The sights at Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Bulgaria are fascinating. A still typical Warsaw pact flight line filled with MiG-21s and MiG-29s, and even more Fulcrums are visible in the heat haze at the Eastern end of the airfield, ready to scramble with their live weapons for an air policing mission. But it is 2015, and these MiGs are guarding one of NATO’s Eastern frontiers.
Where? Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria
When? spring / summer 2015
And though Bulgaria already became a NATO member in 2004 and saw many reforms in the past 20 years, no new combat equipment was introduced within that time. But this is going to change in the near future.
Still operating original ‘adversary’ aircraft from a time when borders and the actual enemy were still clearly defined, Graf Ignatievo became a popular destination for Squadron exchanges with its Western Allies in recent years. The “3rd Fighter Air Base” is Bulgaria’s sole remaining fighter base and for some years already used to being the host for foreign jet Squadrons. This is not only due to favorable airspace conditions around the airfield to conduct their operations, but also due to the limits of their MiG-21 and MiG-29 aircraft. Compared to other countries such as Slovakia or Romania the Bulgarian fighters did not undergo an avionics modernization program, thus still lack NATO-wide standardized communication, navigation or IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) and therefore cannot deploy abroad.
The MiGs thus only operate locally, and three „Thracian“ exercises kept the Bulgarian Air Force once again busy in 2015. Whereas “Thracian Eagle 1 & 2” focused on flying with US ANG units flying the F-15 Eagle, “Thracian Star” in July saw the visit of the US 117th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard to Graf Ignatievo from 13-24, July. The exercise was set-up as a bilateral, total force training event to enhance interoperability with the Bulgarian Air Force (BuAF) and to bolster readiness to conduct combined air operations.
As an additional highlight Bulgarian Su-25s fighter-bombers were also stationed at Graf Ignatievo during these exercises as their actual home airbase was closed due to repairs.
Whereas these “Thracian” exercises are held annually, the 2015 edition coincided even more with an uncertain and tensioned future of Bulgaria’s fast jet inventory. After the future of Bulgaria’s 12 active MiG-29s hung in the balance for quite a while, issues about spare parts also kept the MiG-21 Fishbeds on the ground for about one year with a negative impact for the whole BuAF. It meant a lack of platforms for jet fighter training, e.g. intercepts against the MiG-29 Fulcrums, and difficulties in keeping pilots and technicians proficient. This resulted also in a higher risk for flight safety on daily operations after the Fishbeds were gradually brought back in the air piece after piece from May 2015 on.
However, by the end of July the Bulgarian MoD announced to keep the MiG-21 in service only until the end of December 2015, with no real replacement following afterwards.
The visit of these exercises thus coincided with a last chance to witness this legendary Cold War warrior in Bulgarian AF service.
Thracian Star Exercise 2015 – Photo Gallery
Thracian Eagle Exercise 2015 – Photo Gallery
Thanks to BuAF PAO and 3rd Fighter Air Base personell for their outstanding support before and during my visit.
Note: This text is an excerpt of my article “TIME FOR CHANGE” published in Combat Aircraft Monthly, issue October 2015 – Vol 16 No 10 –