How far back does 1988 go today? Let us recall some events of the time to give us a better idea of the temporal distance. We were still ecstatic after winning the European Basketball Cup the year before, the Koskotas scandal had just hit the headlines and Andreas Papandreou had returned from London, where he had undergone heart surgery, and scored his return to Athens with the most famous wave in history.
That year was also the last time we, as a country, decided to place a purchase order for frigates. One need only consider how much technology and our lives have changed over these 33 years to realize the imperative need to acquire the new frigates announced a few days ago by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Paris.
The frigate Hydra, the first of four newer frigates we currently operate, first sailed in Aegean waters in 1992, before there were mobile networks in Greece and before Internet is not accessible to the public. In fact, I had the honor of serving aboard the Hydra as a young officer between 2004 and 2006, and to my surprise, I saw that the computers connected to our unit’s weapon system most advanced surface was the equivalent of my teenage personal computer. Of course, this specific frigate is still absolutely fully operational, but it is essential to be aware of the general situation while we still have frigates that are beyond 40 years of active service.
Sadly, all hope of modernization for many of these crucial military units quietly died out during the decade of the financial crisis, while many more remain in service, mostly thanks to inventiveness and ingenuity. of their Hellenic navy crews.
Hellenic navy crews found themselves pushing these obsolete technologies to their limits last summer, during the biggest crisis with Turkey in 25 years. Operating with hulls that have long since reached the end of their life, most of the frigate crews helped counter the Turkish aggression because of their undeniable diligence rather than their military armaments.
The experience of the last year has shown very clearly that relations with a revisionist Turkey will continue to deteriorate, making the need for a renewed navy even more necessary. Over the past two decades, Turkey has doubled the size of its fleet and fostered the growth of a defense industry, which we must also prioritize as has been repeatedly emphasized.
To fully understand the importance of acquiring these French frigates, we must first go through the events of the crisis of last year to analyze how the current rearmament program is a historic development on the technocratic, political and geopolitical level. .
1) Exactly one year ago, the fleet had just returned to port after two difficult months. The assessment at the time was that the crisis had many operational benefits, and worrying conclusions about the condition of our equipment. The leaders of the Hellenic Navy had prioritized the analysis of all the data and reached conclusions that will contribute to a future response to any Turkish threat. The assessment of equipment fatigue left no room for doubt. As for most of the larger surface units, the Hellenic Navy had taken every drop of operational life from these overworked units.
2) The outbreak of Turkish aggression offered the leaders of the Hellenic Navy the opportunity to understand the full state of its frigates with precise data on what this means for Greece’s defensive needs. This needs to be underlined because on many occasions the public sector tends to make matters better than it is to distance itself from any responsibility in dealing with these issues.
3) The French frigates are without a doubt the best decision we could have made. This is exactly what we owe future generations. We are not just talking about ships, but about technological platforms that will be able to defend our interests in a region that will continue to simmer for the next 40 years. This is exactly the vehicle that someone who has taken an oath to defend their homeland deserves to fully fulfill that oath. Their capabilities in a wide range of different types of warfare are truly the most advanced option available in the world market. Their adoption will create a significant technological advantage over Turkey, which will not have access to competing options of equivalent quality for many years.
4) The specialized press has analyzed the technical specifications of the new frigates at length, but I will insist on an important point to note. One of the biggest challenges we face in the Hellenic Navy and as a country in general are the understaffing issues. The high level of automation on board these specific frigates, as well as the additional corvettes to be built in Greece, will allow these units to have a workforce of only 70 to 110 crew members, while other competing choices required additions of up to 200 crew members. In addition, the enthusiasm of the Hellenic Naval Staff for the new frigates is unprecedented, which is a significant comparative advantage. The wider appeal of these units will also help the Hellenic Navy attract new specialist personnel.
5) The last question is which of the available options best respects each euro paid by the Greek taxpayer. Perhaps this is where the greatest success of this program lies. When, at the start of the year, I had a conversation with people involved in evaluating the different options, they mentioned to me that the French option was so expensive that it almost felt like they didn’t want to sell their product. Ultimately, the professional approach of the Hellenic Navy throughout this process, the diligent analysis of all options, combined with the immediate exploitation of geopolitical developments, assured us of an inconceivable deal there is. not that long. Because of our past transgressions in arms programs, this deal is a breath of fresh air and will raise the bar higher.
6) The final political decision fully justified the Hellenic Navy, which found itself under unprecedented pressure from public opinion and external factors with special interests. A book could be written only on the challenges of disinformation faced by the Hellenic Navy over the past year. Fortunately, this did not translate into political pressure, and specialists were given leeway to analyze all the available data. As described by those involved in the process, cooperation between admirals and political leaders was important, especially as there was confidence in technocratic procedures, which, while obvious, should not be taken into account. as a matter of course in Greece.
7) The assessment after last year’s crisis was that the aggression displayed by Erdogan had given the government the political capital necessary to make difficult but necessary decisions on its weapons program. A year later, the result showed that this opportunity has been fully exploited. This is important because it proves that we as a country can still react quickly, methodically and contrary to the traditional Greek approach to procrastination. However, the acquisition of these French frigates is not a panacea. This bold new decision must be accompanied by a respective increase in fleet maintenance funds, as the Hellenic Navy constantly demands.
8) The cost of the French program has been reduced after a long process. However, we thank the United States for tripping the French by securing the sale of American nuclear submarines to Australia, causing the nullity of the previous Australian contract for French submarines. Macron’s reaction to this was a crucial factor in ultimately receiving an offer we couldn’t refuse. If we had been hasty, we would not be able to take advantage of this historic confluence of events.
It’s also worth noting that when it comes to the US proposal for future Hellenic Navy frigates, the Americans seemed to lack coordination. Specifically, many US military officials have been extremely honest on various issues regarding the US frigate, which raises the question as to whether this specific proposal really reflected the wishes of the US Pentagon.
9) It is a known fact that the United States is withdrawing from the region to focus its attention on dealing with the Chinese threat. This creates a power vacuum in our region, something that Turkey and Russia will seek to use to their advantage. Macron is perhaps the only European leader who fully realizes the implications of this occasion, challenging the EU to focus on strengthening its sovereignty. This particular agreement, in particular with regard to mutual defense issues, allows Greece to further establish Turkish revisionism as a European issue. The hope is that Greece will become the guardian of a new European Mare Nostrum, while also using its own bilateral alliances with countries in the wider region.
10) In a way, the defense agreement with France also serves as a much-desired middle way, which saves us the cost of acquiring ships that would be half-measures in the short term. A defense agreement with a nuclear power, like France, is an important deterrent. An agreement like this has many advantages that act as force multipliers, such as a potential ability to access critical operational intelligence during a future crisis.
11) Finally, the construction of French corvettes by Greek shipyards will make Greece the repair center for all similar corvettes that operate in the region at large, such as those of the Egyptian navy. This is economically advantageous, but also has geopolitical advantages due to the closer technical relations with other countries and the more frequent presence of their units in our waters.
In conclusion, September 28 was not only a historic day for the Hellenic Navy, but for Greece in general. This is historic not because our country agreed to buy a few more military ships, but because in a single gesture, it added new ways of managing its armaments and improved the security and geopolitical capital of our country. country.
I am proud, and a little jealous at the same time, of my former colleagues who will receive and operate these specific vessels over the next decades. Reflecting on what has happened over the past year, I wonder how far away today’s reality will be and what challenges the world and our country will face in 2060, when Belharra will be. ready to anchor for the last time.
Nikolas Katsimpras teaches in the Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University in New York. He is a consultant in international relations and a former officer in the Hellenic navy.