We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-first in the series.

Under normal circumstances, news this week that Bulgaria has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets with planes that other countries actually might be scared of wouldn’t attract much attention.

But the news came right on the heels of a new cable released just days before by WikiLeaks, outlining efforts by American diplomats to get the Bulgarians to modernize their air force by purchasing planes from US corporations.

The cable was written in the wake of the Bulgarian Council of Minsters’

decision to revise [the country’s] “Plan 2015” military modernization roadmap [which] represents an important opportunity for the United States to influence the development of Bulgarian military capabilities over the medium and long-term.

Particularly, the United States was interested in helping Bulgaria develop its military capabilities so that the new European Union member could send more troops to various battlefields of the war on terror.

Although Bulgaria possesses nearly 40,000 service members, it has no means to deploy and very limited means to sustain forces outside its borders. The overwhelming majority of its currently deployed 727 service members are drawn from the Bulgarian Land Force’s four maneuver battalions, virtually all of which have been transported and are sustained by the United States. These realities represent the most basic limitations to increased Bulgarian commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The highest priority should be placed on encouraging Bulgaria to invest in the equipment, vehicles and weapons that will enable them to deploy and fight interoperably with U.S. and NATO forces overseas.

A number of roadblocks to achieving this objective stood in the way, however, including wasteful investments in submarines and an antiquated surface-to-air missile defense system that were bleeding the already meager state budget dry.

Of particular concern to the Americans was the possibility that Bulgaria would look to European corporations to upgrade their military capabilities.

Bulgaria has been under intense pressure from France to sign a massive ship procurement deal worth over one billion dollars. While modernization of the Navy remains a goal, we will continue to advocate against Bulgaria spending an amount greater than its annual defense budget on this single procurement, particularly since this purchase exceeds Bulgaria’s operational requirements and will not address its own stated top priority of improving Bulgaria’s ability to deploy and sustain troops outside its borders.

Instead, American diplomats urged the purchase of Lockheed Martin C-27J transport aircraft.

Theater lift capability will improve with the purchase of five C-27Js (one per year for the next five years with first delivery scheduled for Nov 07) and participation in the NATO C-17 consortium, but Bulgaria’s current fighter force has reached the end of its useful life. Affordable, interoperable multi-role fighters are necessary for them to continue to police their airspace, but it is important to advocate for systems to which they can quickly transition. Bulgaria should be steered away from the purchase of additional Russian fighters, which are currently an obstacle to Bulgaria’s transformation to a more operationally and tactically flexible organization as expected by NATO.

The fact that State Department diplomats have acted as travelling salesmen for the American corporations has been well-documented by cables WikiLeaked thus far. But the cable from Sofia is the first instance of diplomats playing the part of used car dealers. Embassy staff planned

to advocate against new, very expensive systems such as the Eurofighter, Swedish Gripen, and Joint Strike Fighter in favor of very capable older versions of the F-16 or F-18 as a bridge and catalyst for operational and tactical transformation. The Bulgarians may be eyeing new combat aircraft, and U.S. manufacturers will, of course, be in this hunt. But cost factors would exhaust the defense budget, and Bulgaria would be hard pressed to perform essential training and maintenance functions on such a squeezed budget.

This last observation was confirmed this week, when the Bulgarians announced they would consider both new and used aircraft while shopping for upgrades to replace the current fleet. And while the final decision on what to buy has yet to be made in Sofia, the cable suggests that Washington has a distinct advantage in competing for Bulgarian bucks.

Key contacts within the Ministry of Defense see U.S. and NATO guidance in the revision process as vital to ensuring a productive and affordable outcome; without our input they are concerned that political interests will trump military requirements. These contacts have offered to help ensure a U.S. voice in the process and to share inside information on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

All this jockeying for favor may all be for naught, however. While Bulgaria announced plans to buy an undisclosed number of planes this week, any purchase will not take place until 2012…at the very earliest. Currently, the country continues to suffer under a distressed economy which has been downgraded even further from its already weak standing by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor since the start of 2011. Even as Prime Minister Boiko Borissov confidently predicts a rapid recovery by the start of next year, it is far from clear the country will have the financial wherewithal to get itself up to snuff for deployment by the United States government.