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The cash-strapped Bulgarian air force nearly collapsed in the summer of 2016 amid political squabbling in the capital. Then, four F-15’s and pilots from Fresno’s Air National Guard base were assigned by NATO to fill in for the Bulgarians’ own dysfunctional air arm.

The transatlantic military alliance routinely deploys fighter squadrons to patrol over Iceland and the Baltic states, which lack their own fighter planes. The arrangement with Bulgaria extends NATO’s “air-policing” duties to a country that does, in fact, have its own fighters — but which can’t seem to sustain them.

The Fresno-based 194th Fighter Squadron was deployed to Europe in April 2016, falling under the umbrella of the Pentagon’s Theater Support Package scheme, aimed at deterring Russian aggression.

As political instability threatened the viability of the Bulgarian air force, NATO sent four of the squadron’s F-15 fighters, then in Romania, to Graf Ignatievo in Bulgaria, from where they could patrol the country’s Black Sea border.

“It’s important that we are standing side-by-side with our NATO allies,” Lt. Col. Cesar Gonzalez, the 194th Fighter Squadron aircraft maintenance commander, said at the time. “We are committed to the security of Europe and helping Bulgaria and countries who ask for our help.”

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