The armaments race and its subtext in the Greek-Turkish situation

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The rude awakening for Greek public opinion from the White House/the Biden Administration decision to push forward a controversial move of arms sales to Turkey totaling 20 bnUS$ and including 40 new F-16s (plus double this number of upgrade kits to turn the existing fleet to -Viper) was accompanied by the reminder that Greece had already received the thumbs-up to buy at least 30 F-35s. The unit price for the latter stands at some 80 million US$, but then one should start adding armaments, avionics and the suchlike.

It is a known fact that Capitol Hill has strong reservations about the Turkish sale – especially due to the negative position of Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs Committee (also of Gus Bilirakis and Chris Pappas). But linking the Turkish sale to Ankara’s much-needed acceptance of the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO may well end eroding the Senate position. The meeting, mid-week, between Foreign Ministers Mevlut Cavusoglu and Antony Blinken will make the Turkish position clearer.

Meanwhile Greece has already underway an F-16 upgrade program to -Viper, which will cover more than 80 fighters; also, French Rafale planes are steadily joining the Hellenic Air Force since last year. So, it can be confidently expected that comparisons of air force capacities over the Aegean and adjoining East Mediterranean airspace swathes will start again. As well as discussions about 5th generation warplanes as opposed to 4.5 generation and so forth.

It is difficult to avoid an eerie feeling that Washington is more-or-less playing a balancing act with the political needs of Athens and Ankara, both nearing sensitive electoral showdowns. Add to this that – if the sale is finally approved – upgraded F-16s would reach Turkey within the next two years, while F-35s should not be expected to join the HAF before 2027. (Greece has been leapfrogged by both Poland and Finland on the Lockheed-Martin waiting list).

Such high-tech/high-powered discussion should in no way obscure the – potentially more topical –  issue of the menace weighing over the Greek islands under the new Turkish policy of challenging the status quo of the Aegean: airspace violations and overflights by Turkish fighters as well as coastguard incidents over fishing rights and/or search-and-rescue operations involving refugee crossings have recently been followed by Turkish calls for the disarmament of the islands. According to Turkish rhetoric if Greece does not agree to such disarmament, then the very territorial status of Aegean islands would be disputed; even calls for a blockade were heard at supposedly informative talk shows in Turkish TV.

So, the arms race between Greece and Turkey over prevalence in the air is acquiring a disturbing subtext. The realization that Turkish UAVs have been used in field operations all the way from Azeri-Armenian clashes to Syrian war and Libyan faction fights, not to mention such UAVs’ role in the ongoing Ukraine war, makes for unpleasant thoughts once the geography of the Aegean islands and their proximity to the Turkish coast comes into the equation.

Discussions about the acquisition of Israeli Spike-NLOS missiles (also involving Lockheed Martin along with their Israeli Rafael builder), or even the equivalent of Iron Dorne interception technology were bound to come to the fore. All the while, tourist and shopping crossings from the Aegean islands to the Turkish shores and conversely tell a different story. Totally different.