June 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. State Department has approved a possible $1.7 billion sale to Bulgaria of eight F-16 Viper fighter jets and related equipment.
The contract includes eight F-16 C/D Block 70/72 aircraft, also known as the F-16V, with spare parts, weapons and engineering, and logistical support services, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced Monday.
The agency notified Congress of the approval and possible sale on Thursday.
"These aircraft will provide Bulgaria with a fleet of modernized multi-role combat aircraft, ensuring that Bulgaria can effectively operate in hazardous areas and enhancing the Bulgarian air force's interoperability with U.S. as well as NATO forces," DSCA said in a news release.
Bulgaria currently relies on the United States and Britain to participate in joint air policing.
"By acquiring these F-16s and the associated sustainment and training package, Bulgaria will be able to provide for the defense of its own airspace and borders," the release said.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Defense announced last year a plan to purchase eight Viper fighter jets to replace its Soviet-designed MiG-29s. Bulgaria formerly was part of the Soviet Union.
"The acquisition of a new multipurpose fighter such as F-16V Block 70 from the United States, equipped with the latest generation radar and weaponry will improve significantly the combat capabilities of the Bulgarian air forces," Bulgaria's Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov told reporters last December.
The F-16V Block 70/72 is the latest and most advanced F-16 on the market that "combines capability upgrades, most notably the advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array radar with a new avionics architecture, and structural upgrades to extend the structural life of the aircraft by more than 50 percent beyond that of previous production F-16 aircraft," according to Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the aircraft.
The radars, which are produced by Northrop Grumman, uses technology from the F-22 and F-35. F-16 Block 70 software also includes technologies not available when earlier Block F-16s were developed and produced.
General Dynamics, which is now owned by Lockheed Martin, designed the F-16, a fourth-generation fighter known as the Fighting Falcon. A single-seat model first flew in December 1976.
Approximately 3,000 operational F-16s are in service in 25 countries, according to Lockheed. The F-16 Viper variant first flew in 2015.