Talks between Athens and Washington on modernizing the mutual defense cooperation agreement between the two NATO allies is close to completion, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos tells Kathimerini in an interview.
He says that among the main points being discussed at the moment are the use of the port at Souda Bay on Crete, the use of a section of the port at Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, the establishment of a helicopter training base in central Greece, and the use of American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the Hellenic Armed Forces.
The minister says that “there are several areas of a legal nature that still need to be clarified but we are in a very good place and I believe that we will have a final agreement very soon.” Furthermore, he stresses that Athens wants to keep a line of communication open with Ankara, adding that Greece’s armed forces are in a position “to act as a deterrent.”
You spoke to your Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar last week. Given the strain in Greek-Turkish relations, do you feel that there is room for improvement, or at least that the lines of communication between Athens and Ankara on military issues will remain open?
The position has always been that the lines of communication between the two countries need to stay open even at times of tension because it serves the purpose of reducing these tensions. In this context, I had the opportunity to speak to Mr Akar for the first time, by telephone. He called me to congratulate me himself on my appointment, as a follow-up to the letter he had sent me last month. It was a telephone call that did not have a particular agenda, but we did have the chance to agree for about 10 minutes that it is good to keep the channels of communication open, that we should try to find common ground, despite our differences, on all the issues, and that the first time we will meet in person will be at the NATO defense ministers’ meeting near the end of next month.
Will the confidence-building measures (CBMs) continue until then?
The CBMs alone are a mid-level channel of communication between defense representatives from countries. The third session is set to take place in Athens within the next few months. We agreed that this channel should continue to work.
What is your assessment of Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean? There has been intense activity from Cyprus to Katellorizo, while concerns have also been expressed recently about a possible violation of Greek sovereign rights as well.
As I have said frequently in the past, these activities are a concern but they do not frighten us. Naturally, we are vigilant and have the entirety of our armed forces in a state of preparedness so that the element of prevention remains strong. I divide Turkey’s behavior into two categories. On the one hand, we have the incendiary and provocative rhetoric that is now becoming very frequent from very high-ranking Turkish officials, and, on the other, we have specific actions. One of these is Turkish ships, warships in the main, accompanying vessels carrying out seismic surveys and drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, after passing, of course, through the Aegean. We have condemned this behavior in every way.
I have personally discussed the issue with 12 ambassadors who have visited the Ministry of Defense since I took over. There is a lot of understanding at the European Union level, but also from the United States, from which we have statements directly condemning this behavior.
It is also a cause for concern because we cannot stand idly by when out neighbor tries to spark tension. We further stress that our armed forces are in a position to act as a deterrent. They are in an excellent state of preparedness and can act as a security umbrella so that citizens feel safe. There is, of course, room for improvement with our weapons system, which is something the ministry is striving for.
Is it true that the government is trying to get the ball rolling again on a number of stalled defense procurement programs, whether this be French frigates or the upgrade of the F-16 fleet?
Weapons systems always need to be maintained or upgraded, just as our arsenal of weapons needs to be renewed with the acquisition of new systems. A number of procurement programs are already under way to this end, while we are also examining the acquisition of new systems. The program for upgrading the F-16s in the Viper category will mean a significant upgrade in the air force’s operational capabilities, by essentially turning them into a new weapon. We plan to push this program through fast and to carry it out through the Hellenic Aerospace Industry. The F-16 program is one way to also bolster the domestic defense industry so that it can then attract more upgrading programs from abroad and acquire a competitive position in the broader area. Having a strong and capable defense industry is key to maintaining our defense systems and this is one of the ministry’s top priorities, in cooperation with the Development Ministry, which has the task of carrying out investment proposals in this area.
As far as the acquisition of French frigates is concerned, talks are still in the very early stages and the only thing we have is an agreement between French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that France wants to sell and Greece wants to buy. There is a long way to go, however, on a technical level, but also on the financing side. Anyway, even if the discussion proceeds and everything goes smoothly at every level on both sides, Greece would not get delivery of the first frigate until 2024. In the meantime, we need to make sure that the navy’s existing fleet is fully operational.
Turkey has been making increasing use of UAVs. Isn’t this an area that Greece should also be investing in?
UAVs and drones are indeed new systems whose presence has been growing in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in every theater of operations. They are very interesting because they are cutting-edge technology. As we speak, Greece is in talks with the United States and Israel for the purchase or lease of certain units for the surveillance of the broader Balkan region and the Aegean. These are not armed units. These are incredibly useful strategic and tactical tools that will give us a much better picture of our region. They are also necessary for managing the matter of refugee flows.
Defense cooperation agreement with Washington to be expanded
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be in Athens in less than a month. In the meantime, there is talk of modernizing the US-Greece mutual defense cooperation agreement. What are the key terms the Defense Ministry is looking for?
To begin with, we believe that strengthening strategic cooperation between the US and Greece benefits our country greatly. It began in the past and evolved during the tenure of previous governments, but is now at a place where it can really take off. Greece has much to gain from effectively managing shared interests with the United States. The agreement is close to completion in terms of the text that the delegations from the two sides will sign ahead of Mr Pompeo’s visit to Athens. There are several areas of a legal nature that still need to be clarified but we are in a very good place and I believe that we will have a final agreement very soon. The main aspect of the agreement is that the US will invest in armed forces infrastructure, making their management and upgrade a matter of national interest not just for Greece, but for the US as well. Therefore anyone who threatens Greek interests will also be threatening American interests, with everything this entails. This is very different from purchasing an American defense system together with its support structures. It strengthens the relationship and evolves it so that Greece benefits on a strategic level. I believe that Pompeo’s visit is a validation of this strategic agreement, in which the Ministry of Defense has an instrumental role.
Do you see the agreement coming to fruition in 2020?
Of course. The four key points are the use of the port at Souda Bay, the use of a section of the port at Alexandroupoli, the establishment of a helicopter training base in central Greece and the use of American UAVs by the Hellenic Armed Forces.
There are also a number of other matters that are still under negotiation, such as the contribution of the US toward upgrading the infrastructure of the Hellenic Armed Forces – like airports, for example.
As you see, the armed forces’ infrastructure and prospects are at the center of all these discussions, which is why this strategic relationship relies on the contribution of the Ministry of Defense.
The Prespes deal and air policing
With regard to North Macedonia, one of the agreements stemming from the Prespes name deal is an agreement for the surveillance of the neighboring country’s airspace but also bringing the country’s military up to NATO standards. Has any progress been made?
These issues are subject to negotiations and investigations by the military leaderships of the two countries. The political content of the Prespes agreement and New Democracy’s position toward it are common knowledge. The defense cooperation agreement is a consequence of the Prespes agreement. It is also less negative that the harmful elements of this accord. So, it is in this context that an air policing agreement will be signed by the chiefs of staff of the two countries. I believe this is in our country’s interest for the simple reason that if it doesn’t happen it would open the door to countries that have already shown an interest, such as Turkey, and perhaps Bulgaria, which has expressed an interest but does not have the necessary aerial means. In this respect, it is imperative that we sign the air policing agreement, because it is in the national interest.