ATHEN — A panel of senior Greek government and military officials has approved a 1.2-billion-euro ($1.45 billion) deal to upgrade more than half of the country’s American-made F-16 fighter planes, six months after Defense Minister Panos Kammenos became embroiled in criticism over the cost.
With tensions with Turkey rising and as Ankara wants to buy more advanced F-35’s from the United States, the two NATO allies are engaging in an arms war amid fears there could be a conflict, accidental or otherwise, especially in the Aegean where Turkey disputes sea borders and covets the return of islands ceded to Greece in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
Officials say the deal approved by the Greek cabinet will give 85 of Greece’s fleet of F-16s capabilities similar to the much more advanced F-35 fighters minus stealth technology.
The terms of the agreement call for Greece to pay for the improvements until 2027 or 2028, but the U.S. agreed to cap annual payments at 150 million euros ($182 million) after that.
U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted that the approval built on Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s visit to the White House in October, 2017. The deal was approved during a special meeting of the government’s Council on Foreign Policy and Defense (KYSEA) chaired by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the weekend, the PM’s office said.
Greece has 150 F-16 jets, some of which are nearly 30 years old, putting Greek pilots at a disadvantage as they race to intercept Turkish fighters jets that regularly invade Greek air space with no rebuke from NATO with the alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg saying he wants no part of any trouble between the countries.
The deal was first announced during Tsipras’ visit to Washington but was stuck over the price tag, initially estimated at $2.4 billion over 10 years. Kammenos then said that the US hdd accepted a revised proposal, taking into account Greece’s situation as it works through bailouts from the EU and the International Monetary Fund and as at one point he said Greece might get free upgrades.
The first plane could be delivered as early as 2020, with much of the work being undertaken by EAV, a Greek state defense contractor, the daily Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported.
The announcement now comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gained near-dictatorial powers in the wake of failed July, 2016 coup attempt against him, has called for early elections on June 24.
That has raised worries in Greece he will ramp up populist rhetoric in a bid to keep up his popularity as he has purged civil society and the military, jailed journalists in a bid to control the media but said he still wants Turkey to join the European Union which has blasted his repressive moves.
Three US Senators introduced a measure to block the transfer of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey, one of nine partner nations involved in producing the high-tech, radar-evading aircraft.
Republicans James Lankford from Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced the bill, saying they were worried that Erdogan was on a “path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.”
“Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, US interests. These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdogan’s regime increasingly risky,” Lankford said in the statement.
Endy Zemenidis, Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) told Kathimerini in an interview he was anxious there could be an escalation of tensions over Erdogan’s increasingly volatile actions.
Zemenidis said that Pyatt Wwas being diplomatic when he declared he was worried about an “accident” in the Aegean. What everyone is honestly worried about is Turkey’s provocations crossing a line and requiring a response that leads to a military confrontation,” and battle between the countries.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)