Analysis: A turbulent 2020 spurs Greece to rearm

France is completing the sale of 18 Rafale jets to Greece ahead of January, when French defence minister Florence Parly is to visit Athens to sign it.

The sale will make Greece the first European client for the advanced plane, in a deal valued at 2.5bn euros ($3bn).

It is Greece’s first significant defence equipment purchase since 2005, when it bought more than 300 Leopard tanks from Germany, and its first investment in a new combat aircraft since buying French Mirage 2000s in 1989.

Greece’s overall defence spending halved from 7.88bn euros in 2009 to 3.75bn euros in 2018, as an eight-year recession led to budget cuts. Greece is sharply increasing its defence spending by 43 percent this year, to 5.5bn euros ($6.7bn).

The reason is that Greece and Turkey have had their most acrimonious year since 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a Greek coup attempt, and a war in the Aegean was narrowly averted.

Greece is in such a hurry to acquire the Rafale, it pressed France to deliver the first squadron by May, six months ahead of the original schedule. Its pilots will fly to France for training in the coming weeks.

Last September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece will buy four new frigates and upgrade four existing ones, giving it a blue water navy capable of projecting power beyond the Aegean.

He also announced 15,000 new career positions in the armed forces. Greece is currently in the process of upgrading 85 of its Lockheed Martin F-16s to Viper level, turning them into fourth-generation fighter aircraft.

Tactically, the Rafale allows Greece to strike anywhere within Turkey, having a range of up to 3,700km, twice that of the Mirage and four times that of the F-16. It carries the most advanced European missiles, the Meteor, Mica, Scalp and Exocet.

It also carries a 200km-radius radar capable of tracking 40 targets and engaging eight of them, enabling it to act as a force co-ordinator. Greece believes it can thus increase its deterrent capability against a Turkish first strike.

“Greece has no claims on anybody, but is 100 percent ready to defend its rights,” said Dimitris Kairidis, who teaches international relations at Panteion University in Athens.

East Med crisis

Greece’s complaint against Turkey is that it is prospecting for undersea oil and gas in what Greece considers its Exclusive Economic Zone, a commercial sovereignty conferred by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We want a constructive dialogue on delimitation of maritime boundaries,” said Kairidis, but Turkey has so far been unwilling to oblige.

The Rafale deal is as much about politics as tactics. Greece and France are currently in talks for a defensive alliance that might include Greece’s buying French-made [email protected] frigates.

“There will probably be a defence agreement in the coming weeks,” said Angelos Syrigos, who teaches international law at Panteion University.

In fact, Greece already signed one such defence agreement with the United Arab Emirates on November 18.

“[It] says that Greece and the UAE will rush to each other’s aid defensively should they receive an attack, and the terms remain to be filled in,” said Syrigos.

“Greece hasn’t signed a similar agreement with a country that isn’t in NATO or the European Union.”

The agreement was conceived during a standoff between the Greek and Turkish navies that began on July 21, when Turkey announced its exploration plans, and ended on November 30, when it sent its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis back to port, having collected 11,000km of seismic data.

During this period, Syrigos said, “the only country which sent aircraft to Greece was the Emirates. This was something that was really appreciated by the Greek government and the next step was the signing of this strategic relationship.”

Greece is also developing closer defence ties with Egypt and Israel.

Calls to sanction Turkey ignored

Athens is ferreting out such bilateral ties because it has been disappointed in the organisations it has traditionally relied upon for its security. NATO has not called Turkey to order for upsetting another member of the alliance. Nor has the EU, for threatening its sovereign rights.

On October 1, EU leaders overcame Cyprus’s objections to imposing sanctions on Belarus, for violently repressing protests, but not against Turkey, for what Greece and others say was Ankara’s violation of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

On October 12, Greece demanded sanctions on Turkey for occupying the ghost town of Varosha in Cyprus, against UN Security Council resolutions. The matter was deferred to the December summit, but then deferred again to the March summit.

“The Council decisions were no surprise given the divergent views among EU member states and the consensus-based decision-making system in foreign and security policy issues,” said Ioannis Grigoriadis, who teaches European studies at Bilkent University in Ankara.

He believes that divergence owes to “different interests on key issues in the Mediterranean”.

Failing its demand for sanctions, Greece wrote to Germany, Spain and Italy, asking them to halt arms sales to Turkey, as France halted the sale of two Mistral ships to Russia following its occupation of the Crimea in 2014. Greece’s EU partners did not oblige.

Greece is particularly incensed that Germany will build six type-214 submarines for the Turkish navy. Greece was the first international customer for the cutting-edge submarine in 2009, and helped solve many of its design flaws.

“It teaches us that Europe doesn’t have a Turkey strategy, and in fact, doesn’t know what to do,” said Syrigos.

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