Greece approves its biggest naval modernisation in 20 years

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Greeks are worried that another war may be drawing close in the Aegean.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, is applauded by his party lawmakers
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) is applauded by his party politicians in Athens [File: Petros Giannakouris/AP]

Athens, Greece – Greek opposition parties have joined the government in approving the country’s biggest naval modernisation in 20 years.

Over the next four years, Greece will spend 2.26bn euros ($2.53bn) buying three Belharra frigates built by France’s Naval Group, considered state of the art in the Western arsenal.

Over the next year, Greece is expected to increase the order to four frigates and four corvettes to accompany them.

While the world’s attention is focused on the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine, the Greeks are worried that another war may be drawing close in the Aegean.

Tension with Turkey has been growing over territorial waters and sovereign rights to mine undersea mineral wealth.

Greek navy vessel
A Greek Navy ship is docked off the Aegean island of Tinos [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

Turkey has a standing threat of war against Greece, should it claim the full 12 nautical miles of territorial water allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Because of Greece’s many islands, this would give Athens ownership of 71.5 percent of the Aegean.

Last year, Turkish military vessels and jets carried out 2,085 violations of Greek territorial water and 2,459 violations of its national airspace.

“In the Aegean, ‘tongues’ are methodically being created, projections of Turkish naval power, where there are open spaces between Greek islands,” said opposition Syriza MP Sofia Sakorafa in parliament.

“Turkish air patrols along the 25th meridian [in the middle of the Aegean] are now regular occurrences … Our national airspace and territory have become a field of hostile actions.”

Shipbuilding programme

Turkey also disagrees with the UN law on the rights of Greece’s islands to a sovereign exploration zone for oil and gas.

Last year, Turkey went a step further, disputing Greece’s sovereignty over its islands in the east Aegean.

Turkey’s own shipbuilding programme has alarmed the Greeks.

“Ankara has launched an ambitious programme to build a blue water navy for projecting power far away from home,” Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis, associate professor of international security, King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.

“Modelled after the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, the newly built amphibious assault ship Anadolu could conduct long-distance combat operations. The Turkish Navy has also designed and built four Istanbul-class frigates with multi-role combat capabilities,” he said.

Ruling New Democracy MP Dora Bakoyannis, who is prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s sister, said, “Greece continues to face a consistent and permanent threat from Turkey.

“We all agree about this in parliament. We also all know that effective diplomacy requires that the country is properly defended.”

Parliament approved the Belharra purchase on February 15 by a majority of 189 MPs in the 300 seat chamber, with the main opposition Syriza voting “present”.

Advanced weaponry

The Belharra carry weaponry a generation ahead of anything currently fielded in the Aegean.

The Aster 30 surface-to-air missile with a range of more than 120 kilometres (74 miles) – three times the range of existing anti-air missiles in the Greek and Turkish arsenals, and far more accurate – is designed to create an umbrella of air superiority 25,000 square kilometres (nearly 10,000 square miles) around each ship.

“The basic thing the Belharra will offer the Greek armed forces is to break Turkish numerical superiority in the air. It will clear the airspace and offer naval forces the opportunity to operate,” a Greek naval officer told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity.

The Belharra will also carry the latest version of the Exocet, a 200km-range (124-mile) cruise anti-ship missile, and strong anti-submarine capabilities.

Belharra frigate
An artist’s impression of a proposed new-generation 4000-tonne digital frigate called the Belharra [File: DCNS handout via AFP]

The government faced criticism for not going further and equipping the Belharra with 1,000km-range (621-mile) naval Scalp missiles – capable of striking Ankara from the Hellenic Navy’s home port at Salamis.

“It’s a deterrent. If each frigate had, say, eight of them, any ship, even in port, could target Turkey at any time,” says an air force officer on condition of anonymity.

“Our dogma remains defensive. We’re not going to occupy Turkey,” said retired admiral Dionysis Hatzidakis, an MP for the ruling New Democracy party who advises Mitsotakis on defence matters.

“Our aim is to destroy enemy surface ships without becoming a strategic target, and to cover our airspace,” he told Al Jazeera.

The Belharra will operate in combination with Rafale and Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets.

These already carry 500km-range (310-mile)air-to-surface Scalp EG missiles, which retired air force wing commander Thanasis Papanikolaou describes as “the terror of the Turkish armed forces”.

The Belharra and jets will be linked in real time, sharing targeting systems and radar intelligence.

Naval sources have told Al Jazeera the likely operational arrangement is that three Belharra frigates would protect the Aegean islands, while a fourth would operate in the Eastern Mediterranean between Crete and Cyprus. This is where the new systems would be particularly important.

“In the Aegean, you have a thousand islands and islets where you can hide and do tactical manoeuvres. In the east Mediterranean, you have open sea, so you need technological superiority,” says the naval officer.

Even in the Aegean, Papanikolaou believes Greece’s new arsenal will cause a rethink of Turkish strategy.

“They will have to bring their aircraft back and keep them within the protective radius of the S-400 missiles. They will put the TB2 drones forward and use those to violate Greek airspace,” he said.

The air force officer agreed: “The Turkish side knows it’s in danger – not just enemy fighter jets but refuelling tankers and airborne radar. By keeping the [Turkish air force] further east, we force them to have a less clear picture.”

A difficult choice

Greece has been mulling for years over replacements for its existing fleet of 13 frigates, between 30 and 40 years old.

It was hamstrung by bankruptcy in 2010, followed by years of austerity, which halved its defence budget to $4.6bn by 2014.

The budget has inched up since then, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In 2020, Greece spent $5.3bn on defence, but this is less than a third of Turkey’s $17.7bn.

Alarmed by souring relations with Turkey, Greece has committed 10.5bn euros ($11.4bn) in the past five years to undertake several upgrades.

It is in the process of converting 85 F-16 fighter jets to Viper level, and has ordered six MH60 Romeo anti-submarine helicopters.

It has also taken possession of four German-designed Type 214 diesel/electric submarines, which can operate noiselessly.

During a 2020 crisis, when the entire Greek and Turkish navies deployed across the Aegean, one of these submarines “entered the Gulf of Smyrna and unnoticed, photographed the entire Turkish fleet”, said the naval officer.

The edge these submarines have given the Greeks at sea is coming to an end, as Germany subsequently sold six of them to Turkey. The first has already been delivered.

In looking for a solution to the country’s ageing frigates, the Greeks sought a more reliable ally. The opportunity for an affordable modernisation that puts Greece technologically ahead of Turkey came from the US pivot to Asia.

Last September, a US offer to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia effectively killed France’s attempts to build Australia a dozen advanced conventional submarines.

“The Naval Group needed to win a contract. We took advantage of this moment and succeeded in two things – buying three Belharra [frigates] for the price of two … and inducting these ships into the Hellenic Navy relatively quickly,” Mitsotakis told parliament.

Mitsotakis and Macron shake hands
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L), shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron following a signing ceremony for a new defence deal [File: Ludovic Marin/pool via AFP]

Greece also got something more important – a defensive alliance with France. It is the first intra-NATO alliance that does not specifically reference the NATO treaty, to which Turkey is also a party.

“France is largely perceived by most Greeks as a reliable and trustworthy ally,” said Karagiannis. “The clause on mutual defence assistance would give a much-needed reassurance to Athens.”

Time is of the essence. Greece won’t have all 24 of its strategic Rafale aircraft until the end of next year, and its frigates will not be operational until 2026. It will also have to keep investing to stay ahead.

“Turkey doesn’t yet have the technology of precision in reconnaissance and targeting, because they’re using Turkish-made systems on their ships,” said the naval officer. “When they acquire this precision we’ll have a bigger problem.”

Source: Al Jazeera