Greece has tilted to air superiority over Turkey

The question of who has air sovereignty in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean dates back to the 1974 Greek-Turkish-Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Vassilis Nedos said on Monday Kathimerini where he writes: “Greece is gradually gaining the upper hand in the air”. Until recently, Turkey had significantly more capacity, if not total strategic superiority, but the scales are tipping in Greece’s favour.

“Even if Turkey were to pull its aircraft modernization program out of Washington, it would take many years for its air force to catch up on the backlog that has accumulated since it pulled out of the F-35 program.”

There are also new tensions within the American political system over whether to allow the Turkish Air Force to sell 40 new F-16s and modernize 80 of its existing fighters.

The US is now less inclined to support Turkey than it has been in the past. Turkey and Greece are both NATO members, and Turkey was a bulwark against communism during the Cold War. Recently, however, Turkey has become a nuisance to Washington due to populist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Western and anti-Isreal stance. Relations between the US and Turkey are strained.

Greek-American lobbyists seem to have been more successful lately in building pro-Greek sentiment in Washington among Democrats and Republicans alike, as Greece abandoned the populist anti-US and anti-Israel rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s.

The former socialist Syriza government and the conservative New Democracy government combined to build a more pragmatic foreign policy architecture with a narrow focus on the south-eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia.

While Europe is still critical of Greece, it requires more than just a Western perspective. The aggressive (and often racist) role Germany played in pressuring Greece during the disastrous economic crisis of 2011-2015, the acquiescence of Catholic Europe, was not forgotten by Greeks. The US under President Obama, spurred on by Greek-American lobbyists, and even the work of the Greek-Australian and Greek-Canadian diaspora lobbying in their nations in support of Greece, curtailed Germany’s more aggressive stance. In addition, Chinese investment in Greece and more recent cooperation with India has resulted in Greece playing a historic pre-modern role in balancing East and West.

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The New Democracy government’s opposition to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to the not-so-subtle support Greece gave to former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević in his war of aggression against states in the former Yugoslavia seeking independence. He instigated the brutal Balkan wars of the 1990s and Greece contrasted with EU and US positions on Milošević. A traditional leaning in support of the Orthodox Christian fraternity has not resurfaced, except in the hard right and the old communist parties.

The Prespa Accord reached in 2018 between Greece and what is now North Macedonia settled a long-standing dispute between Greece and its northern neighbor over nomenclature. Another sign that Greece was ready for a pragmatic reassessment of its historical positions. This was a modern Greece now, less inclined to atavistic posturing. All of this has made Greece a more serious nation in the region that can now claim dividends, particularly in military terms.

Of greater significance to Greece’s new and more robust military capacity are the cordial and deepened ties between Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. The relationship with Israel, in particular, has led to joint military exercises, Israeli investment in Greece and increased tourism from Israel to Greece.

An acknowledgment of the cultural, regional and historical commonalities between the two diaspora nations (hopefully) put to rest the anti-Semitic sentiments of the orthodox right, as well as the knee-jerk support of what might be called the Palestinian cause, in the 1970s. Efforts by both left-wing and conservative governments in Greece to give wider recognition to the Jewish-Greek communities (many of them ancient) and their decimation by the Nazis, particularly in Thessaloniki, have also created a warmer and more substantial relationship between Israel and Greece.

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The relationship between Israel, Greece, Egypt and of course Cyprus, particularly over who has the drilling rights in the Goliath gas reserves in the Mediterranean, has forced Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to be the odd man in the south-eastern Mediterranean.

Mr Erdogan’s unilateral meddling in Libya, his mixed reactions to Russia and China and his exploitation of the refugee crisis have lost him friends in the EU and angered the US.

France in particular has weighed its support behind Greece in a bid to assert itself more strongly. Using its historical influence in North Africa and Lebanon (once colonies), it has done brisk business selling new and used jet fighters and fancy frigates to Greece. Greece has just received six used planes from the French Air Force this year, will receive another six next year, and has ordered another six new Rafale jet fighters to build a squadron of 24.

Nedos in his Kathimerini According to the article, Turkey operates 260 F-16s and 19 Phantoms. F-16s in Block 30, Block 40 and Block 50 configurations were inducted into the Turkish Air Force in 10 stages between 1987 and 2012. In 2002, Ankara joined the Joint Strike Fighter program, which evolved into the fifth generation F-35 fighter. Turkey eventually ordered 100 F-35As and participated in the program with its defense industry. In 2018, the first Turkish F-35 was tested in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was estimated that by 2020 the first six fifth-generation fighters would already be in Turkey. However, in 2019 Turkey was excluded from the program due to the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems.

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While Ankara now awaits approval to modernize its F-16s, purchase new ones and regain access to spares, Athens has moved forward.

Greece has a total of 153 F-16s, 83 of which will be converted to Vipers, six French Rafales (a further 18 to be delivered by 2024), 24 Mirage 2000-5s and 34 F-4E Phantoms. Of the 153 F-16s, 38 will be upgraded to the Block 50 configuration, while some of the Block 30s will continue their deterrent work and others will be converted to new pilot training aircraft in the Aegean.

Negotiations with the US on the F-35 are expected to begin in 2023, with the aim of landing the first (of the 20+20 requested) in Greece in 2027-28.

Additionally, the addition of new Italian M-346 trainers to the Kalamata Training Center makes the Hellenic Air Force a force to be reckoned with throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

How the new balance of power will affect the region is difficult to say. Mr. Erdogan continues to conjure up regressive visions of a new breed of Ottoman imperialism while Turkey’s economy suffers and secular progressive Turks are imprisoned and banished. He seeks to expand influence in the Muslim world, turning Agia Sophia into a mosque and referencing the explosion and destruction of Greek communities in Turkey in 1922. Greece’s new firepower and air superiority notwithstanding, it must schedule a post – Erdoğan Turkey. Many anti-Erdogan urban middle-class Turks are seeking refuge in Greece and are being labeled “traitors” by Mr. Erdogan. What is clear is that Greece’s more pragmatic, less nationalistic foreign policy has resulted in a more efficient and modern air capacity and better relations with all but Turkey.

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