Exercise Thracian Star 2015 saw the Bulgarian Air Force joining its NATO partners at Graf Ignatievo AB to develop interoperability between air forces. Jeroen van Veenendaal writes.

It has been 11 years since Bulgaria became a NATO member. Former US President George W. Bush, accompanied by former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, congratulated the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia on joining the NATO alliance during a White House ceremony held in March 2004. Since joining 11 years ago, Bulgaria and the United States continue to build upon their partnership by participating in joint military exercises.

One of these is the Bulgarian-led multi-national exercise Thracian Star, a bilateral total force training event held to enhance interoperability with the Bulgarian Air Force and to prepare aircrews to conduct combined air operations with other NATO members. The training took place at Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base, Bulgaria, between 13-24 July. The joint exercise of that name has been held annually since 2005, under a US-Bulgarian agreement on defense co-operation. In recent years, the exercise has been expanded to include Bulgaria’s neighboring countries.


Bulgarian AF MiG-29UB Fulcrum. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-21 LanceR. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF Su-25 Frogfoot. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Fighter aircraft from the air forces of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and the United States attended this year’s exercise. It was not the first in Bulgaria to include US fighters; earlier this year, American pilots deployed to Bulgaria for an exercise comprising eight aircraft, of which two jet trainers and two fighter jets were utilised to exchange information on the F-15 and MiG-29 aircraft. US Air Force pilots were surprised by the maneuverability of the MiG-29 aircraft when they flew in the rear seat of the twin-stick variant of the Fulcrum.

Approximately 150 airmen and eight F-16s from the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard were deployed to the Graf Ignatievo Air Base, while Romanian and Greek jet fighters operated in Bulgarian airspace from their permanent bases.


The fighter pilot’s bone dome and oxygen mask. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF Su-25. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Twin-seat Bulgarian AF MiG-21. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo

Romania participated with their MiG-21 jet fighters. Their MiG-21s were modernised under the LanceR programme. Today, just a few LanceRs are operated by the Romanian Air Force and can use both NATO and Russian armament. Greece participated with F-16C/D aircraft of the 111 Combat Wing. The Hellenic fighters were seemingly in a rush to reach Bulgaria, as they broke the sound barrier in Hellenic airspace en route, causing concerned citizens to wonder what was going on!

Bulgaria currently operates 12 MiG-29s but has not been looking to acquire any additional Russian fighters to replace its older MiG-21 models. Instead, Bulgaria announced last year that it had been looking to acquire used F-16s or other Western aircraft. This prompted an unsympathetic response from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who described Bulgaria’s actions as seeking to “once again betray Russia in favour of second-hand eagles”.


Bulgarian AF MiG-21. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-21. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-21. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo

Training area

This year, the multi-national training took place in the Sofia FIR, which spreads to the Black Sea. Notably, the training area is right next to the FIR of Simferopol, covering Southeast Crimea and Ukraine. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led to NATO stepping up its naval and air force presence in the region.

This is a signal to the Russians, as the training takes place very close to the border with Ukraine and Russia, while the conflict continues in the Crimea. It sends a clear message: stay away from NATO borders.


USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-29. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo

Training objectives

A training exercise of this nature is always beneficial for both sides, and it typically delivers twofold. Of course, experience was shared in air combat training such as basic flight maneuvers, and in aerial cooperation.

Just as importantly, on the ground new relationships and friendships were built, and cultural differences and interesting facts about each other and each other’s countries were shared. For the US 177th FW aircrews, this kind of flying training deployment is a tremendous opportunity for the aircrews to hone their operational skills and to operate from a forward operating base. The exercise was intended to train personnel to conduct air operations, and to harmonise the procedures of the participating forces at a tactical level and create increased interoperability between nations.


Bulgarian AF fighters on the ramp. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-29UB Fulcrum. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF Su-25 Frogfoot. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo

The US Air Force described the training as a great opportunity for them to interact with their Bulgarian counterparts. They said training with the Bulgarian Air Force and flying with them will strengthen the NATO alliance. For the Americans, there was another important goal: they came primarily to conduct air-to-air training in basic fighting maneuvers and tactical intercepts.

With the participating aircraft in exercise Thracian Star being former Soviet Union-designed aircraft, the Air National Guard pilots had a chance to fly against fully operational MiGs rather than simulated Soviet jets, as they normally would in the continental USA. Equally, the Bulgarians and Romanians had the chance to train against F-16s from the U.S. and Greece and observe their capabilities. Missions were flown at both day and night, and anti-aircraft units participated as well to ensure the scenarios were as realistic as possible.


Bulgarian AF MiG-21. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-21 LanceR. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Nikolai Nenchev, the Bulgarian Defense Minister, announced on 6 July 2015 that the country’s air force will no longer look to Russia for the maintenance of its Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft. Instead, they have signed an agreement with Poland for the servicing and upgrading of these aircraft. The support and future updates for Bulgaria’s MiG-29s will thus be carried out at the Wojskowe Zaklady Lotnicze Nr 2 (Military Aircraft Works No 2, or WZL No 2) in Poland.

WZL No 2 has long been the maintenance base for the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-22 aircraft that are operated today by the Polish Air Force and it is also Poland’s chief servicing center for their fleet of 48 US-made Lockheed Martin F-16C/D aircraft. Poland has had a unique upgrade program for its own MiG-29 fleet in process for some time now, in an effort to be independent from Russia. Defense Minister Nenchev’s reported comment on Bulgaria’s decision to service all of its MiG-29s in Poland was: “Our reproach to Russia is that it brought back something that, until recently, was unthinkable in Europe: war. I do not hesitate to say it. After seeing that the Putin regime had a particularly aggressive behavior to a sovereign state (Ukraine), we cannot feel secure.


Bulgarian AF MiG-21 LanceR. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF Su-25 Frogfoot. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo


Bulgarian AF MiG-21 LanceR. © Ralph Blok – Dutch Aviation Photo

“We are negotiating with the Polish side, who are our partners in NATO and managed to break away from their dependence on Russia. We will do everything possible to reduce our dependence on Russia,” Nenchev continued. “Bulgaria is the only NATO member that is almost 90% dependent on Russia. It worries me very much, and I would not like to continue in this way.”

Throughout July and August, Bulgaria’s army conducted a series of joint drills with NATO allies and partner countries. Military drills during the period included Platinum Lion 15 – 3; land operations with military units from the USA, UK, Romania and Albania, and the Bulgarian-American exercise Thracian Summer 2015, with para drops. Meanwhile, Bulgarian military units will take part in the multinational drills Saber Guardian 2015 and Rapid Trident 2015 in the Ukraine.