ATHENS – No one wants it and most doubt it could happen but what would happen after a Turkish or Greek fighter pilot or Naval captain got an itchy trigger finger or an accidental conflict broke out over the seas, the skies or Turkey sending thousands of refugees and migrants to the Greek border and pushing provocations?
This isn’t 100 years ago and war is now more sophisticated, electronic and swifter, with Greece and Turkey adjoining countries, further eclipsing the problems of moving people and equipment.
On paper, it’s no match. Greece has 308 fighter jets and other planes, including 150 F-16’s according to Nation Master and Armed Forces.Eu. Turkey has 465. Greece has 159,000 armed forces personnel. Turkey has 610,000.
Greece has 39 attack helicopters. Turkey has 36. Greece has 1,244 tanks. Turkey has 3,763. Greece has 11 submarines. Turkey has 13. Neither has an aircraft carrier but share the Aegean and East Mediterranean, with Turkey disputing Greek waters and making a deal with Libya to divide the seas between them, Turkey planning to drill for energy off Crete.
But Greek fighter pilots are skilled, ranked the best in the world – one won the Top Gun honors – by NATO, the defense alliance to which both countries belong and which has refused to intervene.
When Turkish jets regularly violate Greek airspace, Greek pilots engage them in mock dogfights, the Turkish skill level said to have been decimated when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purged the military after a failed 2016 coup attempt against him.
Greece in 2019 renewed a military cooperation deal with the United States and the U.S. Navy has a base at Souda Bay on Crete but President Donald Trump is cozy with Erdogan, whom he calls a friend and a “hell of a leader.” So what would happen if a conflict, accidental or otherwise, did break out?
Despite the fact that Greece's armed forces, like all of society, took budget cuts during a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis the country is only now pulling out of – before the unknown effects of the coronavirus, it wouldn't be one-sided, with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis telling Trump at the White House that Greece would win.
“Greece has a defensive posture in its armed forces. It can defend…its territory as long as the 'war' does not drag on for a long time. Greece being a smaller country with a feeble economy cannot stand a prolonged war,” Ioannis Michaletos, an associate of the Institute for Defense & Security Analysis and the Mediterranean Center For Strategic Analysis and Intelligence in Athens told The National Herald.
He said Erdogan, for all his bluster about coveting the return of Greek islands ceded in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set borders, will likely stick with his strategy of opening the borders in hopes of trying to flood Greece with more refugees and migrants.
“A conventional war is unlikely. A 'hybrid' war like the one we are witnessing now with the use of immigration and propaganda is more likely to continue,” he said.
Aegean Islands such as Skyros, Limnos, and Samothraki he said are technically unsinkable aircraft bases like carriers with anti-aircraft systems, anti-ship missiles, soldiers, and air squadrons.”
“The Aegean Theater is in theory a deadly trap for massive offensive Turkish moves. They risk being entrapped in myriads of islands from where they will be bombarded from all sides,” he said. Then there's the daunting Greek Navy.
“All the Greek Navy is geared against Turkey, whilst Turkey has to retain sizeable forces in the Black Sea and East Mediterranean sea theaters,” he said, with Turkish ships having to cross the Dardanelles Straits or Karpathos Straits which can be easily mined by Greek forces.
He said Turkey's advantage lies in vast manpower and reserves but that would take time to mobilize and the edge would be lost in a quick war or if NATO or the United States intervened to stop it before the conflict became too damaging.
“In case the war drags on Turkey will increase its numerical strength and create major issues for Greek defense strategy,” which would have trouble reaching the Turkish capital Ankara with missiles.
“NATO and the EU cannot stand and witness the mutual destruction of two long-standing members. They will step in to minimize or stop the war,” he said.
Patrick Theros, former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar and former political advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command, told The National Herald (he is a columnist for the paper) that Mitsotakis is correct in saying Greece would win.
But, said Theros, that's only if you “define winning as inflicting unacceptable casualties on Turkish forces and carrying the battle into Turkish territory. Greece does not have the power projection capability to occupy significant pieces of Turkish territory.”
He said the Turkish military still hasn't recovered from the Erdogan purge and that senior officers have been replaced with younger officers in an army “that does not encourage free-thinking,” based on what American officers who took part in exercises with Turkish forces said.
“Too many of the new senior officers owe their promotion to their religious and political as well as their professional skills,” he said, a serious disadvantage in the heat of combat and the fog of war.
Turkey bought Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems – from an enemy of NATO – but he said those are not yet operational and that purchase kept Turkey from being able to buy US F-35 fighter jets that are far superior to the F-16s. “The only place where the Turks have done well is the employment of drones. They are ahead of the Greeks – who used to be more advanced – in this weapon. The Greeks recognize the threat and have devoted considerable resources to dealing with it,” he said.
“There are a lot problems with tactical doctrine and tactical employment in Turkish units,” he said, and the Turkish Armed Forces bought cheaper models for a lot of equipment, including tanks, that could limit their effectiveness.
“Turkey is still mostly using the 2A4 tank, whilst other NATO armies are using the more modern version with better armored protection and optics, which explains in part why Turkish tanks are performing so badly against an inferior opponent,” he said.
Mitsotakis said Turkey is also underestimating Greece's resolve and mistaking his softer approach, preferring diplomacy.
“Our calm stance toward these aggressive transgressions from the East should not be misunderstood or underestimated,” he said, Kathimerini reported. He added “The forces of peace and fairness may not be loud but they are vigilant; they may not provoke but they know how to react.”