ATHENS – Not receiving any backing from NATO or the European Union over repeated Turkish violations of its airspace and waters, Greece will take delivery early in 2021 of 18 new and used French-made Rafale fighter jets.
While France was among the countries which wouldn’t support Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ call for sanctions on Turkey for planning to drill for energy off Greek islands, the purchase of the jets was authorized as part of an 11.5-billion-euro ($14.03 billion) drive to modernize its armed forces as a bulwark against a conflict.
Mitsotakis said the agreements would soon be finalized with the French government and defense contractor Dassault Aviation, announcing the news in parliament ahead of a vote on the 2021 budget.
The deal was discussed by Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and French defense chief Florence Parly, who was scheduled to visit Athens Dec. 19-20 although it could be changed because of the pandemic, said Kathimerini..
The total contract for the supply of the jets, fully armed with Meteor, SCALP and Exocet missiles, is expected to amount to approximately 2.5 billion euros ($3.03 billion) during another economic slowdown.
The General Staff of the Hellenic Air Force is going to send four pilots to France for training in the aircraft so that by May the first used Rafale will be ready for the Greek air fleet.
The contracts also include the maintenance of the existing Mirage-2000 MK-2 aircraft, as well as the renewal of all types of systems available to the armed forces, including electronic and weapons systems, the report added.
Greece and France are discussing upgrading the Greek Army’s drones and France is also eager to sell Greece Belharra frigates to bolster the Greek Navy which was earlier shadowing the Turkish energy vessel the Oruc Reis and warships off Kastellorizo.
Annual spending on defense is being hiked by more than a third in 2021 to 5.4 billion euros ($6.59 billion) despite a deep recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, some priority given to building an arsenal.
The move comes as the EU rejected sanctions on Turkey and said they wouldn’t even be considered until March, 2021 and with Germany – which joined France, Spain and Italy in blocking them – also supplying Turkey with submarine components and other weapons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly sent and withdrawn an energy research vessel and warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo and said drilling would take place off Crete, bringing fears of a battlefront.
Turkey has purchased a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system that could be used against Greece and undermines the security of NATO, the defense alliance to which Turkey and Greece belong.
Details of Greece’s military overhaul were announced after the summer: A five-year program that will include weapons upgrades for all three branches of the armed forces and the hiring of an additional 15,000 personnel.
The program includes plans to purchase new frigates, anti-submarine warfare helicopters and drones, as well as an upgrade of Greece’s entire fleet of F-16 jets by 2027 in partnership with U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin.
Greece also is in line to get US-made F-35 fighter jets that were supposed to go to Turkey before the sale was banned over the S-400 missile purchase and with the Congress hitting Turkey with more sanctions.
Greece has forged closer military ties with traditional allies France and the United States and expanded collaboration with Israel, Egypt, and other countries in the region as Mitsotakis is building an international alliance.
Military spending was cut back during a major financial crisis that started over a decade ago but Greece is again facing acute financial problems due to the pandemic but getting backing for defense against Turkey wasn’t easy.
Lawmakers approved the budget only by a vote of 158-148 as only New Democracy members went along and all other parties rejected the spending plan for the new year in which the economy is still expected to sputter..
Budget figures see at least a 10.5 percent shrinkage this year of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 164.2 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and anemic growth in 2021, estimates ranging from 0.9 to 4.8 percent.
Due to the pandemic, bailout lenders have waived a requirement for Greece to deliver balanced budgets in 2020 and 2021. The budget deficit before debt servicing costs is expected to reach 11.76 billion euros ($14.35 billion) this year and 6.67 billion ($8.14 billion) next year, 7.22 and 3.88 percent of GDP.
The debt-to-GDP ratio is set to surge to 208.9 percent – higher than the level Mitsotakis said while out of office was unsustainable, though much of that debt is held by the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism which gave lenient terms.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)