The aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush at Souda Bay, in Crete. The American presence in Souda has hit a new record over the past year, with dozens of military units having tied up at Marathi as the base there becomes increasingly important to allied activities in the broader region.
For the second time this month, residents and visitors at Souda Bay in northwestern Crete have the rare treat of being able to admire the awe-inspiring bulk of the USS George H.W. Bush supercarrier from close up as it is docked at the NATO port of Marathi.
The American presence in Souda has hit a new record over the past year, with dozens of military units having tied up at Marathi as the base there becomes increasingly important to allied activities in the broader region. Between Naval Station Norfolk on the east coast of the US and the Indian Ocean, the Souda base is the only one in the area that allows the US Navy fleet to dock, carry out repairs and maintenance and stock up on supplies. Little surprise then that Souda Bay has been nicknamed “Best in the Med” by the Americans.
US use of the Souda base has been increasing over the past few years, prompting the Americans to broach a renewal of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) with Athens, which, among other issues, delineates the uses of the Cretan base, for a period of one or five years. This development, however, is still at the discussion phase.
US Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt is in regular contact with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the latter of whom recently announced plans to upgrade Greece’s F-16 fighter jets.
Commenting to Kathimerini on the importance of Greek-American cooperation, a spokesman for the US Embassy said: “Greece is an important pillar of stability and democratic values in a region that faces numerous security challenges. The United States is appreciative of the close cooperation and mutual support we have with our Hellenic allies. We participate regularly in joint military exercises, our students work together on combined military education and, moreover, we train together. In fact, American and Greek forces have trained together more in the past year than at any other point in recent history.”
The latter observation is underscored by the regular air and land exercises held over the past few months by the Greek and American armed forces.
The same official also stressed that “even during difficult economic times,” Greece is one of the few countries in the NATO alliance that shells out 2 percent of its GDP on defense spending and points to Souda as evidence of Greek-American cooperation.
“Our ability to use the facilities at Souda Bay is a critical contribution to how the United States addresses areas of mutual security concern in the region,” he said, adding that Americans regard the base as “a ‘home away from home’ for forward-deployed forces, enabling logistics support and a hospitable port-of-call.” He also said that Souda has been a part of the community of Hania since 1969, employing 400 Greek workers and contributing an estimated 34 million euros to the local economy every year.
The level of Greek-American military cooperation can also be seen in a series of developments related to procurements. After years of delays spanning several governments, Defense Minister Kammenos has activated the process for upgrading Greece’s F-16s, while also expressing interest in the availability and prices of F-35s.
According to sources who spoke to Kathimerini, the Hellenic Air Force is initially interested in upgrading at least 93 of the fleet’s 155 F-16s, with the option of expanding this figure to 123. For the remaining 32 jets, the options are either to use surplus material from the upgraded F-16s or look for buyers in third countries. Regarding this issue, the new Hellenic Air Force Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Christos Christodoulou, says he is more interested in quality that quantity.
The same sources estimate that work on upgrading the F-16s cannot start for at least a year, while the first 15 upgraded jets will be delivered by Hellenic Aerospace Industry (EAV) around mid-2019. As far as the F-35s are concerned, the air force estimates that 20 new aircraft is a realistic target.
Beyond these specific initiatives, it also appears that progress is being made on the acquisition of around 70 OH-58D Kiowa helicopters by the Hellenic Army Air Service, which are being conceded to Greece as surplus materiel. This American model – which, of course, has been adapted to Greek conditions and needs – appears to be one of the components in an overall reorganization of defense in the Aegean. The Hellenic National Defense General Staff (GEETHA) is being tight-lipped on the issue, though a committee has been formed on the orders of its chief, Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis, which is tasked with bolstering cooperation between the different forces in the Aegean.
The security situation in the area, and particularly given the recent provocations from Turkey, demands unorthodox solutions, something that Apostolakis appears eager to explore, also by expanding the scope of the special forces so they can be deployed when and where they’re needed.
Apostolakis is also putting a great deal of effort into the Hellenic Navy port at Souda, which he would like returned to its former grandeur. The aim is for the navy to be able to dock a squadron at Souda so it can respond faster in the broader region and also take some of the pressure off the navy dock at Salamina, off the coast of Piraeus.