Greek air power in the 21st century

Greek air power in the 21st century

Recent reports have detailed Turkey’s efforts to acquire new and upgraded F-16 fighter jets from the United States. After the 2016 attempted coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s air force has been clouded in deep uncertainty. Spare parts shortages have impacted aircraft availability, while numerous government purges have dented the morale of air force combat pilots. This is a crucial development for Greece’s security. For over 50 years, the Turkish Air Force has been Ankara’s long spear in the Aegean. Things are now changing though.

The Hellenic Air Force has entered a period of big changes and challenges. The purchase of Viper modernization packages for the F-16s, the arrival of the first batch of French Dassault Rafale aircraft and the likely purchase of state-of-the-art F-35 jets will significantly bolster Greece’s airpower. Barring any major development, the country could at the dawn of the next decade possess the region’s mightiest air force after Israel. With a 200-strong fleet of mostly fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, the Hellenic Air Force will be able to muster air supremacy in potential theaters of operations.

Gaining a technological edge over a rival should not make one disregard the human factor. Establishing an international aviation training center in Kalamata in the Peloponnese – with Israeli know-how – would significantly upgrade training standards. Meanwhile, frequent joint training exercises with US, French and Israeli counterparts offers valuable experience to our pilots and engineers. All that allows optimism regarding the balance of airpower between Greece and Turkey which is gradually swinging in the former’s favor.

‘The purchase of Viper modernization packages for the F-16s, the arrival of the first batch of French Dassault Rafale aircraft and the likely purchase of state-of-the-art F-35 jets will significantly bolster Greece’s airpower’

However, there is an oft-overseen factor. The Hellenic Air Force is permeated by a culture of victory which is based on the tradition of heroism and self-sacrifice. In February 1913, pilot Michail Moutousis and his observer Aristidis Moraitinis flew a Maurice Farman hydroplane to reconnoiter and bomb the Ottoman fleet in the Dardanelles – the first naval-air operation in military history. In November 1940, pilot Marinos Mitralexis managed to bring down an Italian bomber approaching Thessaloniki by ramming its tail. Greek pilots excelled in the Korean War, conducting risky casualty evacuation missions and dropping supplies to cut-off allied units. In July 1974, Operation Nike (Victory) with the Noratlas transport planes had all the characteristics of a suicide mission. From 1974 until today, the Hellenic Air Force and its personnel have been waging an endless battle in the skies of the Aegean. No other air force in the world has been operating for 48 consecutive years against a relentless rival. Nikos Salmas, Konstantinos Iliakis and many others fell in the line of duty defending Greek sovereignty. The state and the public must show their gratitude to those who constantly serve the Greek interest.

That said, the concept of airpower is neither unchanging nor inflexible. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was perhaps the only war to have been won from the air. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the limits of airpower. Despite the dominance of the Russian Air Force, the Kremlin relies on reinforced ground forces to achieve its objectives. At the same time, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in numerous conflicts (such as Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh) has generated an intense debate over the future of conventional aircraft. Many analysts claim that the sixth-generation fighters, to be manufactured in one or two decades from now, will rely exclusively on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. In order to complete its big advance, the Hellenic Air Force will have to complement the purchase of F-35s with the developments of a locally produced generation of UAVs.

In any case, the Hellenic Air Force now operates in a complex operational environment with a wide range of challenges. As multi-domain battle becomes the dominant war fighting concept, it needs to function as a partner of the other two military forces. The military threat facing our country requires the maximum possible level of interdisciplinarity and interoperability. For this reason, the Air Force must acquire a new holistic understanding that goes beyond the physical dimension of air.

Reinforcing the Hellenic Air Force is not a luxury but a necessity. In 1912, the late statesman Eleftherios Venizelos said that “the airplane is the appropriate weapon of the weak. The Greeks’ risk-taking nature will render this a glorious weapon of war – so it will offer great service in the future.” Greece’s wings are covering the Aegean and they are starting to cover free Cyprus. Reactions from across the Aegean are more than a sign of irritation. In reality, they indicate the loss of a considerable military advantage formerly enjoyed by Ankara. From now on, they who do not respect Greece will feel intimidated by it.

Manos Karagiannis is an associate professor in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London. He is also an associate professor at the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies at the University of Macedonia.

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