Slow renewal of the Bulgarian Navy's mine countermeasures vessels (2015 – 2020)

The renewal of the Naval Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria (FNRB or Voennomorski sili na Republika Bǎlgariya) is the result of several strategic documents with coherent objectives. The mine warfare capabilities of the Bulgarian fleet would, at best, only benefit from modernization through the acquisition of second-hand vessels. The renewal would take place during the 2020s.

The Republic of Bulgaria joined the Atlantic Alliance on March 29, 2004 and adapted to it the same year by the PLAN for the constitution and organizational modernization of the armed forces the completion of which was planned for 2015. Plan updated in 2008. Symmetrically, Bulgarian military expenditure in relation to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell from 2,86% (2000) to 1,41% (2010). On October 28, 2010, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted The White Paper on Defense and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria whose objectives were to be achieved in 2014. The ambitions of this white paper were reflected in two documents updating it:

  • Vision: Bulgaria in NATO and European Defense 2020, timely endorsed by the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria as a prelude to the Newport NATO Summit (4 – 5 September 2014) in Wales. Military spending reached 1,5% in 2015 and was expected to increase by 0,1% per year until reaching 2% in 2020, the objective defined at the same summit for all allies.
  • Program for the development of Defense capabilities of the Bulgarian forces 2020, approved by the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria on September 30, 2015, adopted by the Bulgarian National Assembly on December 1, 2015, included the Plan for the Development of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria 2020 in paragraph 9.2.
Fregate Verni 2009 Defense Analysis | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | Bulgaria
Three frigates out of four of the Wielingen class, i.e. the wandelaar (1978 - 2004), Wielingen (1978 – 2009) and Westdiep (1978 – 2007) were sold to Bulgaria where they were renamed, respectively, Drazky (2004) Varnished (2007) et Gordi (2009)

The Bulgarian military budget stood at approximately 887,23 million euros in 2018 (or 1,6% of GDP) and 979,22 million euros in 2019. The white paper reorganized the Naval Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria between 2010 and 2014 in order to simplify and centralize command structures and provided for the modernization of existing buildings. The “vision” adopted at the prelude to the NATO summit (2014) aimed to modernize the three frigates acquired from Belgium (Wielingen class (or E-71 type) and the creation of a database center for the mine warfare in order to be able to exchange with the allies. Plan for the development of the armed forces of the Republic of Bulgaria 2020 complements these objectives by aiming to improve naval mine warfare capabilities through the acquisition of new “minelayers”.

The Bulgarian fleet is divided between two naval stations – Varna, in the north, and Atiya, in the south – organically attached to the command of the naval base supervising them both. Naval mine countermeasures capabilities contribute to ensuring the safety of navigation in the Bulgarian maritime space in peacetime and being able to carry out these missions in wartime, autonomously or in cooperation with NATO allies. NATO and the European Union. Naval mine countermeasures assets are distributed as follows:

  • The 3rd Mine Countermeasures Division (Varna) is made up of seven buildings. The newest is the minehunter Tsibar (2004) acquired from the Marine Component (Belgium) where it served under the name of Toile de Jouy (1989 – 2004). There are also coastal minesweepers iskar, Dobrotich, Lieutenant-captain E. Kirill Minkov, Balik, Lieutenant Captain Evtati Vinarov et Captain 1st rank Dimitar Paskalev from Soviet project 12592 (Malakhit-2 in NATO code) which were admitted to active service between 1984 and 1991.
  • The 6th mine countermeasures division (Atiya) has seven vessels, three minesweepers Briz (1981) Shkval (1983) Priboĭ (1983) of the Soviet project 1265E (Yakhont in NATO code) and the coastal minesweepers of the Soviet project 1258, the 65 et 66 entered service in 1976 and the Soviet project 1258E, as well as the 67 et 68 admitted to active service in 1976 and 2009. Project 1258 and 1258E units are deemed to have been decommissioned.
Minesweeper Priboi 1983 Defense Analysis | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | Bulgaria
The minesweeper Priboĭ (1983) belongs to the Soviet project 1265E (Yakhont in NATO code) with the Briz (1981) et Shkval (1983). They are equipped with acoustic and magnetic dredges in order to detonate naval mines in their path.

The Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria approved on November 6 a purchase of two more minehunters of the Tripatite type – the same as the minehunter Tsibar (2004) – from the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the sum of 1,99 million euros. The Bulgarian National Assembly has yet to approve this acquisition.

40 minehunters of the tripartite program were built, of which 10 remain in service in France and six in the Belgian Marine Component and 6 others in the Koninklijke Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy). If the Bulgarian navy considers acquiring second-hand mine hunters from this program, it may be interested in the 2 vessels recently decommissioned in France and the 2 others decommissioned in the Netherlands, the last two being the subject of an acquisition procedure.

However, the mine countermeasures ships have an average age of 32,9 years – not taking into account the ships of the Soviet projects 1258/1258E – and the most recent unit is 28 years old. The purchase of two additional tripartite mine hunters will therefore not rejuvenate the Bulgarian mine warfare component but will, at least, allow it to be modernized thanks to the modern equipment on board these units.

The naval prospects of the Bulgarian navy do not appear likely to improve before the next decade, despite the renewed political-strategic interest in naval capabilities in Bulgaria, Romania, and more generally in the Black Sea, due to the Russian takeover in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The major acquisition program in 2019 of eight F-16V Block 70 Viper for the benefit of the army of air for the sum of 1452,04 million euros requires delaying the construction of two offshore patrol vessels (429,71 million euros). As for the project aimed at acquiring two corvettes (400 million euros), they seem to be postponed until next year, at best, because the Bulgarian military budget (around 950 million euros including a share reserved for the purchase of equipment up to 15 to 20%) cannot carry out several major operations simultaneously. From this perspective, the purchase of mine warfare vessels on the second-hand market seems to be the best hypothesis for maintaining operational capabilities before the launch of a new program in the mid-2020s.

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