Greece can become a hub for the maintenance and upgrading of US military helicopters, Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis says in an interview with Kathimerini in which he sees opportunities for broader industrial growth in the defense sector. Stefanis also argues that Greece is Turkey’s “fifth or sixth problem,” as Ankara is currently preoccupied with Syria. He further states that Greece’s defense budget will not be reduced.
Greece and the United States recently signed an extension of their defense deal. How does the agreement expand Greece’s capabilities?
Two key events took place. One was the signing of the updated Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) and the other was the second Strategic Dialogue meeting. The Strategic Dialogue includes the whole government. Each ministry developed, in cooperation with the corresponding US committee, specific actions with specific timeframes. It is important for us that this second round of the Strategic Dialogue also focused on defense on the basis of realistic and not theoretical data: How we will conduct joint training exercises, how we can use US structures to send our officials for training, how we can turn Greece into a hub that will connect the Balkans, the Middle East, African and Gulf states in areas of training and maintenance. An example is our effort to turn Greece into a center for the upgrade of Chinook helicopters. We have Europe’s second-biggest fleet. A similar center could be set up for Kiowa Warrior helicopters. Greece is not the only country using Kiowa helicopters. The Americans did not make spare parts available to other countries for a specific reason – i.e. so that Greece would become a hub for repairing this type of aircraft. The MDCA in my view provides a context in which there can be greater flexibility in dealing with certain issues. The deal will enable our country to take advantage of US legislation so as to reap certain benefits. The Americans, for example, cannot release funds for the United States European Command (EUCOM) without such deal in place.
You seem to suggest defense can indirectly become a lever for growth.
This is correct. An agreement on hard power has a knock-on effect in areas of smart power. We all understand that any investments at the Port of Alexandroupoli [in northern Greece] are themselves a factor of deterrence.
Shortly after the signing of the MDCA, the US green-lighted Turkey’s military offensive in Syria. Greece is concerned about volatility in the region, Turkey’s role and the essential absence of big players.
Regarding Turkey, I would like to tell you that we are [Ankara’s] fifth or sixth problem. Right now, it faces much more serious problems and this can be seen in the withdrawal of forces from some of its traditional fronts and their transfer to Syria. Their goal became clear also from [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s address at the United Nations General Assembly where he produced a map showing a “safe zone” that was essentially an extension along Turkey’s southern border. Erdogan seems determined to do this… As for the US, we see there is often a difference of opinion between President [Donald] Trump and [members of his] administration, like for example the secretary of state or the secretary of defense.
As for the domestic defense industry, what is your opinion on the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones and similar devices?
My view is that there are things which naturally you do not seek here as they are already available abroad. And there are things that we can do and do very well. Many military agencies have developed collaborations with universities and companies in the [defense] sector and the results are very good. In the next defense exhibition in 2020, you will be able to see a presentation of capabilities which are the result of the effort of our personnel in collaboration with university agencies and which are taking place in military factories. With the proper legal procedure, these collaborations could have a commercial appeal. But also larger-scale defense systems. Peripheral equipment of the new frigate could be build here. Officials are working on these ideas.
Are we then talking about shipyards?
What you are describing is reminiscent of the Israeli model – the commercial exploitation of the know-how produced by research and development in the defense sector. Is this the model?
The book “Start-up Nation,” which is about Israel, provides a full account of the situation. Greece certainly has its own characteristics, and it could, also drawing from other ideas, develop its own model… Sure, there are great ideas that we can borrow from the Israelis, the Americans, or anyone else, but we ought to [adapt them to the needs of] Greek society. Take the excellent example of the Parmenion exercise for example.
Do you think the migration crisis is putting an additional strain on the Hellenic Armed Forces?
Our country does not wish to militarize the migration crisis. The Armed Forces have a supporting role in four specific sectors: transport, food supply, accommodation and medical care or assistance. We are trying to help while always keeping in mind our basic mission, which is the maintenance of our operational readiness.
Do you believe the Defense Ministry budget can be reduced further?
A lot is being said about that. What I can confirm is that, at this moment, no, it cannot be reduced and it will not be reduced… On the contrary, the prime minister understands the need to reinforce the Armed Forces in certain sectors. After all, the political decision to move ahead with the purchase of frigates is enough to demonstrate that our budget will not be cut and so does the decision to upgrade the F-16s.