Assessing France and Greece's landmark defence deal

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L), shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron following a signing ceremony of a new defence deal at The Elysee Palace in Paris on September 28, 2021
9 min read
12 October, 2021
Analysis: The multibillion defence deal could decisively alter the long-term regional security context in the Eastern Mediterranean, with significant implications for the wider region, the EU, and transatlantic relations.

In early October, the Greek Parliament approved by majority vote an unprecedented multibillion-euro defence deal with France, a development which could decisively alter the long-term regional security context in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The defence pact, which determines critical upgrades for the Hellenic Navy through a major partnership with the French Naval Group, should not be seen only as a substantial weapons system purchase.

It is also a diplomatic and military cooperation breakthrough between the two countries, with significant strategic implications for the wider region, the EU area, and transatlantic relations.

Timing of the deal

Negotiations for the upgrade of the Hellenic Navy fleet have been ongoing for a while. In fact, Athens rejected the purchase of the Belharra FDIs (Frigate for Defence and Intervention) in August 2020, when the initial French offer was deemed rather uneconomical. Paris apparently revised their proposal providing more favourable terms and then pushed for a quick seal of the deal.

The timing of this development is far from incidental following the AUKUS security pact, which delivered a severe blow to France’s international standing and economic interests. Of course, the reported estimates of the approximately $6 billion deal with Greece present just a fraction of the cancelled submarine contract which Naval Group has previously agreed with the Royal Australian Navy.

"The deal is a diplomatic and military cooperation breakthrough between the two countries, with significant strategic implications for the wider region, the EU area, and transatlantic relations"

The colossal submarine agreement would reportedly cost $66 billion and was halted without notice after the AUKUS announcement. But for Paris, the deal with Greece could be perceived as the first step in a series of decisive moves for the expansion of the French defence industry, and also as a clear message to the US that European powers could be equally competitive and even proceed to internal defence partnerships, regardless of their NATO status.

A pivotal, much-needed upgrade

Further to the interesting timing of the deal for France, this development has undoubtedly been a highly necessary move for Athens too. The unprecedented economic crisis, which hit Greece in the early 2010s, has put the Hellenic Naval arsenal on ice for a very long period.

In this context, the Hellenic forces have been relying on Netherlands-designed and built Elli-class (Type Standard) Frigates and German-designed and partially built Class Meko-200HN Frigates, which were commissioned in the early 1980s and during the 1990s, respectively. Despite the occasional modernisation programmes that some of the frigates have gone through, the Hellenic weaponry has gradually become outdated, making the need for a drastic and extensive upgrade imperative.

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This is exactly the gap that the new FDIs are going to fill. The final product, which will be a result of a joint partnership among Naval Group, Thales, and MBDA, will significantly upgrade the capabilities of the Hellenic Navy. Greece is expected to acquire at least three frigates, with another one possibly to be added to the massive purchase, with the first vessel reportedly to be delivered to the Hellenic Navy by late 2024 or early 2025.

Greece had also secured another vast deal with France in January 2021, and Athens will acquire 18 French-designed and built Dassault Rafale fighter jets, which will be delivered gradually from late 2021 to early 2023. By the time that the new FDIs will enter the Hellenic fleet, the Rafale aircraft will be already operational and ready to be fully integrated into a Navy-Airforce cooperation model. The coordination between these state-of-the-art French systems as the spearhead of the Hellenic defence capabilities will consolidate Greece’s military footprint in the wider region.

 “The acquisition of such advanced frigates is bound to increase the confidence of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. The deal also confirms the growing commitment of France to Eastern Mediterranean security, despite Turkish objections,” Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis, Reader in International Security at King's College London, told The New Arab. “The French-Greek defence agreement is designed to contain Turkey’s regional ambitions.”

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Tensions with Turkey reached their peak during the summer of 2020. [Getty]

How the balance of power is currently being shaped

The deal over the acquisition of the French FDIs comes at a critical point for Greece. As tensions with Turkey reached their peak during the summer of 2020, and the risk of a sudden crisis is always present in the background, the upgrade of the Hellenic Navy shapes a much more balanced context in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The balance of power under the current circumstances, and with the Greek-French deal included in the equation, are quite favourable for Athens, as the new FDIs will give a comparative advantage in a field where the Hellenic Navy has had a decent standing over the past decade despite the considerable equipment and technology gap which was created by the economic crisis. However, advancements in Turkish defence technology and ongoing projects which will be operational in the mid-term should be equally considered.

The MİLGEM, or National Ship, project is an initiative of the Presidency of Defence Industries, fully supported by the Turkish president and most senior state officials, in order to create innovative defence technologies and equipment to be developed almost completely self-sufficiently. Also, the Multipurpose Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD) TCG Anadolu, currently under construction in the Sedef Shipyard, will drastically boost Turkish Naval capabilities.

