolescence even by pact standards. To interoperate with NATO forces, Bulgaria faces the task of large-scale equipment replacement across the board, and this will require considerable funding. The nation also is modernizing its civilian infrastructure concurrent with a transition to a market-based economy. Even with a recent economic turnaround characterized by a reduced deficit, lower inflation and increased foreign investment, government money is tight across the board.

The minister admits that he was surprised by two developments that arose during the transition period after the collapse of communism. Internally, a large number of military officers expressed considerable reluctance to the establishment of civilian control over the military. This included many generals who found it difficult to accept a civilian minister of defense. Ananiev allows that some generals still cannot accept this control, but these opponents are quiet and do not operate in key positions. As a whole, general officers are learning to focus on purely military matters such as training and operations, while civilians deal with the organizational aspects of the defense infrastructure.

The resistance to this type of cultural change was reflected in the political arena as well. Ananiev relates that Bulgaria’s political parties originally were extremely reluctant to pursue NATO membership. This has changed radically over the last two years, although former communists remain opposed to NATO membership.

Externally, the minister was surprised that the young eastern Europe democracies did not receive “more serious support” from NATO member countries for their efforts to join the Atlantic alliance. The invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were extended for political reasons, he charges, and the NATO admission criteria should have been more equal. The remaining alliance hopefuls, including Bulgaria, are left to spend more money to qualify for membership.

Ananiev describes defense cooperation between Bulgaria and the United States as “very good,” especially at high levels. His country is receiving vital assistance in a number of fields, one of which is the training of Bulgaria’s officers’ corps in the international military education and training program in the United States. Other cooperative support focuses on realizing and implementing defense projects as well as conducting air defense and C4I studies.

A report by Maj. Gen. Henry A. Kievenaar, Jr., USA, outlines some of the priorities and recommends courses of action. Gen. Kievenaar, serving under the supreme allied commander Europe, worked with the Bulgarian ministry to establish an effective defense planning system as part of its reform efforts.

The Kievenaar report describes Bulgaria as “a potentially valuable member of the west European defense establishment” with a security strategy development constantly being shaped by persistent regional tensions. Its defense planning is based on integration into Western and trans-Atlantic defense organizations.

The country’s fiscal constraints, however, preclude even the most modest training, procurement and sustainment activities. Cost-cutting measures implemented by the Defense Ministry will provide only limited relief, and the military will suffer increased modernization problems after 2010. The report also warns that force structure plans appear to be overly ambitious.

Ananiev states that modernizing C4I systems is one of the highest priorities for Bulgaria to meet NATO standards. This is outlined in the new Bulgarian Military Doctrine, which is roughly equivalent to a national military strategy. This doctrine, which was approved by the national assembly in April, features 101 provisions outlining the country’s defense philosophy and plans.

One modernization priority is “control, command, surveillance, intelligence, communications, mutual identification, computerization, and navigation (including airspace systems, means and technologies) that would enable interoperability with the armed forces of NATO countries and take into account the country’s transformation to an information society.” The doctrine also calls for simulation and computer-assisted training for troops and headquarters personnel. Increased emphasis is to be placed on foreign language instruction up to NATO standards.

The country’s commitment to a NATO future is exemplified by its actions during the Kosovo operation, Ananiev points out. “During the Kosovo crisis, we acted like an ally,” he states. This included providing vital airspace access to NATO forces while denying the same access to other national forces such as Russia’s.

This represented a significant break with Bulgaria’s Warsaw Pact past. Ananiev states that the majority of Bulgarian citizens support these efforts, and he cites opinion poll ratings on the government’s performance that did not decrease following these actions. “To me, this is indicative of and demonstrates the attitude of the people toward this issue,” he declares. Predictably, the former communists who now make up the opposition attacked the government’s decisions. “But, in a democratic society, it is quite normal to have an opposition that criticizes,” the minister observes.

Similarly, external opposition to Bulgaria’s drive for NATO membership will not deter the nation. Russia, for example, is opposed to further NATO enlargement. However, Ananiev offers that Russia is not likely to ask Bulgaria its opinions on Russia’s foreign policy. “We have our own policy,” he explains, “we have declared this policy; we would like to become a NATO member. Russia has a policy of its own.

“In any case, Russia should not be isolated,” the minister warns. “The NATO member countries also understand that. It is important [to maintain] that Russia is a separate country with a separate special status of relations and contacts with NATO,” Ananiev declares.