Greece approves its biggest naval modernization in 20 years | News

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

Over the next four years, Greece will spend 2.26 billion euros ($2.53 billion) to buy three Belharra frigates built by the French naval group, considered state-of-the-art in the arsenal western.

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

As the world’s attention focuses on the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Greeks fear another war is drawing near in the Aegean.

Tension with Turkey has grown over territorial waters and sovereign rights to exploit underwater mineral wealth.

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

Turkey has a permanent threat of war against Greece, if it claims the full 12 nautical miles of territorial waters allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Due to Greece’s many islands, this would give Athens owns 71.5% of the Aegean Sea.

Last year, Turkish military ships and aircraft committed 2,085 violations of Greek territorial waters and 2,459 violations of its national airspace.

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

Shipbuilding program

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

Last year, Turkey went further by challenging Greece’s sovereignty over its eastern Aegean islands.

Turkey’s shipbuilding program alarmed the Greeks.

“Ankara has embarked on an ambitious program to build a high seas navy to project power away from home,” Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis, associate professor of international security at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.

“Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, the new amphibious assault ship Anadolu could conduct long-range combat operations. The Turkish Navy has also designed and built four Istanbul-class frigates with general-purpose combat capabilities,” he said.

The ruling New Democracy MP, Dora Bakoyannis, who is the sister of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said: “Greece continues to face a constant and permanent threat from Turkey.

“We all agree on that in Parliament. We all also know that effective diplomacy requires that the country be properly defended.

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

Advanced weaponry

The Belharra carry weapons a generation ahead of anything currently deployed in the Aegean.

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

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

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

Belharra FrigateArtist’s impression of a proposed next-generation 4,000-ton digital frigate called Belharra [File: DCNS handout via AFP]

The government has been criticized for not going further and equipping the Belharra with Scalp naval missiles with a range of 1,000 km (621 miles) – capable of hitting Ankara from the Hellenic Navy’s home port of Salamis .

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

“Our dogma remains defensive. We are not going to occupy Turkey,” said retired Admiral Dionysis Hatzidakis, a lawmaker from the ruling New Democracy party who advises Mitsotakis on defense issues.

“Our goal 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 the Rafale and Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets.

These already carry Scalp EG air-to-surface missiles with a range of 500 km (310 miles), which retired air force commander Thanasis Papanikolaou describes as “the terror of the Turkish Armed Forces”. .

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

Naval sources 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 Sea you have a thousand islands and islets where you can hide and do tactical maneuvers. To the east of the Mediterranean, you have the high seas, so you need technological superiority,” explains the naval officer.

Even in the Aegean, Papanikolaou believes Greece’s new arsenal will lead to an overhaul of Turkish strategy.

“They will have to bring their planes back and keep them within the protection radius of the S-400 missiles. They will promote TB2 drones and use them to violate Greek airspace,” he said.

The air force officer agreed: “The Turkish side knows they are in danger – not just enemy fighter jets, but also airborne tankers and radars. By keeping the [Turkish air force] further east, we force them to have a less sharp image.

A difficult choice

Greece has been thinking for years about replacing its existing fleet of 13 frigates, which are 30 to 40 years old.

It was crippled by bankruptcy in 2010, followed by years of austerity, which halved its defense budget to $4.6 billion in 2014.

The budget has since increased, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In 2020, Greece spent $5.3 billion on defense, but that’s less than a third of Turkey’s $17.7 billion.

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

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

He also took possession of four German-designed Type 214 diesel/electric submarines, which can operate quietly.

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

The advantage these submarines gave the Greeks at sea is coming to an end, as Germany then sold six of them to Turkey. The first has already been delivered.

In seeking a solution to the country’s aging frigates, the Greeks were looking for a more reliable ally. The opportunity for affordable modernization 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 a dozen advanced conventional submarines in Australia.

“Naval Group needed to land a contract. We took advantage of this moment and achieved two things: buy three Belharra [frigates] for the price of two…and induct those ships into the Hellenic Navy relatively quickly,” Mitsotakis told parliament.

Mitsotakis and Macron shake handsGreek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron following a signing ceremony for a new defense agreement [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 refer to the NATO treaty, to which Turkey is also a party.

“France is widely seen by most Greeks as a reliable and trustworthy ally,” Karagiannis said. “The Mutual Defense Assistance Clause would provide much-needed reassurance to Athens.”

Hurry up. Greece will not have its 24 Rafale strategic aircraft before the end of next year and its frigates will not be operational until 2026. It will also have to continue to invest to stay ahead.

“Turkey does not yet have the precision reconnaissance and targeting technology, as it uses Turkish-made systems on its ships,” the naval officer said. “When they get that precision, we’ll have a bigger problem.”

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