Bulgaria’s small air defense force has been scrambled numerous times in the last two months to meet a growing number of surveillance flights being launched by Russia over the Black Sea following developments in Ukraine, according to minister of defense Angel Naidenov. Although none of the flights violated Bulgarian airspace, they approached and flew along the coast and were operating without flight plans, in turn requiring investigation. Between March 1 and 26 Russian aircraft approached Bulgaria on nine occasions: among the types to be intercepted was the Ilyushin Il-20M, a signals intelligence version of the Il-18 airliner. In recent years Bulgarian aircraft have scrambled only two or three times annually.
Such intense operations are placing a considerable strain on Bulgaria’s small interceptor force, which relies on the aging Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters of the 3rd Air Base at Graf Ignatievo, near Plovdiv. Although Bulgaria is a NATO member, the small fleet still depends on Russia for spares and support. Sofia would like to change that by buying a new fighter force that is not beholden to Russian support, according to foreign minister Kristian Vigenin, but Bulgaria has critical defense budget issues that have prevented any acquisition in the past. While NATO’s suspension of cooperation with Russia does not affect Bulgaria’s bilateral support agreement with Russia, the current situation is likely to accelerate the fighter acquisition process.
For the time being, despite calls by some to bolster the U.S. presence in Bulgaria and despite suggestions that Russia could be mounting such flights to exhaust Bulgarian capacity, Vigenin said that Bulgaria can handle the situation without deployment of any more forces to its territory. Meanwhile, NATO and RAF E-3 Awacs aircraft have been flying missions in Romanian airspace to monitor military air traffic in the Black Sea region.
Both Romania and Turkey have also regularly launched fighters in response to Russian sorties over the Black Sea, and Bulgaria’s president, Rosen Plevneliev, has called for closer coordination of air policing among the three NATO members.
Since 2010 Bulgaria has had an agreement with Romania covering air defense, and has recently signed a similar agreement with Greece. Under these arrangements Romanian or Greek aircraft can be summoned in the case of an airspace violation.