Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos confirms Greece’s decision to further reinforce its defensive capabilities in an interview with Kathimerini, heralding decisions for new corvettes, the acquisition of guided missiles from Israel and upgrades to the country’s Block 50 F-16 fighter jets and Leopard battle tanks.
He also states that relations with France and the United States are strengthening, pointing out that the Americans are interested in including Greece in the next-generation F-35 fighter jet program, while Athens has asked that Greece be considered for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and arms of “high operational value.”
Panagiotopoulos also heralds even closer ties with France, pointing to the expected stopover of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier at the port of Piraeus by the end of March.
On the decision to send military equipment to Ukraine, the minister stresses that there is no time for prevarication when a European war is raging. He also believes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have an impact on relations between Greece and Turkey, without this necessarily meaning that ties between the two will be exacerbated, highlighting that Greece is both a member of NATO and the European Union.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has rapidly altered the post-Cold War balance. How do you think Greece will be affected?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine did not just bring war to Europe in the 21st century, in a flagrant violation of international law and legitimacy; it also struck a significant blow to Europe’s security architecture. As a result, Greece is clearly affected by such a massive geopolitical destabilization, and there is a real danger that this crisis could escalate and spill over into the wider region. There is also the odious economic fallout that will inevitably come with the war. We should also not forget the unavoidable economic impact of the sanctions imposed on Russia. However, there is no margin for comfortable accounting. The international community must make it crystal clear that there can be no fait accompli over Ukraine. A return to the rule of law is the only fundamental condition to any solution.
Apart from the mobilization of NATO, we have also seen several important announcements at the EU level over the last few days, especially from some member-states like Germany, which has maintained a more restrained attitude toward defense. Do you think that Europe is moving towards closer defense cooperation? If so, how can Greece benefit from this?
Greece has always been a trailblazer in European defense. From the very beginning, Greece has supported defense initiatives assumed on a European level and, as a member of the Permanent Structured Cooperation has assumed responsibility and leadership for six important PESCO programs. Furthermore, joint defense programs in which Greek companies have a leading role are already being funded by the European Defense Fund (EDF). Over the last two years, we have been forced to spend billions of euros to improve the combat capabilities of our Armed Forces, compelled by the strategic security challenges we face in our immediate neighborhood and beyond. The EU holds the key for state budgets, as it can determine the extent of spending, including defense spending, on a fiscal level. Europe, as an institution, must understand this reality, as our defense spending goes towards the protection and defense of the EU borders. This must be acknowledged.
However, it is also time for member-states to spend more on the collective security of the EU. I believe that the stated intent of several member-states, including Germany, to increase their defense budgets is a positive development. The events in Ukraine demonstrate the need for meaningful European strategic autonomy: autonomy in decision making, in choices, in action. We must act as a strong and cohesive political actor in support of the values and principles that underpin our democracies, and assume greater responsibility for our own security while promoting world peace with our partners. Now is the time to act in unison.
Greece responded by sending defense equipment to Ukraine. How was that decision reached?
Ukraine submitted an official request for aid from all member-states of the EU and NATO. After consulting with our partners and allies, and according to the decision of the Council of Europe on providing aid to Ukraine, the country’s top decision-making body on foreign affairs and defense matters, KYSEA, decided to dispatch defense equipment, medical supplies and significant humanitarian aid across the Polish border. As Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in his parliamentary speech last week, there are no dilemmas for Greece. We are on the side of Ukraine; we are on the side of peace, legitimacy and democracy. Athens stands with all the western capitals in imposing sanctions on Russia. We are making every effort to protect the Greek community in the country, and we are supporting Ukraine from a diplomatic, humanitarian and defensive standpoint. Besides, the EU, for the first time ever, will fund the supply of equipment, worth 450 million euros, to Ukraine, a country that is under attack and fighting for its survival. We agree with this decision, and it marks an EU awakening in the face of a clear security threat. War has broken out on European soil, and we cannot confront this reality with a “yes, but” mindset.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, the government has been upgrading and modernizing the Armed Forces. Following the Rafale fighter jets and the frigates, what are the next steps?
Reinforcing the Armed Forces is essential to protecting our country. Of course, these efforts have not concluded with the Belharra frigates and the Rafale fighter jets. We are continuing to work towards this goal, and we have tangible and quantifiable results. Since September 2020, we have activated several sub-programs for all three branches of the Armed Forces, including, among others, continued support for the Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets that had been paused since 2012, as well as tenders for the continued support for our C-130 and C-27 transport aircraft, and CH-47D Chinook and NH90 helicopters, new high-tech torpedoes for our submarines, while we are ramping up the upgrade of 83 F-16 fighter jets to the Viper configuration.
