By Andy Dabilis
The country was already rocked by a money-laundering scandal implicating a former defence minister accused of accepting as much as 47m euros in bribes to approve contracts for missiles and a German submarine that turned out to be faulty. Now Greece worries about deep cuts in defence spending, planned as part of a new round of austerity measures.
Greece is surviving on a first round of 109 billion euros in rescue loans from the EU-IMF-ECB Troika, which has approved a second bailout of 130 billion euros, but only on condition that Greece continue with pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, and the firing of 150,000 state workers over the next three years. And as Greeks gear up for a May 6th election to choose a new prime minister amid a fractured political landscape that could lead to another coalition government, the Troika has warned another 12m euros in cuts is needed.
That means that Greece, whose defence spending of about 4.3% of the country’s $301.8 billion GDP is the highest percentage in Europe, has to look to what has long been considered untouchable — military expenditures. The cuts could be as much as 30% over the next few years, a figure some analysts said could weaken Greece’s ability to defend itself and keep out unlawful immigrants. Spending critics say this is manageable, as Greece has no real enemy.
“Greece is trying to keep pace with Turkey’s spending in armaments but there’s a lot of expenditures that aren’t necessary … It’s a Cold War mentality,” Ioannis Michelatos, who heads the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analysis, told SETimes.
But John Nomikos, a counterterrorism analyst who heads the Research Institute for European and American Studies in Athens, said he fears the country will be at risk. “Because of the financial crisis, it’s going to compromise Greek security, not only defence security but domestic too,” he told SETimes. “What we need now is a Greek Homeland Security … Turkey is a problem to us but illegal migration is a bigger threat and this will affect security on the borders,” he said, concerned that cutbacks will reduce patrols.
Greece’s military has remained well-funded, even after the brutal austerity measures began two years ago. In 2006 it was one of the biggest arms importer in the world, behind only China and India, and was ordering missiles, submarines and other arms at the same time the country was cutting pension benefits and taxing the poor. If defence spending had been only 1.7% over the last 20 years it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP, according to British newspaper The Guardian.
Greece frequently cites provocation from Turkey, including incursions by Turkish jet fighters that necessitate mock dogfight retaliation from Greek jets, as a major justification for defence spending. But Turkey is a NATO ally and has proposed mutual arms reductions, which Greece rejected. Foreign relations between the countries have warmed over the last decade and Greece supports Turkey’s long-delayed bid to enter the EU.
Retired Vice Admiral Vasilios Martzoukos, president of the Hellenic Institute for Strategic Studies, acknowledged the economic crisis requires defence cuts but told SETimes, “The only criterion … is based on economics and logistics.” He said, “Turkey constitutes a direct military threat for both Greece and Cyprus … Turkish demands, which oppose international justice, international treaties and UN resolutions, threaten Greece’s integrity. The weakening of Greek armed forces with only economic criteria would pose a high risk not only to Greece’s safety, but also to Europe and the West.”
The Hellenic Air Force said it would retire much of its aircraft, including Mirage 2000s, and put the purchase of helicopters on hold for three years, downsize or close a number of bases, and cut back on maintenance. Greece’s economy is floundering so badly now that interim Defence Minister Dimitri Avramopoulos had to put on hold a US offer to give Greece 400 used M1A1 Abrams tanks because he didn’t have the 10m euros needed to transport them.
A report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggests that a four-year defence spending binge, which finally ended late last year, ranked Greece 10th internationally. It had been as high as fourth before an 18% cut from 2002-2006 when arms orders started ramping up again. The online news site EU Observer reported that Greece had purchased over 1 billion euros’ worth of arms from EU countries as it was negotiating its first bailout two years ago.
While Germany and France were insisting on more austerity — which led to slashed spending on healthcare, pensions and other basic human needs — they were still pushing Greece, its best customer, to buy weapons from its manufacturers.
Patrick Theros, a former US Ambassador to Qatar and a defence specialist, said Greece can manage a 10-15% cut in military spending if France and Germany allow Greece to cancel contracts lucrative to those countries, shift procurement to domestic manufacturers, and renovate existing frigates. “Greece can have more effective armed forces if bribery is eliminated,” he told SETimes. But, he added “The French and Germans will fight defence reforms.”
Stavros Karkaletsis, who heads the Hellenic Centre for European and International Analyses in Athens and publishes a magazine on defence issues, told SETimes the cuts are dangerous. “We are at the red lines … the balance in the Aegean will be a catastrophe for us. If we decide on more cuts in defence, security will be weaker for Greece.” He added: “Turkey’s behaviour has to do with our power in the Aegean … our power is going down and down.”