In September 2020, at the height of mass protests in the country against President Alexander Lukashenko, the first Su-25 fighter jet for the Bulgarian Air Force to be modernized at the 558th aircraft repair plant in Baranavichy in southwestern Belarus was completed. As a result of European sanctions against Belarus, it was expected that this would be the only Su-25 fighter jet that Bulgaria would receive from Belarus.
Bulgarian media reported that their country’s air force will receive in February the last two of the eight Su-25s that were upgraded in Baranovichy. In addition, Bulgaria intends to modernize six more Su-25 aircraft at the 558th aircraft plant.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev banned the execution of a $1.2 billion contract to purchase eight F-16 Block 70/72, allegedly because of vague service guarantees in the contract. Decisionmakers in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia realized that paying $157 million for each of the eight fourth-generation aircraft was not worth it if other NATO member states were receiving the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet for almost half the price. The U.S. even sold new F-16 fighter jets to non-NATO member Taiwan for only $121 million per unit. At such exorbitant prices, it is clear that the Bulgarian Air Force’s Su-25 attack aircraft will have to serve many more years.
As early as November 2018, the Bulgarian government approved funding for the modernization of eight Su-25’s for $43 million, but the 558th aircraft factory in Baranovichy was unable to start repairs for Bulgaria’s Su-25 fleet for a long time due to older EU sanctions imposed against Belarus. Nevertheless, Belarus conducted major repairs on Soviet-made Bulgarian fighter jets. In order to circumvent sanctions banning EU members from trading military equipment with Belarus, the Bulgarian parliament amended national laws.
On August 28, 2019, the 558th Baranovichy Aircraft Repair Plant received the first Su-25 from Bulgaria (flown by the Belarusian Ilyushin Il-76 airlifter aircraft), and in 2019, all airframe, engine, and aeronautical work was performed quickly and efficiently. Three refurbished jets returned to Bulgaria’s Bezmer Air Base in October and three more in December 2020. The cost of repairing Bulgaria’s entire Su-25 fleet will amount to €73.6 million, which is several times cheaper than buying one brand new U.S.-made F-16 fighter jet.
In addition, the funds spent give an impressive result.
Admiral Emil Eftimov, Chief of Staff of the Bulgarian Armed Forces, and Major General Dimitar Petrov, Commander of the Air Force, personally got acquainted with the possibilities of the modernized Su-25 at Bezmer Air Base in late 2020 and were satisfied. The Belarusian company completely upgraded the Su-25 navigation system (GLONASS and GPS satellite navigation have been introduced), expanded the use of missile weapons, increased accuracy against ground targets, increased the range of missiles, and the new communication system allows data exchange with land and naval forces.
Fluxing resources increased flight by about 800 hours and by about 500 hours for RJ-95Sh turbojets. The upgraded Su-25 has significantly increased its combat capabilities and efficiency in solving tasks as planned. It is no coincidence that Colonel Milen Dimitrov, Commander of Bezmer Air Base, said during the briefing: “After the repair, the Su-25 became a completely different, new and modern aircraft.”
For his part, Admiral Eftimov, noted that the update was “a clear example of a consensus among the country’s political and military leadership on where to invest, proof of necessity, future investment and results.”
Bulgaria’s offensive aircraft modernization contractor was not chosen at random - Belarus’s 558th aircraft repair plant is widely known for its quality of service, surpassing the services of Georgian and Ukrainian equivalents. For obvious reasons, Russian defense plants were not included in the list of potential contractors due to it being the main target of NATO, with Belarus only have a secondary status for Alliance’s concerns.
Despite Belarus claiming it is always fulfilling its obligations to international law correctly, European Union foreign ministers have agreed to impose sanctions on companies that are “financing the Lukashenko regime.” The restrictions also affected Belarusian defense companies: MZKT (wheelbase for heavy weapons systems), the 140th repair plant (tank repair), the electromechanical plant Agat (development of automated control systems), Beltechexport (sale of military equipment abroad). The country’s largest companies are state-owned, and therefor sanctions on all “packages” are directed against Belarus as a hybrid weapon on the battlefield, but as Bulgaria has shown, circumventing sanctions to avoid paying exorbitant American prices is possible.