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F - 11 : Arms Race in the Aegean

Largely unnoticed and overshadowed by the war in the Ukraine, an unhealthy arms race is gaining pace between Turkey and Greece, both member states of NATO. As I wrote in a previous blog, it is all about fossil fuels. Both countries have none on their territory but – as we know for 40 years now - there is plenty below the Mediterranean sea floor. The trouble is that Greece and Turkey disagree on their exclusive exploitation zones. Their zones overlap to a great extent.

The Greek Frigate IHS Spetsai crossing the Red Sea on a Mission to the Persian Gulf


Neither Greece nor Turkey were founding members of NATO in 1949. They joined the alliance later: Turkey to neutralize the Soviet Unions’ threat to the Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles), Greece to defeat the communist insurgency supported by Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Their navies were shaped by the Cold War, tasked to prevent the Soviet Navy from breaking out into the Mediterranean. Both were part of the 7th US Fleet. Mostly equipped with ships dating back to the 2nd World War, their vessels became obsolete in the late sixties and early seventies, when missiles changed naval warfare. The sinking of the Israeli Destroyer INS Eilat by Egyptian missile boats in 1967 was a wake-up call for navies around the globe.

This Painting of the Attack on the Israeli Destroyer Eilat is unrealistic - the 4 Styx anti-ship missiles were fired from several miles away


The conflict around Cyprus which eventually led to the Turkish invasion in 1974, was another wake up call. Both countries realized that their navies were no match for a determined aggressor – and both thought of each other this way. The arms embargos the West imposed on Turkey after 1974 and again in 2000 reminded the country of its dependence on foreign arms. Turkey then launched its own defence industry which is now the 14th largest weapons exporter in the world with clients mostly in the Middle East. Sales increased from USD 1 bn in 2000 to over USD 11bn in 2020. The defence industry now allows Turkey to modernise and expand all the branches of its Armed Forces. Turkey spends today 2.8% of its GDP on defence.

The Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was largely unopposed but triggered US Sanctions


Turkey was least lucky with its Air Force. The USA removed it from the F-35 program and its F-16 fighters are outdated. But am sure Turkish President Erdogan obtained substantial concessions for dropping his veto on Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO. In other areas, Turkey achieved break-throughs though. We know about the successes of Turkish Bayraktar drones in the Ukraine or the successful modernisation of the Leopard 2 tanks despite Germany's refusal to help.


In parallel, Turkey embarked on a large upgrade and expansion of its fleet. The country will receive over the coming years six state of the art conventional Type-214 submarines from Germany (same type the Greek Navy has), five anti-submarine patrol aircraft from Italy (to neutralise the Greek submarines), an amphibious assault ship from Spain with the capacity to launch S/VTOL jet fighters and new destroyer class built 75% in Turkey. The first ship of this new vessel class, the TCG Istanbul, was launched in 2021.

The new Missile Destroyer TCG Istanbul was launched by Erdogan himself in January 2021


As of today, the Turkish Navy comprises 12 German submarines, 16 frigates, 10 Corvettes, 18 Fast Attack Craft, 16 Patrol Boats, 11 Mine sweepers, 33 Amphibious Landing Ships and many more auxiliary ships. The new ships on order or in production will increase the size of this already large naval force substantially.


In the arms race with Turkey, Greece focused on strengthening its Air Force first by buying 18 Rafale fighter jets from France in January 2021. They shall complement the 84 F-16 fighters Greece already has, The country also wants to buy the same number of F-35 fighters but lacking money, it is not clear under which condition it could secure them.

The Greek Government bought from France 18 Rafael Fighters for EUR 2.3 bn


The Hellenistic Navy is less modern than its Turkish equivalent. It consists of 4 Hydra Class and nine Elli Class Frigates, all of them delivered in the 1990s, 10 Gun Boats, 18 Fast Attack craft, 11 diesel-electric submarines (of which 4 modern, air-independent Type-214 German boats) and 9 Amphibious Warships.

The famous German Type-214 Submarine is powered by fuel cells, extremely quiet and needs no air for its operations - it is said to have successfully stalked US Aircraft Carriers


Whilst the Hellenistic Navy is a considerable force, it is no match any longer for the rapidly growing Turkish Navy. Just to illustrate the pace of Turkey's naval expansion: all Type-214 submarines are scheduled for delivery between 2022 and 2027. What is very worrisome is that Turkey loves boasting its naval strength. In 2019, more than 100 Turkish Naval Vessels took part in simultaneous manoeuvres in the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. It was Turkey’s most extensive exercise in modern history.

TCG Anadolu, an Assault and Landing Ship, which could one day be equipped with up to 10 F-35/B jets now undergoes sea trials and will join the Turkish Navy soon


Athens is aware of its neighbor’s naval strength. The country decided in February 2022 to buy three “digital” Belharra Frigates from France. The Greek government also announced its intention to increase the order to 4 Frigates next year and also purchase 4 Corvettes to accompany them. The ships shall be delivered by 2026. It is unclear however how the Greece government plans to pay for these vessels. Its finances are in bad shape and contrary to Ankara, it has no significant defense industry but depends on arms sales from abroad.

Computer Design of the Digital Frigate Beharra of which Athens bought three for EUR 2.3bn


With the war in the Ukraine dominating the headlines, the arms race in the Aegean tends to be overlooked. But the race between the two old rivals continues. In the past, the NATO membership prevented open confrontation. With Turkey pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy and the progress it is making in building its own defence industry (often thanks to Israeli support), this constraints may not last for much longer.


Wars are a function of the clashing parties’ capacity and willingness to fight. With Erdogan's questioning of the Greek-Turkish borders from 1912, the Turkish President has opened a dangerous new chapter. 80 years of peace were good for both countries. Access to the EU markets, modern manufacturing and tourism resulted in billions of EUR of revenues for both. A war over fossil fuels at the time when we shift to renewable energy, may be a very bad idea. The benefits of such a conflict are dubious, but the cost are well known.

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