WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are pointing to the recent sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Bulgaria as an early success in their efforts to export American weapons to countries caught up in a great power competition between the United States, Russia and China.
The sale, which was in abeyance earlier this summer because Bulgaria deemed the price tag of almost $1.7 billion as too high, eventually went through because the U.S. government offered the aircraft under a Foreign Military Financing package with a $60 million grant, according to R. Clarke Cooper, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs.
The Bulgarian government had previously considered Saab’s Gripen jet as a competing option.
The move follows a new policy by the Trump administration aimed at pulling countries still using Soviet-era equipment into the United States’ sphere of influence through long-term weapons deals.
According to Cooper, Bulgarian leaders identified the F-16, made by Lockheed Martin, has a preferred option early on, but were running up against a price the country couldn’t afford.
“How can they get the airframes they want without breaking their entire defense department’s budget?” Cooper said of the Bulgarian leaders, speaking to Defense News on Wednesday at the Defense News Conference.
Part of the eventual deal, in the spring of this year, included a discussion about crafting an aircraft package that would meet both capability and cost standards. “We had to be candid with the Bulgarians about their requirements,” Cooper said.
The focus on grants and loans to grease the wheels of similar sales is expected to be a key feature of the Trump administration’s arms-export policy. To that end, the State Department plans an FMF budget of $8 billion and to push through a number of administrative changes to ease future exports.
Speed is a key consideration in those reforms, with officials looking to make bureaucratic steps simultaneous that are now worked sequentially.
“It’s a constant competition,” said Cooper, referring to the global weapons marketplace. “It we don’t get ahead of our adversaries, the vacuum will be filled.”