Fifteen years since becoming a member of the organization, Bulgaria has proven itself a willing NATO Ally, with Bulgarian troops operating with U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Republic of Bulgaria and the United States have cultivated a relationship that is a paradigm of the close ties we enjoy with our NATO Allies. As early as 1993, Bulgaria established a State Partnership Program (SPP) with the Tennessee National Guard, becoming one of the first former eastern-bloc countries to join the program.
The Bulgarian military has also demonstrated a commitment to coalition operations in Libya, Kosovo, and Bosnia. In Libya, for instance, Bulgaria deployed one of its few frigates to Operation Unified Protector in an exceptional display of dedication and resolve. To date, 21,000 Bulgarian troops have participated in a wide variety of NATO missions.
Bulgaria understands its critical role in NATO and has been willing to share the burden the United States has long carried. The 2006 U.S.-Bulgaria Defense Cooperation Agreement was pivotal to this effort, which allowed the U.S. military to use four Bulgarian military bases. Bulgaria hosts, staffs, and funds a NATO Force Integration Unit, which facilitates the rapid deployment of Allied forces to the eastern region of the Alliance, supports collective defense planning, and assists in coordinating training exercises. Most recently, Bulgaria proactively announced its intent to increase defense spending from its current 1.56 percent to 2 percent of its GDP by 2024.
Military modernization is a priority for Bulgaria--it is projected to spend approximately $2.44 billion on acquisition of new aircraft, two navy frigates, and 150 armored vehicles. Bulgaria made history when it approved the procurement of eight F-16s in 2019. Assessing that it was time to replace its aging and less capable fleet of MiG-29 and Su-25 fighter aircraft, this was the largest purchase in nearly three decades for Bulgaria. This historic purchase for the European nation will allow Bulgaria to possess greater combat effectiveness and interoperability with U.S. forces and NATO Allies. It also demonstrates Bulgaria’s commitment to divest from legacy Russian equipment.
Over the last 25 years, the United States has provided more than $340 million in security assistance to Bulgaria to increase military professionalization, cyber security, divestiture of Russian legacy equipment, maritime domain awareness (MDA), and NATO interoperability. Bulgaria has concentrated on purchasing interoperable defense systems and building long-term capabilities, as exemplified by its acquisition of F-16s. Since FY 2018 alone, the Department provided over $100 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to support electronic signals intelligence, Black Sea maritime domain awareness activities, cyber defense training, divestiture of Russian equipment, and procurement of F-16s. Additionally, the Department provided $1.7 million to fund for Bulgaria’s participation in the renowned in International Military Education and Training (IMET) program; and this spring, 11 Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers from the Bulgarian Air Force, Navy, and Land Forces graduated from U.S. military educational institutions.
Together, the United States and Bulgaria work to improve the security environment in Eastern Europe. In 2018, there were 194 engagements between the Bulgarian military and the U.S. military, and more than 1,500 Bulgarian troops have participated in 19 U.S.-sponsored exercises. These engagements have had a large transformational effect on the Bulgarian military, helped make them a more capable Ally, and increased regional defense cooperation.
The United States will continue to prioritize investments with Bulgaria that build NATO interoperability and focus on Bulgaria’s declared NATO Capability Targets. We are fortunate to have dependable Allies in the region that help share the United States’ burden in NATO, and recognize Bulgaria for being an upstanding member of NATO for the last 15 years.
About the Author: Shawn Hikosaka serves in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.