Greece and Turkey are among the best arms buyers in the world; their historic rivalry has helped enrich the defense industries in the West — and lately Russia too.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias on Thursday that other countries are involved in the Greek-Turkish dispute because they want to sell arms.
His heated exchanges with Dendias at the press conference in Ankara perhaps brought to light the hardest truth of the Aegean — that both Greece and Turkey are the best clients for the big powers whose interest lies in conflict!
“Other countries just want to sell arms,” he said in reference to Greece’s defense modernization program and the competition that has emerged between NATO allies to sell fighter aircraft and frigates to Greece.
Turkey has always maintained that the Greek-Turkish disputes are bilateral issues that can resolved in negotiations between the two countries. The involvement of outside powers, such as the European Union, are seen as detrimental to Turkish interests.
By contrast, Greece says that differences can only be resolved if both countries adhere to the provisions of international law, and in particular the UN Law of the Sea and the Lausanne Treaty.
Greece-Turkey Arms race
Irrespective of the merits of each nation’s position, the truth is that the decades-old Greek-Turkish dispute has helped American, Russian and European defense industries sell military hardware to both countries.
A arms race in the Aegean has been fueled by weapons systems sold from their allies. Greece and Turkey are among the best clients of the defense industry worldwide.
Greece has the second-highest defense expenditure as a share of GDP in NATO, after the U.S. Almost 2.68% of the country’s GDP goes to defense. Turkey is further back at 1.86%.
NATO estimates suggest that Greece’s defense expenditure for 2020 was $5,027 billion. Turkey spent $12,930 billion in the same period.
Turkey fifth largest importer of major weapons
Over the period 1991-2017, Turkey was the world’s fifth largest importer of major weapons.
Turkey has historically relied on its NATO allies in the United States and Europe for its defense and security needs.
The US has been the largest exporter of arms to Turkey, providing 60% of its total imports between 2014 and 2018.
Among European countries, France, Spain and the UK have been major suppliers.
Under the military-dominated Turkish governments of the 1980s and 90s, its arms imports from the US reached record highs.
It acquired fighter jets, missiles, helicopters, tanks, ships, and other items which are still used by the Turkish military.
But Turkey recently turned to Russia for the purchase of a $2.5 billion missile defense system, a decision that has alarmed its NATO allies, and led the US to impose limited sanctions.
Turkey’s arms imports between 2016 and 2020 fell by 59% when compared to the period between 2011-2015, according to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which releases data, research and publications on the international arms trade.
According to the report, one of the major factors, along with the increase in domestic production, was the U.S.’ halting deliveries of F-35 combat aircraft to the country in 2019, after Turkey imported Russian air defense systems.
Greece doubles defense budget
Greece has also relied mainly on the NATO allies for its arms imports.
In late 2020, the country approved the 2021 state budget, which includes a doubling of defense expenditures.
Greece’s defense budget is projected to reach around 5.5 billion euros (US$6.6 billion), more than double last year’s spending.
Greece will purchase at least four frigates and eighteen French Rafale fighter jets. In addition it will to acquire helicopters, and drones, upgrade its F-16 fleet and recruit an additional 15,000 personnel to its ranks.
The focus in the last few months has turned to frigates, as Greece has signaled it intends to procure state-of-the-art vessels to improve its naval capabilities in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in the face of the Turkish threat.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and France – Greece’s NATO allies – have already made offers, which are currently examined by officers of the Hellenic General Defence Staff.