Greece’s goals to acquire new fighter jets and upgrade its existing air force could see the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) attain a very formidable qualitative edge over its Turkish rival by the end of the 2020s.
Greece and Turkey are presently locked in an increasingly tense and dangerous standoff in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean over hydrocarbon drilling rights and the delineation of their maritime boundaries.
Amid these tensions, Athens is in negotiations with its ally France over future arms deals that might include the procurement of formidable French 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale jets. Greek possession of such jets could pose a significant challenge to Turkish jets over the Aegean and Mediterranean.
“We are in talks with France, and not only with France, in order to increase our country’s defense potential,” a Greek official told Reuters in early September, adding that these talks include “the purchase of aircraft.”
Greek media previously claimed that both countries had already reached a deal for a sale of 18 Rafale jets, although this is unconfirmed and seems quite dubious for now.
The HAL already operates a small fleet of French-built Mirage 2000-5s.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first instance this year in which Greece has shown an interest in substantially upgrading its air force with more modern jets.
Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos said in January, following a visit by the country’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Washington, that Greece plans to procure at least 24 stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jets from the United States for $3 billion.
Panagiotopoulos expects that the lengthy acquisition process would begin after 2024.
The defense minister went so far as to say that Greece’s acquisition of F-35s would help it achieve “air superiority over Turkey” in the not-too-distant future.
He was echoed by Turkish journalist Haluk Özdalga who went so far as to say that HAL F-35s could enable Greece to turn the Aegean into a “Greek lake.”
Additionally, Özdalga said, Greek F-35s would mean “balances can be turned upside down in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, including Cyprus.”
Athens is also in the process of upgrading its air force’s existing inventory.
Greece has just over 150 F-16s while Turkey has 245. In December, Panagiotopoulos said that 84 HAL F-16s will be updated to the latest Viper standard by 2027 as part of a $1.5 billion deal with manufacturer Lockheed Martin LMT -0.3%.
Completing that upgrade would undoubtedly give that large portion of Greece’s F-16 fleet a qualitative edge over their quantitatively superior Turkish counterpart, which operates the Block 30, 40, and 50 variants of that iconic fighter jet.
According to Lockheed Martin, upon completion of this upgrade program, “HAF F-16Vs will be the most advanced F-16s in Europe.”
Greece also signed contracts with French aerospace companies to upgrade its smaller Mirage 2000-5 fleet during the same period. The contracts’ value is estimated to amount to €260 million (approximately $300 million).
All of this comes as Turkey is facing problems with procuring new aircraft and upgrading its existing fleet.
The United States suspended Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for its acquisition of advanced Russian S-400 air defense missile systems in 2019. Turkey likely won’t receive the jet unless it completely removes the S-400s from its territory, which it’s not likely to do.
Furthermore, Turkey is unlikely going to be able to complete its fifth-generation TAI TF-X stealth fighter by the 2030s nor procure fifth-generation fighters from other countries, such as Russia, in the same period.
Turkey may even find it will have difficulty acquiring 4.5-generation fighters to serve as stopgap fighters until it can finally field fifth-generation jets.
And on top of all this, Ankara may well find it will have difficulty upgrading its existing fleet of fighter jets.
It was recently revealed that Congress secretly blocked arms deals to Turkey since 2018, reportedly including a contract for Lockheed Martin to structurally upgrade 35 of Turkey’s older Block 30 F-16 fighters to prolong their operational lifespan.
During this same period, Turkey began stockpiling spare parts for its F-16s out of fear it could face wide-ranging U.S. sanctions for its S-400 purchase.
Consequently, we may see a situation unfold wherein Turkey finds it increasingly difficult to maintain its large fleet of fourth-generation fighters whereas Greece, in stark contrast, successfully upgrades and enhances its fleet and attains more sophisticated fighters.
In that scenario, Turkish airpower would significantly lag behind that of its Greek neighbor and Ankara may find it increasingly difficult to contest its various maritime disputes with Athens militarily. Follow me on Twitter. Paul Iddon
I am a journalist/columnist who writes about Middle East military and political affairs.