Back to Cold War: US, Bulgaria Launch Air Patrols in the Black Sea
Andrei AKULOV | 30.08.2016 | FEATURED STORY

Back to Cold War: US, Bulgaria Launch Air Patrols in the Black Sea

US fighter planes will conduct patrols with the Bulgarian air force in September.

The mission will begin on September 9 and last until September 16. US Air Force officials said the F-15Cs would operate out of Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Bulgaria to fly alongside Bulgarian MiG 29s.

It was a controversial decision for Bulgaria. General Rumen Radev, the Air Force commander, resigned in protest against the Defence Ministry’s plans to have foreign aircraft share in air policing missions.

At the recent summit in Warsaw NATO approved further efforts to strengthen the Alliance’s might, including a tailored presence in the south-east, based on a multinational brigade in Romania and steps to improve cyber-defence, civil preparedness and the ability to defend against ballistic missile attacks.

NATO has three members with Black Sea ports in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as two more aspiring members in Ukraine and Georgia.

Sofia has an important role to play in NATO’s plans to bolster its military presence in the region. Novo Selo, a US military base in Bulgaria, is expected to host more American and NATO troops in the coming year as the United States seeks to increase military cooperation with its Bulgarian partners. The first of three six-month rotations of about 150 Marines, part of the Black Sea Rotational Force, is due at Novo Selo in September. Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division are set to arrive this fall for a 90-day rotation with plans to train with the Bulgarians. The 2006 defense cooperation agreement gave the US access to and shared-use of the three Bulgarian military bases, two years after Bulgaria joined NATO. The agreement marked the first time foreign forces were authorized to use Bulgarian military facilities. A similar agreement was signed a year earlier between the US and Romania. Under the agreement, the US can deploy up to 2,500 troops at Novo Selo; the base can hold as many as 5,000 during joint-nation exercises with NATO allies. The facility’s construction is mostly finished; the plans are on the way to upgrade the training ranges this year and in 2017. There are also plans to add a helicopter landing zone and an air operations building. The base is expected to host US heavy tanks. A NATO maintenance support area is to be built in Sliven or Plovdiv.

In July Bulgaria hosted «Thracian Star 2016» NATO multinational air exercise with the California Air National Guard taking part.

No matter the NATO Warsaw summit failed to come up with a coherent plan to bolster presence and intensify activities in the Black Sea, the issue remains on the agenda. NATO’s summit communiqué and a post-summit statement by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicated that the Alliance’s next meeting of defense ministers will reconsider Romania’s initiative to establish a framework for joint naval exercises by riparian and non-riparian NATO allies in the Black Sea. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has announced that Romania will persist with this initiative. The project of flotilla would suit Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations to join the Alliance by offering them a new space for a cooperation within NATO framework, while echoing Washington’s «leading from behind» approach. It is therefore no surprise that both Kiev and Tbilisi have already demonstrated a certain appetite for such an initiative.

Turkey’s participation is more than key to the success of this naval task group because of the legal constraints imposed by the Montreux Convention (1936) to cross the Straits and access the Black Sea basin. So far, Turkey was reluctant to accept NATO in its collective capacity to be present in the area. Instead, Turkey allowed warships of individual NATO member countries (including the United States) to enter the Black Sea, more or less regularly, for port calls and joint exercises with riparian navies. At the same time, Ankara blocked NATO’s proposals to allow Operation Active Endeavor (2001-2016), an Allied naval operation, to be extended from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Ankara saw this operation as a collective one. The Montreux Convention has been complied with until now. In August 2008, Turkey cited the document to justify its decision to block the passage of an unarmed US transport and hospital ship en route to Georgia. But the Convention does not encompass the activities of air forces and land based weapons systems.

With the idea of «NATO Black Sea fleet» hanging in the air, permanent air presence of the alliance is taking shape. Bulgaria is to host US F-15Es – the aircraft designed to hit high-value targets. During the war in Iraq F-15Es attacked various heavily defended targets throughout Iraq. The planes were used for the missions with the objective of killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. US destroyers and cruisers with long range strike capable ships visit the Black Sea from time to time, it provides NATO with long range first strike capability. In mid-May 2016 a ballistic missile defense system known as Aegis Ashore – the land-based version of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense onboard the United States Navy’s four forward-deployed Aegis ballistic missile defense vessels – was operationally certified. Located near Caracal in south central Romania, Aegis Ashore is part of the second phase of the so-called «European Phased Adaptive Approach» (EPAA) to an overall NATO missile defense architecture. The ground and naval versions of the system use the very same launcher-Mk-41 – capable of firing long range precision guided Tomahawk missiles against land assets. An idea is floated to reflag some NATO naval assets under the three Black Sea members’ flags to boost permanent naval capabilities in the theater.

Somehow, this fact has gone largely unnoticed by media.

The news comes at the time NATO has increased its existing air-policing efforts in the Baltic countries.

The alliance is undertaking a military buildup that aims to surround Russia, converting the Baltic and the Black seas into «NATO lakes».

The deployment of US aircraft in the region is a very worrisome move. The patrolling mission greatly increases the risk of an accident – a spark that may light a big fire. The refusal of Bulgaria to join the surface ships flotilla to avoid worsening relations with Russia does not mean much now. The newly announced decision of the Bulgarian government is evidently a hostile action to make the country a target in case hostilities ensue. Those who take part in the mission should remember that Russian S-400 cutting edge long range systems are stationed in Crimea.

Russian aircraft deployed in the Northern Caucasus and Rostov Region are capable of controlling the whole territory of the Black Sea.

The decision by Bulgaria and the US shows there is a clear intention to broach the issue of turning the Black Sea into a «NATO lake» permanently patrolled by a naval task flotilla with air cover at the upcoming ministerial meeting of the alliance in October. NATO is definitely shifting to a Cold War-era security framework.

For the US, the Black Sea is a far away region where it has no interest except to move its military assets closer to the Russian shore. It’s different for Bulgaria as 80 percent of Bulgarian exports and imports transit the Black Sea and tourism contributes heavily to the country’s economy, increased maritime militarization could have a widespread negative economic impact in case of accidents or clashes. It would be expedient for the Bulgarian government to take into consideration the opinion of its Bulgarian people – Bulgarians favor good relations with Russia. According to the polls, 54% of the interviewees say their attitude towards Russia is positive and 7% claim that they support Russia more today than before Crimea joined the Russian Federation.

«I do not need a war in the Black Sea», Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said this June ruling out the country’s participation in a permanent NATO naval force in the Black Sea. A bit more than two months later he took a decision to greatly increase the risk of a military conflict. The implications will be grave, but there is still time to turn the tide, for instance to make the announced September operation a one-time mission or just cancel it. And there is still time to assess all the pros and cons of the idea to bolster the alliance’s military presence in the region till the NATO ministerial meeting takes a provocative decision fraught with implications that clearly run contrary to Bulgaria’s interests.

Tags: NATO  Black Sea  Bulgaria