Economic, International Obligations Drive Bulgarian Defense

September 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Minister Bliznakov examines newly upgraded anti-aircraft defense equipment for Bulgaria. The former Warsaw Pact nation is modernizing its military to provide new capabilities for its new roles.
Modernization comes amid increasing security operations.

The Republic of Bulgaria is facing a challenge familiar to many former Warsaw Pact NATO members as it strives to build a modern interoperable force under domestic fiscal constraints. But not all new Central and Eastern European NATO members are active in overseas security deployments both for NATO and for other coalition operations. Bulgaria is facing short-term as well as long-term challenges as it rigs for interoperability concurrent with a transition to a professional military.

When it became a NATO member, Bulgaria had a substantial amount of equipment dating to old Soviet bloc procurements. In many cases, both interoperability and capability were lacking. But the new NATO member already had been planning to modernize its military with an eye toward alliance interoperability (SIGNAL Magazine, April 1999, and October 1999).

Bulgaria is not simply replacing old weapon systems or modernizing others, but it also is acquiring new defense capabilities that are necessary for national needs and collective security needs,” emphasizes Vesselin Vitanov Bliznakov, Bulgaria’s minister of defense.

Minister Bliznakov did not travel a conventional course to becoming his nation’s minister of defense. His is a medical background, as he graduated from Sofia’s Institute of Higher Education in Medicine before beginning his military education. After receiving a doctor of medicine scientific degree, he specialized in radiation protection, serving as the chief of the Radiation Protection Department in Bulgaria’s National Center for Radiobiology and ultimately becoming chairman of the Bulgarian Nuclear Society. He was elected to Bulgaria’s parliament in 2001, where among several positions he served as a member of the Permanent Foreign Policy, Defense and Security Committee. He became defense minister one year ago.

His experience with scientific matters and international concerns comes into play when dealing with building a modern high-technology military for Bulgaria that helps it meet its foreign obligations without busting the nation’s budget. Bulgaria’s defense budget represents 2.44 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. In a SIGNAL interview, the minister noted that this budget is defined by the financial situation of the country and by the stage of reforms and modernization of its armed forces.

“To conduct a successful modernization of armed forces, it clearly is necessary to define operational capabilities, to make realistic analysis of possibilities to acquire them and to have financial resources,” Minister Bliznakov allows. “It is important for the confidence of a society that defense spending is used rationally for state security, and it is a precondition for achieving economic prosperity.”

Bulgaria conducts what Minister Bliznakov describes as “an active and constructive policy directed toward generating more security and stability nationally and within NATO’s framework.” The minister points out that from the very beginning of its NATO membership, Bulgaria has contributed to the alliance decision-making process as well as to policy implementation.

NATO’s new emphasis on security requires the alliance to acquire and develop some new capabilities so that it can adequately carry out its full spectrum of missions, he continues. Bulgaria is focusing on providing some of those through its force modernization. In this vein, it already has begun the process of acquiring strategic air- and sealift capabilities.

The minister relates that during the past several years, Bulgarian armed forces participated actively in operations abroad and gained precious combat experience. The country continues to participate in NATO operations, fulfilling its obligations in Afghanistan and Kosovo and its training mission in Iraq.

Each of those peace support operations is a challenge, he says, and at the same time each demonstrates responsibility in front of Bulgaria’s allies, partners and the world community. “It is a great honor for us that we perform in a professional way during those missions,” he adds.

Last month Bulgaria took over the command of the largest infrastructure in AfghanistanKabul International Airport. Bulgaria’s forces will oversee its operation through the rest of this year. Calling it a great recognition and a big challenge for Bulgaria’s armed forces, the minister observes, “The operation in Afghanistan is of extreme importance for NATO as a military alliance, which spreads its political responsibilities and military engagements to guarantee global security.”

But Bulgaria’s membership in NATO has not forced it to turn its back on neighbors that are former Warsaw Pact allies. Minister Bliznakov emphasizes that his country tries to develop its relations with Russia and Ukraine in the context of their NATO partnership, and it continues efforts to improve its relations with Black Sea and Caucasus region countries and former Soviet republics.

With Bulgaria casting its lot with NATO and the alliance’s approach to security, the ongoing transformation process within the alliance is the main priority also for Bulgaria. The minister states that two important elements of this transformation are the modernization and the professionalization of Bulgaria’s armed forces.

Not only has aging equipment impelled modernization, Bulgaria’s new role in international security also has changed the country’s force requirements. Many of the operational requirements that drove weapon system designs have themselves become obsolete during the equipment’s life cycle. This is due as much to the former Warsaw Pact nation’s joining NATO and becoming active in the alliance’s security efforts as it is to the new challenges that have emerged with the war on terrorism. “Dynamic changes in the security environment and appearance of new threats, as well as the rapid development of science and technology in the past few years, have resulted in the shortening of this cycle of those systems,” he observes.

With both influences weighing heavily on the country’s planning, Bulgaria is choosing its modernization efforts carefully. The minister offers that Bulgaria is ahead of schedule in its long-term plans to modernize its military forces over the next 25 years. The government has established a plan for the next nine years—through 2015—that establishes priorities and funding for phased modernization and replacement.

A top priority is to replace main platforms across the services. The army, navy and air force all must be equipped with new craft. The air force needs a new multipurpose fighter as well as new transport aircraft. The navy will be building new corvettes, and it also is looking at purchasing other types of ships secondhand. The army requires new transport vehicles. And, Bulgaria will be buying new helicopters as well as modernizing its Mil-17s and Mil-24s. The replacement of armored equipment, small and artillery weapons, land-based air defense systems and other equipment is planned to start after the 2010-2012 time frame.

