Greece receives six French fighter jets as part of €11.5bn military overhaul

·3 min read

Government has announced a seven-fold increase in defence spending amid tensions with Turkey over gas reserves

Greece showcased its newly acquired defence capabilities on Tuesday as six Rafale fighter jets, recently arrived from France, flew over the Acropolis.

The jets roared over the symbolic monument en route to the Tanagra airbase, highlighting the Greek government’s decision to press ahead with a major military overhaul amid tensions with Turkey.

“These new warplanes make our air force one of the strongest in Europe and the Mediterranean,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, attending a reception ceremony at the airbase north of Athens.

While deterrence was the ultimate goal the acquisitions would bolster “the flexibility of our national diplomacy”, he said.

The centre-right administration has announced a seven-fold increase in defence spending on last year. Greek combat pilots are frequently forced to engage in mock dogfights in Aegean airspace disputed by Turkey with Mitsotakis describing the need to upgrade the air force as urgent.

In addition to 24 Rafales, both old and new, Athens will take stock of warships, helicopters and 84 modernised US-made F-16s aircraft as part of a procurement programme that will include the purchase of Meteor air-to-air missiles.

The acquisition of F-35 stealth combat aircraft – seen as a gamechanger by the Hellenic armed forces – is also being discussed, according to defence experts in Washington and Athens.

The purchase of the French-made Rafales comes amid a military overhaul that is projected to cost Greece €11.5bn by 2025 and is not without controversy. The leftwing opposition party Syriza has called the spending “excessive” at a time when the pandemic and cost of living crisis weigh ever more heavily on Greece.

The overhaul is aimed as much at strengthening the nation’s war readiness against Turkey as reinforcing its security role on Nato’s southeastern flank. Analysts described the acquisition of the Rafales as a turning point in the Hellenic air force’s long-range missile capacity.

“Their arrival marks the first in a series of defence deals that are currently in motion,” said Ioannis Michaletos at the Institute for Security and Defence Analysis. “Greece has not bought weapons in such quantities for more than a decade. It’s going to be a very eventful year in terms of European contractors coming to Athens to try and seal deals.”

Tensions over rival claims to offshore gas reserves in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war in 2020.

Ankara’s recent economic woes, in the wake of the country’s currency crisis, has also caused nervousness in Athens.

“Aside from the perennial antagonism between Greece and Turkey, both also want to upgrade their role within Nato because of the diplomatic and political consequences that will bring,” said Michaletos.

The sight of the French fighter jets in Greek skies came barely four months after Mitsotakis signed an historic, multi-billion euro military accord with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris.

Under the deal France will deliver three state-of-the art Belharra frigates to Greece by 2025. France’s deteriorating ties with Turkey has been echoed by an enhancement in bilateral relations between Athens and Paris cemented by the nations’ shared common interests in the Mediterranean.