July 10 (UPI) -- Bulgaria announced the $1.25 billion purchase of eight F-16 fighter planes, the biggest change in its conversion from outdated Soviet-era armaments thus far.
The contract with Lockheed Martin, revealed on Wednesday, calls for delivery of eight new F-16 Block 70 aircraft.
The price tag will raise the country's defense spending from about 1.5 percent of its economic output. Bulgaria, a NATO member since 2004, is one of several Eastern European NATO members revamping their armed forces to meet NATO standards.
The purchase of the fighters comes after Russia's 2014 annexation of nearby Crimea, and comments by U.S. President Donald Trump that NATO members are not spending their share on collective defense.
The decision to purchase the aircraft "fulfills a years-old dream of the Bulgarian air force, placing it at an equal level with our partners in the alliance," said Defense Chief Gen. Andrey Botsev said.
Deliveries of the new aircraft are expected by 2023. The F-16s will replace Soviet-designed Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter planes introduced in 1982 and still in use by countries formerly in the Soviet bloc.
The deal still requires approval of the U.S. Congress and Bulgaria's parliament.
The price exceeds the $1 billion ceiling approved by the Bulgarian parliament, and the government may seek a revision of the national budget, Finance Minister Rosita Velkova said last month. A deferred payment plane would be welcomed as well, since the large purchase of F-16s could hinder other military modernization plans, notably the purchase of armored vehicles and one new warship.
The acquisition is the Bulgarian military's largest foreign defense contract since 1989, when its constitution was rewritten.
"Lockheed Martin is committed to maximizing the economic and industrial benefits to Bulgaria, and will work with the U.S. and Bulgarian governments on cost savings for the F-16 offer as the acquisition process continues," the company said in a December statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Sofia.