Minister Bliznakov (r) listens as Gen. Kuncho Kurtev, deputy commander of the land force of the Bulgarian army (l), and a Bulgarian officer discuss issues at Novo Selo, where a joint U.S.-Bulgarian training base is being established.
But these new platforms will not work well without modern information technologies, so Bulgaria has placed a top priority on modernizing its command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems along with its air and sea surveillance. This effort encompasses both strategic and operational levels, Minister Bliznakov points out.

“The main priority of modernization of our armed forces, especially for units that will participate in allied force operations, is [to implement] C4I systems providing information superiority and operational interoperability with the systems of our allies,” he declares.

The country already has two key C4I projects underway. One is the EKRAN costal surveillance and navigation control system designed to help Bulgaria secure its sea border. The second project covers development of information and communication systems. To help achieve these goals, Bulgaria has made the development of information and communication technologies a state priority.

The minister notes that these wide-ranging projects are highly complex, particularly in that their main requirement is to integrate newly delivered systems and software products into a working system. He relates that when these efforts are achieved, Bulgaria will have accomplished 24 of its declared NATO force goals.

Incorporating new technologies, however complex and modern, is not enough to ensure modernization. One point the minister emphasizes is that the approach to planning also must be changed—from planning that focuses on the development of forces to capabilities-based planning.

“To create mobile armed forces with high combat capabilities and a new model of command and control, it is necessary to deploy new technologies allowing military operations to be planned and directed in a more effective and efficient way,” he observes.

The other transformation element, the change to a professional military, has been underway for several years. But it faces looming deadlines. The country has until the end of this year to achieve full professionalization in the navy and the air force. The Army must be fully professional by 2008. Bulgaria is taking a supply-side approach to recruiting talented people for its forces.

Adding people with high-technology knowledge and skills to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces contributes significantly to forces’ increased efficiency and raises their social status and confidence, the minister points out. “Our current task is to make the job of professional soldier a modern, respected profession that is attractive for young and gifted Bulgarians,” he declares.

Minister Bliznakov notes that his country participates in the formulation of NATO common policy, in decision making and in the implementation process. Bulgaria follows the principle of consensus, but at the same time, it looks for cross points with its own national interests.

Bulgaria has proved itself as a stable and respected NATO member,” the minister states. “We have the firm intention of continuing to be a guarantor of security.”

The country is participating in NATO’s transformation process. Together with its own transformation and the changes underway in its national defense system, Bulgaria is more involved in increasing its NATO responsibilities in its region, the minister observes. This in turn directly increases Bulgarian security.

This contribution to regional stability in Southeast Europe is as important to Bulgaria as the republic’s participation in missions abroad. The country’s forthcoming accession to the European Union (EU) mandates a contribution to European security. Bulgaria is participating with Romania, Cyprus and Greece in the formation of the Tactical Combat Group, which will be created by the end of the year. The implementation of this group represents an initiative that reflects the EU common defense and security policy, the minister notes.

Bulgaria is striving to permanently increase the interoperability of its armed forces with those of other NATO member states, but some work remains to be done. Minister Bliznakov offers that good communication and coordination with its NATO allies, exchanges of know-how, the introduction of leading-edge technologies into the armed forces and teamwork all are important factors in achieving NATO interoperability.

Bulgaria received what the minister describes as “decisive” support from the United States in its preparation for NATO membership. During Bulgaria’s strategic defense review, U.S. experts actively contributed concrete expert assistance. In terms of bilateral military political cooperation, one important step was an agreement between the two countries for common use of joint training facilities on Bulgarian territory by their troops.

But it is in the field of military technical cooperation that Bulgaria’s relations with the United States are of primary importance, the minister notes. Bulgaria needs to upgrade its technological capabilities to achieve operational interoperability within NATO and to participate in missions abroad in coalition agreements.

The United States has provided Bulgaria with military technical assistance through its Foreign Military Financing. Calling this activity very important, Minister Bliznakov relates that Bulgaria has received $81.3 million of military equipment since its inclusion in the program in 1995. It expects to receive another $100 million worth of equipment through the year 2010.

Among the projects this program is supporting are Bulgaria’s Air Sovereignty Operation Center, its National Military Command Center, navigation equipment modernization at Bezmer Air Base, the simulation center and computer-assisted exercises system in the Tcharalitza Operational Training Center, and a field communication and information system for Bulgaria’s special operations center, as well as several others.

Cooperation with the United States in military education takes place mainly in the framework of the U.S. International Military Education and Training, or IMET, program. Bulgaria joined this program in 1992, and so far more than 400 Bulgarian military and civilian personnel have been trained at a total cost of $13.9 million. For 2005 alone this cost was $1.5 million.

“Relations between Bulgaria and the United States in the military sphere will continue to develop and deepen,” Minister Bliznakov declares. “They are based on sharing the same democratic values and are open and transparent.”

The minister notes that Bulgaria’s experience in armed forces modernization—particularly with modern standards and changes in the security environment—is not very broad. Despite this, his nation can offer some methodological and practical assistance to countries that have declared their desire and readiness to join the Euro-Atlantic community.

“The guiding principle is that quality is more important than quantity,” Minister Bliznakov emphasizes. “And it is also important if you have declared something, to keep your promise. I believe that we will be able to do exactly this—to provide a good example to future [NATO] members for systematic and sustainable accomplishment of accepted obligations.”


Web Resources
Bulgarian Defense Ministry (English language):
U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency IMET:
European Defence Agency:


Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.