$1bn fighter jet contract up for grabs in Bulgaria

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The Bulgarian government is looking to buy a new fleet of fighter jets, launching a $1bn (£520m) battle involving some of the biggest arms companies in the world.

Boeing, which manufactures the F/A-18, Dassault Aviation of France, and Gripen, the Swedish jet aircraft maker owned by aerospace group Saab, have already responded to the request for information from the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence.

Eurofighter, the jet maker part-owned by BAE Systems, is "considering its response", said a spokesman. "The likelihood is that we will be in it," he added.

Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-16, is expected to meet Bulgaria's MoD later this month.

Bulgaria is currently reliant on a fleet of Russian-made MiG 29 jets but is understood to be interested in replacing them with between 16 and 20 planes, which could easily push the total value of the contract past $1bn. A request for information is the first step in a bidding process, which can take several years.

It is less clear how the Bulgarian government would pay for the new planes. The authorities had previously postponed the process on grounds of cost.

Sandy Morris, an analyst at ABN Amro, said that Gripen might have the best chance at winning the contract because its JAS 39 jet is cheaper than the Eurofighter, which he estimated costs about £50m per plane.

The manufacturer has won similar contracts in the Czech Republic and Hungary. "These have proved pretty happy hunting grounds for Gripen," said Mr Morris. "They have proved themselves quite nimble."