Our efforts are constant and are aimed at bolstering our Armed Forces, which, we should not forget, are already capable, combat-effective and an important deterrent factor. But as time goes by, existing systems need upgrades, support and maintenance, and they must be complemented by the acquisition of cutting-edge technology. This is why we will soon start planning the acquisition of new units, probably corvettes, the modernization of the Hellenic Navy’s MEKO-class frigates, the acquisition of high-tech guided missiles from Israel, and the completion of an upgrade program for our F-16 Block 50 fighter jets. At the same time, we have modernization programs planned to increase the capabilities of our ground forces.
You are in discussions with German companies to create a channel for supporting and manufacturing Leopard battle tanks. Where are you with this endeavor?
In the wider framework of reinforcing our Armed Forces, we are collaborating with companies from not only the German defense industry but also the international market. A standout example of cooperation with German companies is the contract recently approved by the Hellenic Parliament on the acquisition of 44 new torpedoes for the Hellenic Navy that will fully modernize our submarines’ operational capabilities.
Additionally, I met with my German counterpart on the sidelines of the recent Security Conference in Munich, and we agreed to strengthen the Greek-German defense cooperation in areas that will be mutually beneficial to the defense industries of both countries. It is in this framework that our Leopard battle tanks – which are in immediate need of modernization – could be included. Negotiations with major German defense firms to cover the Hellenic Army’s needs on favorable terms and which will include the participation of the domestic defense industry have been ongoing for some time. I believe that the current confluence of events gives us an excellent opportunity to have some good results soon.
You had a brief conversation with your Turkish counterpart on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Are the communication channels with Hulusi Akar still open? Has this helped overcome any problems between our two countries?
I believe it is always good to have open lines of communication, including between defense ministers. The meeting with my Turkish counterpart a few days ago in Brussels was conducted in this spirit. Both sides are committed to the immediate use of this channel of instant communication to reduce any future escalations. On my part, during meetings with Akar, I always stress that we cannot take one step forward to then take two steps back because of provocative actions from our neighbor. The key issue in my opinion is to have some tangible evidence, even if it is tiny steps, that we are moving towards a de-escalation. De-escalation in our relations with Turkey requires respect for international law, sovereignty, each country’s sovereign rights, and the principles of good-neighborly conduct. Only after these are met can we begin proposing initiatives in the framework of confidence-building measures.
Greece a reliable regional partner for the US
How can the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) and other procurement programs be utilized to reinforce gaps in the Armed Forces? Can we expect any developments in 2022?
The strategic partnership between Greece and the United States, especially following the recent renewal of the MDCA, has been strengthened and broadened at an unprecedented level, while also creating new prospects for the further development of bilateral cooperation. As you may be aware, the American side has expressed its readiness to accept Greece into the fifth generation F-35 fighter jet program. At the same time, it has expressed an interest in our armament programs, including the modernization of the MEKO-class frigates and the further reinforcement of the Hellenic Navy with new surface units. For our part, we are looking at the possibility of acquiring UAVs and other high operational value arms.
This framework of cooperation also includes the acquisition of anti-submarine warfare MH-60R helicopters by the Hellenic Navy and the transfer of 1,200 surplus M-1117 Armored Security Vehicles from the United States Army to the Hellenic Army. The United States now considers Greece to be a pillar of stability and a reliable partner in the region. As a result, it is open to any conversation on the reinforcement of the total capability of our country’s Armed Forces.
How does the defense agreement with France manifest itself in the cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces? Will we see a significant French military presence in Greece, and, if so, what will it look like?
Last September we signed an agreement between the Greek and French governments establishing a strategic partnership and cooperation in defense and security, which upgraded the strategic significance of both countries to the highest level. This included a mutual defense clause that will be activated if any of the two countries is subject to an attack on its sovereign territory, as defined by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This crucial moment reflects the strong desire of France and Greece to reinforce and broaden our defense cooperation both bilaterally, but also as partners within the EU and allies within NATO, as is stated in the deal itself. We are united not only by our history as traditional alliances, but also by our pursuit of peace and stability in the wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
In the framework of implementing the agreement, the chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff and his French counterpart signed an agreement in January on the guiding principles of upgrading Greek-French defense cooperation, which sets out and defines the realization of the Greece-France military agreement. This includes cooperation on an operational level, operational training, exchange programs for personnel in military academies and educational organizations, space, cybersecurity, intelligence, joint training for special forces units, as well as cooperation between the branches of the armed forces of both countries. By extent, the cooperation between the French and Greek armed forces was given a roadmap, whose implementation has already begun. By the end of March, we expect the arrival of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at the port of Piraeus, while French aircraft will participate in the multinational, inter-service military exercise Iniochos 22. Joint actions between the armed forces of our two countries will continue and will be reinforced.