Athens, Greece – Greece has announced a deal to buy between six and eight French-built warships accompanied by a strategic defence partnership with France, a move the Greek prime minister said was “a first step towards European defence autonomy”.
Standing next to French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Tuesday: “We have a common vision of an autonomous response capability to the challenges Europe faces.”
The $5bn deal will provide Athens with three state-of-the-art Belharra frigates and three Gowind corvettes, with an option for one more of each.
According to local reports, the ships would be delivered by 2026, with the first frigate arriving as early as 2024.
France’s Naval Group and US defence contractor Lockheed Martin had been locked in heated competition for the contract since Mitsotakis announced Greece would buy new frigates in September 2019.
For Macron, it was a much-needed win after Australia reneged on a $66bn-deal to buy French diesel submarines earlier this month, announcing its intention to build nuclear submarines using US-supplied technology instead under the AUKUS deal, a trilateral security treaty between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Macron stressed that the Greek deal reinforced his vision of European strategic autonomy.
“We have a commitment to the independence of Europe,” he said. “This is part of the common struggles we have undertaken in Europe – technological independence, a European defence, and combat-readiness.”
Both leaders mentioned the Sahel, Middle East, Mediterranean and Balkans as areas of European interest where joint military action could take place.
Greece and France have been drawing closer in recent years, against the backdrop of their deteriorating relations with Turkey.
Last year, Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war when Ankara sent survey ships to look for undersea oil and gas in what Greece considers its maritime jurisdiction.
France sent naval forces to help Greece’s ageing fleet of 11 frigates patrol its maritime zones and the two countries have since held joint and multilateral air and sea exercises in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Last year, Greece announced it was buying 18 fourth-generation Rafale fighter jets for $2.5bn. Mitsotakis raised the number of jets to 24 this month.
“It’s not a simple arms sale. It’s a strategic deal that changes the situation in the east Mediterranean,” international relations professor Dimitris Kairidis said of the naval deal.
“France is filling a security void in the region. There is a mutual defence agreement, so if we face troubles we have a nuclear power and permanent Security Council member in our corner.”
The crisis of 2020 came on the heels of Greece’s greatest ever economic recession following the post-2008 global financial collapse. Greece slashed its defence expenditures by half.
“There were no purchases of spare parts, there were operational problems, there were frigates that couldn’t sail and planes that couldn’t fly,” international relations professor at the American College of Greece Konstantinos Filis told Al Jazeera.
In 2018, Greece signed a $1.3bn deal with the US’s Lockheed Martin to upgrade 85 of its F-16 fighter jets to Viper level, installing advanced radar and weapons systems on board.
Both the Rafale and the Viper will outclass Turkey’s standing fleet of an estimated 236 ageing F-16s.
“With the modernisation of the F-16s, the Rafale purchase and frigate purchase, Greece is covering some of the lost ground,” Filis said. “Because all these years, Turkey greatly reinforced its defence industry. In very little time over 70 percent of its systems are home-built.”
Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones, which are weapons-capable, have turned the tide of wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in the last year and could constitute a formidable threat in the Aegean.
Mitsotakis struck a conciliatory note on the eve of the deal.
“I have no desire to enter an arms race with Turkey – that’s not my intention,” he told the ERT state channel on Monday night.
This month, he told the 76th UN General Assembly: “I have a vision for the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead of fighting last century’s battles over hydrocarbons, a fading commodity, we have to join forces to cooperate against new common enemies – the climate crisis which affects both our countries equally, but also the threat of illegal migration.”
But Greece’s massive armaments modernisation even as its national debt has reached almost twice gross domestic product (GDP), is clearly due to Turkey.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, Greece is doing all this because of its problems with Turkey,” Filis said. “If we had the neighbours Switzerland has, things would be much simpler and money would go to education, health and the social state.”
Greece was also keen not to give the impression its deal with France detracted from its key relationship with the US.
Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias travels to Washington, DC on October 14 to sign a new Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement that is to tighten cooperation.
Not just a renewal but an upgrade
Military sources say the Belharra increases Greek capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“The Belharra … form a single aeronautical unit with the Rafale … these systems work much better networked together, and their missiles project power in the air because they have very long range and are very capable,” said Konstantinos Grivas, who teaches weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy.
The Belharra frigates will carry Aster-30 hypersonic, surface-to-air missiles, capable of travelling at four-and-a-half times the speed of sound and striking guided ballistic missiles. The Rafale carry the Meteor air-to-air missiles. Both systems have a range of more than 100km (62 miles), and are supported by sophisticated radar systems.
“These are cutting edge technology weapons,” Grivas told Al Jazeera. “They’re at the top of their category among both eastern and western systems. We’re entering the group of states that can strike targets at very great distances.”
Admiral Stelios Fenekos agrees that the Belharra are a game-changer.
“They cover areas where we have had limited capabilities until now. The frigates can easily cover the entire breadth of the Eastern Mediterranean and increase the country’s international presence.”
He stressed their ability to establish aerial and naval control over a wide area.
“An enemy pilot would have to think very carefully before coming within a 200km range of these ships,” Fenekos said.
Importantly for Greece, these are not systems France is offering to Turkey.
This contrasts with Germany’s decision to sell Turkey its sophisticated Type-214 submarines Greece bought in 2000.
“It is a strategic choice of the French ever since they sold Greece Mirage fighters [in the 1980s],” said Filis. “They don’t sell Turkey the same weapons.”