The high level of Greek defense expenditures, as well as the so-called hypocrisy of countries like Germany and France that have been selling expensive weapon systems to a country with Greece’s debt and financial problems have often been in the headlines over the past two years. Unfortunately, there are several misperceptions and rather limited understanding of the issues involved. A recent article published in the authoritative International Herald Tribune (“Greek forces spared from deep cuts,” 8/1/2013) is an example of this problem.
The article claims that Greece’s high expenditures “seem astonishing given that Greece is in a deep economic and financial crisis. Greece’s economy has shrunk by 25 percent over the past two years.” [The 25 percent figure actually covers the last four years.] Then the article goes on to say that since 2008, Greek defense expenditures have been reduced from 3.1 percent of GDP to the current figure of 2.1 percent of GDP. But this is actually a 29 percent reduction in relative terms and an additional reduction in absolute terms because it is connected to a smaller GDP. It is also argued that 73% of Greece’s defense budget is for personnel costs alone. That figure is pre-crisis. The current figure according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is 57 percent.
It is then argued that “it is particularly hard to see how the armed forces can justify the current budget, as the money is not spent on supporting NATO or EU missions.” Indeed Greece has significantly reduced its contribution to multinational missions over the past few months due to financial constraints. It is a regrettable yet understandable decision under the circumstances. But then the article substantially underplays the deeply held Greek perceptions about a threat from Turkey. It even mentions that “over the past several months the Greek media have written that Turkey violated Greek air space at least once.” This is rather sloppy reporting as there are very frequent violations that on a yearly basis number in the hundreds. Although it could be argued that many of these incidents could have been avoided through a technical agreement between the two countries, facilitated by NATO, pending the legal resolution of the problem, it is difficult to understand what Turkish warplanes are trying to achieve with low-level overflights over inhabited Greek islands or why Turkish warships are violating the spirit if not the letter of the “innocent passage” right, often near Greece’s mainland coast. And the frequent references by Turkish politicians – fortunately not from the governing AKP party – to a number of inhabited Greek islands in the Aegean as belonging to Turkey do not exactly strengthen confidence and trust between the two countries. Also, top Turkish military officers have been brought to trial for plotting for the overthrow of the Turkish government through a staged military conflict with Greece. Furthermore, the Turkish casus belli in case Greece exercises what it considers its right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles is still on the table. Not to mention the more recent Turkish position that Kastelorizo and other Greek islands have no right to maritime zones or that Cyprus has no right to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In light of the above, it is hardly surprising that Greece has over the past 40 years been maintaining sizable armed forces and high defense expenditures in order to defend itself from what it perceives to be an external threat. I will not argue that Greece’s position is axiomatically the right one on every single issue (or that defense expenditures have been wisely spent). And one could debate whether this perception is accurate, exaggerated or outdated (although this should be done on the basis of factual evidence, not simple opinions). However, between countries that are members of NATO and, perhaps in the future fellow members of the EU, such matters should be resolved by diplomacy and international adjudication, not threatening the use of force.
The concluding remark in the IHT article touches upon a very topical issue: the need for transparency in defense procurement and for overall reform in the armed forces. But again the conclusion is partly misguided. Closing a substantial number of military bases and consolidating training centers would not “send tens of thousands of young soldiers into the ranks of the unemployed” but would rather reduce operational expenses allowing the Hellenic Armed Forces to “achieve more with less” (“more bang for the buck”). And instead of waiting “for any major restructuring until the country’s economy picks up,” such reforms should be implemented as soon as possible. But such changes should be the result of a defense review that would re-examine basic assumptions about the regional strategic environment, the nature of external threats, new technologies, doctrines and organizational models, as well as the social and economic conditions in Greece. Such a review – long overdue – would provide the necessary answers to Greece’s security dilemma.
I would argue that the key concept for Greek foreign policy in the next few years should be the smart use of its resources in foreign and defense policy. A number of important changes in the sphere of national security policy will be necessary to maintain Greek combat efficiency at lower levels of defense expenditures. Economies of scale, cooperative schemes, full exploitation of high-efficiency organizational and operational models and doctrines, as well as the use of new technologies, might be part of the answer in Greece’s problems in the defense sector. To this end, Greece should take maximum advantage of EU, NATO and bilateral opportunities for training, defense reform, security sector reform, crisis management and disaster management systems, and strategic planning mechanisms.
Managing the frequently difficult relationship with Turkey remains a top foreign policy priority for any Greek government. It is certainly encouraging that the AKP government has expressed its willingness to fully normalize relations with Greece and the two countries should work hard for a resolution of bilateral problems on the basis of international law. In the meantime, however, a balance of military forces in the Aegean, at the lowest possible level, would maintain stability and might even facilitate diplomatic efforts.
* Thanos Dokos is director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)