WASHINGTON: The tables have turned for regional rivals Greece and Turkey over fighter jet acquisition plans, with Greece heading to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 just three years after Turkey was expelled from the Joint Strike Fighter program.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters on June 30 that the country had submitted a letter of request “in recent days” to the US government for a squadron of 20 F-35s, with options to purchase an additional squadron, reported. the Associated Press.
The Greek announcement came just a day after President Joe Biden said the United States “should sell” F-16s to Turkey – a statement that was heralded as a breakthrough after Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system in 2019. arms sales to Turkey and got it kicked out of the F-35 program.
Three experts who spoke to Breaking Defense said Greece’s purchase of the F-35 would most likely be approved, but could further drive a wedge between already strained US-Turkey relations.
“Given the strategic situation in the eastern Mediterranean, a purchase of Greek F-35s is inevitable, especially with the [Hellenic Air Force’s] aging fleet,” said Richard Aboulafia, CEO of Aerodynamic Advisory. “Despite the economic difficulties, Greece has prioritized a high level of defense spending. The only challenge is availability, given the F-35’s limited production ramp.
A sale of F-35s to Greece could inflame Ankara, where there is growing rhetoric that the United States is using Greece as a pawn to control Turkey and concerns about deepening relations between the two nations, said Nicholas Danforth, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. But that might not be enough to deter U.S. policymakers from approving the sale, he added.
“Historically, the United States has placed a high priority on preventing conflict among NATO allies in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the past, that meant trying to maintain a very balanced position between Greece and Turkey,” Danforth said.
“Over time, as frustration with Turkey has grown, it has become clear to people in Washington that the real threat in the region is Turkey’s provocative behavior. There is less and less concern about whether improved cooperation with Greece will antagonize Turkey. I see a growing conviction that the relationship with Turkey is a lost cause and that US foreign policy must do its best in this reality.
Meanwhile, Athens believes the Turkish threat is real and air superiority is key to countering that threat, Danforth said. “Greece is already convinced that Turkish hostility [and] Turkey’s malign intentions are entrenched and therefore they are probably less worried about the particular steps they are taking to further aggravate Ankara.
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A senior Turkish official said the US government did not discuss the sale of F-35s to Greece during its recent engagements with Ankara. The official added his belief that Washington would maintain the diplomatic and military balance between Turkey and Greece and take into account the possible instability that such sales could trigger in the region. “That’s why we think Turkey’s F-16 request would be met,” the official said.
The official added that Turkish military experts believe the F-16 deal would put Turkey on a par with the current Greek military – or even give Ankara air superiority. But if Greece were to get the F-35, it would put pressure on Turkey’s TF-X project to succeed as a way to balance capabilities.
The Turkish official said: “We would of course criticize the US government if they gave F-35s to Athens. Not only would that change the military balance, but also because they didn’t provide us with the same system.
No one among current Turkish officials would officially speak about the potential sale of F-35s, but retired generals have long worried against such a deal. For example, retired Brig. General Nejat Eslen offered to deploy the S-400 against Greek F-35s in a 2020 interview with Russian state media.
When asked if Greece actually had a military need for the F-35 or if it just wanted to get one over Ankara, Jim Townsend, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and International Policy NATO said: “It’s both. It’s definitely both.
“You need a political hook to get the money, and the military is more than happy to push for it. They probably think the Turks will eventually go back to F-35s, but the Greeks mean “we have been there before and we will have the advantage over the Turks because they will only have F-16s, and we will be in the next generation. It is a national pride, which does not necessarily respond to a specific NATO force goal,” he said.
It’s possible a Greek F-35 deal could put pressure on Turkey to take steps that would allow it to reenter the F-35 program, said Townsend, now at the Center for a New American Security. However, “I don’t think the Turks feel threatened by the Greeks,” he added. “Turks are more worried about the PKK.”
Although Turkey may seek to throw a wrench in an F-35 sale to Greece, the United States could retaliate against Ankara by blocking Turkey’s purchase of F-16s, said Townsend. “We have some influence. It’s rare to get leverage on the Turks and I think the F-16 is our main leverage in many ways.
Euros and senses
While experts have agreed that the US government will likely approve the sale, a lingering yet unanswered question is how Greece will ultimately pay for the F-35. The combined forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine have rattled the global economy, with countries in Europe and beyond facing soaring gas prices, a shortage food and at higher costs due to shortage of supply.
With a unit cost of at least $78 million per F-35A conventional take-off and landing model – a figure that is expected to increase due to supply chain pressures – and operating and maintenance costs notoriously high, paying for multiple F-35 squadrons could be a challenge for Greece even in the best of times. However, the Greek economic system only recently recovered after the 2008 financial crisis triggered a series of bailouts.
Ultimately, the country could choose to scale back its planned purchase if it becomes too expensive or “get a scaled-down version” of the plane “like buying a car without hubcaps,” Townsend said.
“Who knows how they end up affording it? Generally, they don’t seem to mind borrowing,” he said. “I think what they are doing is they are making arms purchases a top priority because they feel this threat from Turkey, but also its national pride and its ability to show the Turks that they cannot take the Greeks for granted. Their economy has been struggling with debt, so whether they could buy as many F-35s as they plan or buy them at all is a good question.
Aboulafia said Greece may also seek second-hand aircraft to try to offset the initial costs of acquiring the F-35. However, this decision could result in higher sustainment costs, as it is more expensive to maintain older aircraft and early models that may not have been updated with the latest software and hardware.
Ragip Soylu in Turkey contributed to this report.