MILITARIZATION OF THE BALKANS: Directed against Russia? U.S. Leads Largest Air Combat Exercises In Bulgaria's History
by Rick Rozoff
On April 18 U.S. Air Forces in Europe began the largest air exercise in the history of Bulgaria, no doubt in that of the Balkans as a whole, when 24-32 American F-16 fighter jets and 500 airmen joined Bulgarian counterparts for the opening of the almost month-long Thracian Star 2012.
Described by the Sofia News Agency as "the most large-scale military aviation drills of their type," they include both squadrons of the U.S. 31st Fighter Wing based at the Aviano Air Base in Italy and the air forces of Bulgaria and Romania. According to the same Bulgarian news source, "Because of the large number of US F-16 fighter jets participating in the drills – two squadrons of 16 planes each – Bulgarian media have been quick to note that the Aviano Air Base has moved to Graf Ignatievo," the Bulgarian air base from which the exercise is coordinated.
The commander of the base, Brigadier General Tsanko Stoykov, was quoted by the U.S. European Command website as stating:
"Bilateral training is important for us at Graf Ignatievo because it gives us a chance to implement new tactics and procedures and increase our combat capabilities. It also gives us a chance to improve our interoperability with our NATO allies and partners."
The amount of F-16 Fighting Falcons and personnel accompanying them this year, "about twice the amount than any other U.S. Air Forces in Europe wing thus far" according to EUCOM, substantially surpasses the numbers in past joint U.S.-Bulgarian and U.S.-Bulgarian- Romanian air force exercises.
The first U.S.-led air combat drills in Bulgaria, Viper Javelin in 2005, included one of the fighter squadrons assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, the 510th, which returned in 2007 for Rodopi Javelin.
In the first Thracian Star exercise in 2010, the U.S. deployed the 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany with sixteen F-16s and 280 support and maintenance personnel.
Thracian Star 2012 includes as many as twice the number of American warplanes and nearly twice as many airmen as its predecessor.
Thracian Star exercises are one of several regular joint U.S.-Bulgarian drills which also include Thracian Spring and Thracian Fall exercises.
The first joint air exercise, Viper Javelin 2005, occurred the year after Bulgaria joined NATO and the year before the U.S.-Bulgarian Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed, replicating a similar agreement with neighboring Romania the year before.
The pact allowed the Pentagon to station as many as 2,500 troops at four military facilities in Bulgaria: The Graf Ignatievo and Besmer air bases, the Novo Selo Training Range and the Aitos Logistics Center.