Even though the estimates on the completion of the project by the end of 2022 seem optimistic, Greece should always consider the deployment of this unique vessel among the Turkish fleet. At the same time, Turkey has expanded its unmanned naval capabilities, with the most prominent the ULAQ AUSV, a project developed by ARES Shipyard and Meteksan Savunma. This new technology could revolutionise naval warfare in the years to come and could prove to be a serious asymmetric threat for the Hellenic Navy.

"The French-Greek defence agreement is designed to contain Turkey's regional ambitions"

In this respect, Athens should consider two important factors, namely the Turkish defence industry and present international trends. The development of homegrown programmes, and also the involvement of local industry and personnel in the construction of major defence projects, could certainly be a strategic gain.

The Greek-French deal – unfortunately for Greece - did not meet these expectations, as the whole shipbuilding and construction of the FDIs will take place in France. Secondly, defence capabilities should not be based solely upon state-of-the-art but costly major platforms, but also innovative and cost-effective smart solutions - including unmanned systems utilising the latest, but not necessarily most expensive, technologies.

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Diplomatic context and wider geopolitical implications

In terms of military capabilities and balance, there are huge diplomatic implications. Athens and Paris are bound to work much closer in terms of security operations, intelligence sharing, and common geopolitical objectives. Greece has secured a very valuable ally as Turkish claims in the region escalate. There are provisions in the agreement ensuring military cooperation and assistance, in case one of the two countries finds itself under attack from a third nation.

This development would theoretically block any Turkish plans of aggression against Greece, however, the possibility of a wide-scale military Turkish operation against Athens has always been a rather improbable scenario among officials and experts, who examine the Greek-Turkish relations realistically.

Most probably, Ankara will keep pushing its claims and seek to create de facto conditions across the Aegean, always avoiding a serious escalation. However, the importance of French political, diplomatic, and potentially military support, cannot be overlooked under any circumstances.

Macron [Getty]
Paris has shown that France can still play a major role in regional developments, outside strict NATO limits. [Getty]

Tense political debate has followed the deal in Greece, especially with regards to Article 18, clause (j). According to this part of the agreement, and in the context of bilateral cooperation, Athens would be expected to possibly assist with military forces and French-affiliated missions overseas, most probably in the troubled Sahel region.

Even though there has been no official confirmation about an upcoming deployment of Greek troops in Mali, there have been long talks about this scenario materialising. According to statements by senior Greek officials in the aftermath of the Greek-French deal, it is highly likely that Greek forces will soon join the active multinational Takuba Task Force in Sahel.

This assumption seems even more probable when considering President Emmanuel Macron’s intentions to gradually reduce the French presence through Operation Barkhane, and at the same time boost the Takuba Task Force with forces from partner European countries.

Putting things in a wider perspective

The Greek-French deal could also be seen as a springboard to further changes in the geopolitical landscape in the wider region. A stronger political and military partnership is in the making in southern Europe, integrating the Greek-Cypriot dynamic and other significant local players, like Egypt and Israel.

Shortly after the AUKUS announcement, Paris has promptly shown that France can still play a major role in regional developments, outside strict NATO limits. This is highlighted through the provisions of the deal with Greece concerning possible hostile actions from a third country, an indirect reference to fellow NATO member Turkey.

"After the AUKUS announcement, Paris has promptly shown that France can still play a major role in regional developments, outside strict NATO limits"

With the US steadily downgrading NATO’s importance during the Trump era, and with the Biden administration maintaining this narrative to an extent through the AUKUS pact, the latest bilateral agreement between Paris and Athens highlights that the strategic alliances of today should be driven by a more pragmatic and realistic approach, even at a regional level, detached from outdated concepts of the past decades and the Cold War period.

The agreement also shows that specific initiatives could successfully materialise within a larger and more complex organisation, even with the participation of a few members, according to mutual interests and geopolitical objectives. We could make a direct comparison here with the long-standing debate around the onerous model of the European Army, which could hardly be viable and functional - if and when materialised - considering the competing political interests and different agendas of numerous member states across the EU.

Finally, the losses that the French defence industry will suffer as a result of the AUKUS partnership might be counterbalanced by a series of bold moves, which will not be limited only to the Mediterranean Sea but could potentially extend all the way down to the Indian Ocean.

As Dr Ioannis Mazis, Professor of Economic Geography and Geopolitics at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, mentioned in a recent interview, Paris is already seeking to consolidate defence, political, and economic ties with India. This closer French-Indian engagement, if utilised properly by Athens, could prove to be vital for Greek strategic interests as a significant offset to the Turkish-Pakistani axis.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris