Power dynamics are changing in the Eastern Mediterranean, as Greek parliament in October 2021 has struck a multi-billion euro military deal with France. This deal could decide the long term regional security context.
The defense pact includes critical upgrades for the Hellenic navy through a major partnership with the French navy. This deal could even have major strategic implications for the EU as a whole, and can even impact the transatlantic region.
The negotiations to upgrade the Hellenic navy had been going on for a while. Athens had initially rejected the purchase of the Belharra FDIs (Frigate for Defence and Intervention) in August 2020, when the initial French offer was deemed expensive. Paris apparently revised their proposal providing more favorable terms, and then pushed for a quick seal of the deal. Hence, this could become a major step in the expansion of the French defense industry. It, at the same time, also sends a clear signal to the United States that European powers could be equally competitive in selling their military technology.
Hellenic forces have been long relying on Netherlands-designed and built Elli-class (Type Standard) Frigates and German-designed and partially built Class Meko-200HN Frigates, which were commissioned in the early 1980s and during the 1990s, respectively. These frigates went through some occasional modernisation programmes, but overall, the Hellenic weaponry has gradually become outdated, thus making an imperative for a drastic and extensive upgrade.
A joint partnership among Naval group, Thales, and MBDA will significantly upgrade the capabilities of the Hellenic navy. Greece is expected to acquire at least three frigates, with another one possibly to be added to the massive purchase. The first vessel will be reportedly delivered to the Hellenic Navy, by late 2024, or early 2025.
Article 2 of the Partnership states that the pair will assist each other ‘with all the means at their disposal, in the event that armed force is needed, if they both ascertain that an attack is taking place against the territory of either.’
Greece had also secured another vast deal with France in January 2021, where Athens will acquire eighteen French-designed and built Dassault Rafale fighter jets. They will be delivered gradually from late 2021 to early 2023, and fully integrated into a navy-air force cooperation model, thereby increasing Greece’s military footprint.
Greece is doing all this because of its acrimonious quarrel with Turkey. If it had neighbors like Switzerland, it would have spent more on education and health.
Tensions with Turkey reached its high in the summer of 2020. France sent naval forces to help Greece’s aging fleet of eleven frigates patrol its maritime zones. The two countries have since held joint and multilateral air and sea exercises in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In September 2021, Greece filed a formal complaint with Turkey over the alleged harassment of the Nautical Geo, a Maltese-flagged survey vessel. They even nearly went to war over the Imia islets in the Aegean in 1996, and over oil and gas exploration in 1987.
The East Med pipeline has irritated Turkey, which has its own energy ambitions in the East Mediterranean. Since 2018, it has sent survey ships to find gas deposits in what Greece and Cyprus regard as their maritime jurisdiction.
Despite a considerable gap in technology and equipment, the Hellenic navy has had a decent standing in the recent decade. This, however, should not overestimate the advancements in Turkish defence technology, with its ongoing projects such as the MILGEM, or National Ship Project, which is an initiative of the Presidency of Defence Industries, fully supported by the Turkish president and most senior state officials, for creating innovative defence technologies and equipment almost self-sufficiently. Also, there is the Multipurpose Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD) TCG Anadolu, currently under construction in the Sedef Shipyard, which will drastically boost Turkish Naval capabilities.
Strategically, what could become problematic for Greece in the years to come is that Turkey has expanded its unmanned naval capabilities, with the most prominent the ULAQ AUSV, a project developed by ARES Shipyard and Meteksan Savunma. This new technology could revolutionize naval warfare in the future.
Since Ankara assumed a military role in the Libyan civil war in October 2019, Turkish-French relations have also deteriorated. France sees Turkey as a rival for influence in North Africa, where it uses Bayraktar TB2 drones, which are weapons-capable, and have turned the tide in Libya, or outside North Africa, such as in the Nagorno-Karabakh. These advanced drones could constitute a formidable threat in the Aegean, too. And surprisingly, seventy percent of Turkey’s equipment are home built.
Accordingly, Greece’s stronger political and military partnership in the making in southern Europe will integrate the Greek-Cypriot dynamic and other significant local players, like Egypt and Israel.
For France, after the AUKUS announcement, which resulted as a major drawback, it can still play a major role in regional developments, outside strict NATO limits.
With the US steadily downgrading NATO’s importance during the Trump era, it seems that the Biden administration will maintain this narrative to an extent through the AUKUS pact. Regardless of that, the latest bilateral agreement between Paris and Athens highlights that the strategic alliances in current times should be driven by a more pragmatic and realistic approach, detached from the Cold War period.
Dr Ioannis Mazis, professor of economic geography and geopolitics at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, also noted that Paris is even seeking to consolidate defence, political, and economic ties with India. This closer French-Indian engagement, if utilised properly by Athens, could prove to be vital for Greek strategic interests, and a significant offset to the Turkish Pakistani axis.
Naveed Qazi is an author of seven books, and editor of Globe Upfront. For feedback, he can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org