Naval capabilities

Left: A weapons test conducted by ‘Smely’, one of the Bulgarian Navy’s 11 frigates.

Opposite page: The Bulgarian Navy Pauk- class corvette ‘Bodri’.

Navy blues

When he joined the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, set near the oak trees and handsome 19th century avenues of the Bulgarian port of Varna, Rear Admiral Kiril Mihaylov was entering a world of big ships. Mikhail Gorbachev may have just become premier, but the Soviet Union and Nato were still rivals – and the iconography of seapower still mattered. Big ships like aircraft carriers “played a great role for projecting power at sea during that time,” says Mihaylov, now a senior officer in the Bulgarian Navy. That’s clear even looking at Mihaylov’s own country. By the time the communist regime in Sofia collapsed in 1990, the so-called ‘People’s Navy’ had an impressively large spread of ships, including 11 frigates, with names like ‘Cheerful’ and ‘Bold’. What Mihaylov implies of the Warsaw Pact countries, Bryan Clark confirms of their Western opponents. “The US Navy had the responsibility for guarding sea lanes and threatening the Soviet periphery, while Nato navies focused on sea control in the European theatre,” says Clark, senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. It goes without saying, he adds, that this positioning needed big ships with enough fuel to sail vast distances and that were large enough to hold plenty of ammunition. A perfect example of the size of ship required is the USS Nimitz. Commissioned in 1975 – the aircraft carrier extends for over 1,000ft and can host 90 aircraft and helicopters. To a certain extent, navies are still interested in marquee builds like the Nimitz. In November 2020, for instance, the Royal Navy announced an order of five new Type 26 frigates. That shadows the HMS Queen Elizabeth class, a pair of new aircraft carriers (the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) costing £7.6bn and due for deployment over the next few years. Across the Channel, meanwhile, President Macron recently unveiled France’s own next-generation

aircraft carrier. Weighing almost double its predecessor, it’s clear that size really does matter to the Europeans. And that before we even consider China (three new aircraft carriers, 38 new frigates), or the US (16 new aircraft carriers, 15 new frigates). Yet, as both Clark and Mihaylov make clear, these modern-day dreadnoughts are not the sum total of naval ambition. That’s primarily down to a change in the way defence planners think about their shorelines. Put it like this: except in nightmares or pulp fiction, there was little chance that the

“The US Navy had the responsibility for guarding sea lanes and threatening the Soviet periphery, while Nato navies focused on sea control in the European theatre.”

Bryan Clark

Soviet Union was ever going to launch a naval invasion of western Europe – let alone Alaska. But new dangers – from the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean to seafaring terrorists in India and ‘grey zone’ infiltrations by hostile powers – all mean that navies now think more carefully about coastal defence. If you reflect for a moment on a ship like the Nimitz, it becomes clear, says Clark, that these monsters are totally unsuited to patrols in shallow waters or night-time raids on enemy camps.

Small but mighty

When it launches in the middle of this decade, the multipurpose modular patrol vessel (MMPV) promises to revolutionise the Bulgarian Navy. Barely 250ft long, and boasting a crew of just 40, Mihaylov says it will greatly increase his country’s capability to counter “air, surface and subsurface threats”. Delve into the details of what the MMPV can do, and this

Defence & Security Systems International / 1,000ft

Approximate length of the USS Nimitz

Naval Technology 59

Bulgarian Navy

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