Facing the growing reality that a confrontation with Turkey may end badly, Greece is making questionable defence procurement decisions that may already be too little too late.
With a growing stand-off between Turkey and Greece in the east Mediterranean, Athens has announced steps to modernise all three branches of the Hellenic Armed Forces.
In addition to plans for increasing their army by 15,000 soldiers, the most significant development came with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' intention to purchase 18 Rafale jet fighters and four new multirole frigates.
But where did the sudden procurement bid come from?
Greece’s rhetoric on the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean has long run the risk of serving as a spearhead against Turkey for other regional interests. But it now faces the reality that it’s previous economic deficits, austerity measures and economic turmoil have left it less than ideally prepared to face-off with Turkey.
For Greece, the Rafale fighter jet may present one of the fastest options to catch-up with Turkey.
But France’s Rafale fighter jet doesn’t come without its quirks.
It stands as one of the most expensive jets in the world selling for $240-260 million per unit, with a reputation for failing to compete in international markets, making it an option only to developing nations who can afford the expensive tag and can’t get access to better aircraft.
In fact, the fourth generation Rafale is 50 percent costlier than Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter and is a generation behind most fighters now sought out by advanced militaries around the world.
As a result, the Rafale has lost the vast majority of its export bids, from South Korea and Singapore which opted for the F-15, to Egypt which turned down offers for second Rafale batches in favour of the Russian Su-35, as well as Brazil, Oman, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait which all rejected the jets for other Western medium or lightweight designs such as the F-16 and F-18.
In this respect, the Rafale is hardly considered a cost-effective aircraft given its far more limited capabilities.
To sweeten the deal, France has thrown in 8 of 18 fighters free, to help aid the fighter jet’s dismal international performance, set to be delivered from the French Air Force’s existing inventory.
While Turkey and Greece both don’t want a war, their military planners are keenly aware that logistics and industry are what win one. Heavy reliance on foreign procurement can mean losing to attrition after running out of munitions, parts, or being unable to produce, repair and redeploy ships, planes and tanks.
To this end, Turkey has invested heavily in its military-industrial infrastructure and enjoys strong public-private partnership in the fields of drone, armament, and ship manufacturing.
For Greece, the situation is a bit bleaker, prompting Greek PM Mitsokakis to pledge towards reviving its military-industrial-complex.
“In recent years, the defence sector has experienced disinvestment after a period of high costs and neglected the armament programs,” Mitsotakis said. “It’s time to balance needs and opportunities... But also as a supreme obligation to the Greeks, who will bear the cost. It is the price of our place on the map."
But even then, the cost may be too prohibitive however for a nation that has struggled with austerity measures and a flagging economy for the past decade. Its economy has done no better under the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Recession in the Greek economy leapt to 15.2 percent in the second quarter of 2020, according to the announcement of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), while GDP fell by 15.2 percent, as unemployment rose to 18.3 percent.
In this light, Greece's defence minister tried to quell leaked reports that the nation’s upcoming defence budget would average $11.4 billion, which would deeply impact its small population of 10.2 million. recognise
Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos emphasised "It's not a 10-billion-euro spending spree, let me make that very clear," but neglected to comment on whether it would be lower or higher.
Greece is also purchasing four naval frigates from Germany and refurbishing four others, with a ten-year delivery window that may come too late to strengthen its presence in the eastern Mediterranean significantly.
Given Turkey’s near-completion of its domestic Barbaros frigates, set to be commissioned in 2021, joining the ranks of domestically-produced Barbaros corvettes already rolling out of the Golcuk Naval Shipyard.
Recognising the strategic deficit in not being able to produce its own naval warships, Greek PM Mitsotakis assured voters that, “American investors are interested in Elefsis Shipyards. Soon a strategic investor will take over Skaramangas Shipyards.”
Mitsotakis also promised privatisation of the Hellenic Vehicle Industries (ELVO SA), which produces most military vehicles, and ‘reorganising’ Hellenic Aerospace Industries (HAI) to be able to conduct aircraft maintenance and repairs.
Unmentioned in his speech, is that reorganising, or setting up new defence infrastructure can take years to decades; rarely ever becoming profitable. But for the small Aegean nation, it’s buy now, deal with the future later.
For France however, it’s not just business and books.
France’s armed forces have faced a considerable decline over the past decade, largely due to the economic crisis after 2008, and readiness rates for both the Navy and the Air Force have notably remained low.
In 2017, France’s Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said in regards to this dismal state of affairs: “If I compare the current situation of our planes with a car, it is as if I wanted to have a car every morning that works, I would have to own four cars."
As such, it adopted a light footprint strategy; relying heavily on special forces and drumming up allied support to aid it in projecting power to regions that matter to it.
Erdogan has previously accused France of intervening in Libya "for petrol" and in Africa for "diamonds, gold and copper."
In terms of realising its strategic objectives in the event of a brief flare-up of violence, Greece lacks the long term missile capacity to reach the Turkish interior; eliminating any possibility of reducing Turkey’s military capacity.
More critically, maintaining its influence over Cyprus would be next to impossible with Turkey only 80 km away from Cyprus, as opposed to the 820 km distance between the island and Greece’s mainland.
Finally, while Greece maintains an active military posture for contingencies, full mobilisation would take much longer than Turkey, as Greece has not fought a war since World War II, in sharp contrast to Turkey.