US paying contractor to quietly supply Bulgarian 155mm shells to Ukraine
A $402 million contract suggests the former Soviet-bloc country is now producing NATO-standard artillery rounds.
For months, Bulgaria’s pro-Russian president fought to keep his country from joining an EU effort to make 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine. He appeared to lose that battle in June, when the country’s pro-Ukraine defense minister declared that the NATO ally would “not exclude” the possibility that domestic firms would produce the ammunition.
But according to Army and U.S. contracting documents, Bulgaria has been providing 155mm shells to Ukraine all along—through the United States, with deliveries scheduled through next year.
The hitherto unreported deal sheds light on how the United States has procured the coveted munition, how Bulgaria is delicately balancing its foreign policy, and how some small companies have unseated major defense giants amid the stresses of the Ukraine war.
Ukraine’s hunger for shells has defined the artillery-centric war, with Ukrainian gunners firing as many as 240,000 rounds a month, or 12 times the U.S.’s monthly production. The U.S. effort to feed Ukrainian cannons has taken many forms, but one of the largest is a $522 million U.S. Army contract awarded in January to defense giant Northrop Grumman and a smaller company, Global Military Products. Delivery was to start in March, the Army said.
The contract announcement (along with a correction issued later) said the two firms would compete for smaller orders under the $522 million cap through 2027. But information posted to the Federal Procurement Data System shows that the bulk of the money—$402 million—has already been allocated to Global Military Products.
It also indicates where the shells are coming from: Bulgaria.
The award stands in contrast to the declarations of Bulgarian politicians, particularly Russian-leaning President Rumen Radev, who said in March that Bulgaria would never supply the round.
Even Bulgarian officials sympathetic to Ukraine noted that their largely Soviet-equipped army has no stocks of the NATO-designed ammunition and said that their country has only “experimental production” capabilities.
And after Radev was overridden by the new, pro-European government that formed in June, officials regretfully explained that Bulgaria would be unable to swiftly contribute to the European Union’s plan to send one million 155mm rounds to Ukraine.
“Unfortunately, when this project was announced, we expressed passivity,” Defense Minister Todor Tagarev said.
The U.S. contracting documents, however, imply the existence of major 155mm production capabilities in Bulgaria, experts said.
“Manufactured in Bulgaria is the most straightforward explanation here,” said Greg Sanders, deputy director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at think-tank CSIS.
Others concurred, such as Mathew George, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Jerry McGinn, a former senior career official in the Defense Department’s Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy who is now the executive director of the Greg and Camille Baroni Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University.
The $402 million contract could buy as many as 800,000 155mm shells at $500 apiece, though George cautioned that shipping, packaging, and other services would likely drive the per-unit cost higher.
The Bulgarian embassy did not provide comment to Defense One.
Defense One contacted two companies identified by Bulgarian officials as having the experimental capability to make 155mm shells. The first, VMZ, said that it did not have the ability to make the ammunition. The second, Transmobile, did not respond to repeated emails. Both VMZ and Transmobile advertise 155mm shells on their websites.
Defense One also contacted Global Military Products CEO Marc Morales, who declined to comment.
The Army's choice of Global Military Products illustrates how the war in Ukraine has reshaped the defense industry, with smaller companies now finding they can successfully compete with defense industry giants amid a global hunger for arms and ammunition.
Founded in 2013, the Florida-based company is not a natural player in the market for NATO-designed artillery shells—unlike Northrop Grumman, the defense-industry behemoth that shares the Jan. 30 contract, which already makes 155mm-related equipment.
Global Military Products got its start by buying Soviet-designed weapons from Bulgaria and other countries for Special Operations Command and “likely” supplying them to Syrian rebels, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The Pentagon paid the company about $34 million a year from 2016 to 2021, according to USAspending, a government-run contract-tracking website. Last year, the company’s U.S. government-related revenues rose dramatically, to $323 million, according to USASpending.
Much of that money appears to be tied to Ukraine. In addition to the money spent on Bulgarian 155mm shells, the U.S. military is also paying Global Military Products $118 million for Gepard anti-aircraft systems. A U.S. defense official confirmed to Defense One that the systems were funded by the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a fact visible in the archived versions of the original announcement.
The company also has a second contract for 155mm ammunition, valued at $232 million and labeled as a foreign military sale, but it is not clear whether those shells are going to Ukraine.
Global Military Products’ contract to send 155mm shells to Ukraine follows a long effort to build ties in the eastern European country. Months before the Russian invasion in February 2022, the company signed an agreement with Ukraine’s state weapons manufacturer, Ukroboronprom, to bring U.S. military products to Ukraine.
The war appears to have strengthened these ties. In July 2022, the company hired Denis Vanash, a former Ukrainian politician who had recently worked as an advisor to the Ukrainian minister of defense, according to his LinkedIn profile. Vanash declined to comment to Defense One.
Global Military Products’ ties may even run to the top of Ukraine’s military hierarchy. On April 1, 2022, shortly after Ukraine beat back Russia’s assault on Kyiv, the company’s LinkedIn page posted a screenshot of what they said was a WhatsApp conversation with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
In the post, the company tagged Marc Morales and Global Military Products marketing coordinator Lyubov Tavzel. Both are smiling widely in pro-Ukrainian t-shirts as they hold Soviet-made weapons.
“Marc Morales,” the person sending the photo wrote in Cyrillic underneath the photo.
Zaluzhniy responded in the international language of texts: Ukrainian flags and emojis of flexing biceps.