A European arms shopping trip?

Greece is in the sights of European Union aerospace defense groups over a looming contract for 30 fighter aircraft. Greece has cold-shouldered EU defense groups recently by buying military aircraft from the United States, but this trend seems to be coming to an end. The Greek government said last week that it was abandoning an option to purchase 10 F-16 Block 52+ planes from the USA, and subsequently announced its intention to order 30 fourth-generation fighters, without identifying the manufacturer. European contractors immediately concluded that Greece was abandoning its recent reliance on US-made aircraft. The director of international relations at French Dassault Aviation group, Yves Robins, says: «After a series of large orders placed in the United States, this would be a fair readjustment.» A Greek military source who declined to be named, when asked about the issue, said that Athens would «quite probably» look to Europe for its next purchase. Three European-made aircraft seem to fit Greece’s bill, experts say: the French-built Rafale by Dassault, the Eurofighter – built by a consortium involving the French-Spanish-German group European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), BAE Systems of Britain and Alenia of Italy – and the Gripen, made by Saab of Sweden. Cost differences between each model are significant – a Gripen costs about 30 million euros ($36 million), compared to a price tag of 50 million euros for a Rafale and 80 million euros for a Eurofighter. But in this purchase, price may not be the sole deciding factor. At French banking group CIC, analyst Agnes Blazi says: «The Rafale has every chance of success, as Greece has traditionally been a Dassault customer and has bought several Mirage planes in the past.» A French expert with knowledge of the issue, who declined to be named, said: «The Rafale is the best candidate, both in terms of technical specifications and offsets for Greece.» In contrast, proponents of the Eurofighter say that their plane is more technologically advanced, and are convinced that «Greece will make the right choice.» It is a debate that carries over into the realm of politics, as the choice could affect relations between Greece and other members of the European Union, says Theodore Benien, a spokesman for EADS which has a 46 percent interest in the consortium producing the Eurofighter. «We are convinced that the Eurofighter will provide long-lasting industrial benefits for the Greek defense industry and enhance the political relations with the (main) four partner nations of the Eurofighter consortium,» he says. In March 2000, the then Greek Socialist government promised Germany that Greece would place an order for 60 Eurofighter aircraft at a cost of about 5.1 billion euros. A year later, the government changed its mind. A power transition that followed in March 2004 – when the conservatives took over – had no visible effect on policy, with Greece sticking to aircraft made in the United States ever since. A senior Greek source close to the project says that Athens has two possible paths to choose from. «Either Greece holds itself bound by the 2000 agreement, and directly orders 30 Eurofighter planes, which is what Germany wants, or it launches a new international tender, which is what France wants,» he said. Whichever decision Greece makes, it will come soon: an announcement on whether or not a new tender is to be launched will be made before the end of 2006, the defense ministry source said. But the actions of fellow NATO member and long-time Aegean rival Turkey may also influence Greece’s decision, says the CIC analyst. «It looks like Turkey is also thinking about a new fighter plane purchase,» Blazi said. «It’s a safe bet that Greece will wait to see what the Turks do before making its own move.»