Greece reached the brink of war with Turkey three times in 2020 due to the crisis with Oruç Reis, revealed Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos in an interview with Proto Thema.
“Three times there was a universal mobilization of the Armed Forces,” Panagiotopoulos emphasised when speaking about tensions with Turkey.
The Minister of National Defense clarified that “as long as there is a threat from the east,” meaning Turkey, “there is no question of demilitarisation of the islands.”
More shockingly however, Panagiotopoulos revealed in his interview with Proto Thema that Greece almost went to war three times with Turkey at the height of the Oruç Reis crisis.
“There were three general mobilizations of the Armed Forces,” against Turkey he said, adding “Christ!”
Besides discussing Turkey, Panagiotopoulos discussed a variety of other issues such as relations with the US and Germany, and the purchase of fighter jets and frigates for the navy.
Exploratory contacts: What do you say to allies who ask that all the issues raised by the Turks be included in the agenda of exploratory talks?
We explain to them that we are coming to discuss specific issues on the agenda and that these preliminary discussions take place on these specific issues only, and not on any possible claim that Turkey may make, say demilitarisation of the islands.
What is there to talk about?
For us, demilitarisation cannot exist as long as there is a threat from the east. It is intertwined with maintaining the threat.
As long as there is a threat – and we estimate that it existed and manifested this summer – there is no question of demilitarisation.
Our supreme sovereign right is to protect our national integrity and on this basis we choose to have forces of legal and preventive defense on the islands.
In the summer with the Oruç Reis, was there a time when you thought that military confrontation was inevitable?
In the summer I was on a prolonged vigil for many months. There were three general mobilizations of the Armed Forces. Christ!
The Navy was at the center of this mobilization, because it developed in the Eastern Mediterranean and came close to the Turkish Navy in many cases that we know of.
But the entire Armed Forces was ready for any eventuality, from armed aircraft at bases to Army units at the border.
Nevertheless, we had a strange certainty that this mobilization would succeed in sending the other side the message of deterrence.
That is, the opponents would not reach a point of military engagement because they knew they would face heavy costs.
This is the confirmation of deterrence in practice and I can say that it was achieved with the universal mobilisation of the Armed Forces. There were moments of tension but also of escalation.
However, the Armed Forces have always been present.
Do you think that the election of Biden creates new opportunities for cooperation with the United States in the field of defense? What are the priorities set by the Greek side?
Amendments to the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement are already under way.
Will it be five years?
The US side has made some proposals and we are working on a package of proposals.
We are asking the Americans for a package, such as access to more funds for military assistance to third countries or the release of weapons systems from the surplus of the US Armed Forces.
The issue of extending the validity of the MDCA was raised at the table, which means that they will be able to make greater investments in infrastructure. Such a development benefits us as well.
In addition, our goal is to further intensify inclusive training and exercises with different units of the US Armed Forces (Special Forces, helicopters, etc.).
However, I believe that with the Biden administration there is more room for optimism to come to terms with the Americans.
Not because we did not get along well with the previous administration, but because the Trump-Erdoğan personal relationship affected the overall situation, although we made very positive statements about our positions to the State Department.
Now, however, this condition no longer exists. In addition, the new president is familiar with Greek-Turkish differences, a supporter of Greece but also a personal friend of the Prime Minister, something that I think is important.
Analysts find it difficult to explain Germany’s attitude towards Turkey. Immigration is a major issue, but not the only one.
What do you think is the root cause of this attitude? Is any goodwill move expected from the Greek side towards Germany?
Germany is a key partner at EU level and NATO. As far as the Ministry of National Defense is concerned, there is an open line of communication with my German counterpart.
We recently contacted each other by phone and the news in this case is that she is asking in advance to find out our positions in order to talk to my Turkish counterpart, knowing in advance what our positions are, something that has not happened in the past.
So they listen to us and take into account what we have to say.
From there on Germany, due to its relationship with Turkey, can play a constructive mediating role in the effort to bring the two countries closer.
It has its own way, perhaps more discreetly, and of course, like other countries, it has its own economic interests in the neighboring country, which in any case must be taken into account.
There are the interests of German defense companies in Turkey, which no German government can simply cancel overnight. On the other hand, we also seek to deepen the relationship with the Germans in the field of defense.
Let me remind you that we have German submarines, we have launched and are running the acquisition of new heavy-duty torpedoes for our submarines, obviously from the German parent company…
The one who had some problems with the Greek State?
Yes, but we overcame it. And of course our main battle tank is German, so we are cooperating with the German side and there will be opportunities to continue this cooperation.
From your movements so far, it seems that you are moving rapidly in armaments. However, in the matter of frigates we observe some controversial movements.
Signing a MoU with the French, turning to an American solution and then reconsidering all options. What are you really looking for?
In terms of fast pace, in the case of Rafale we broke every speed record!
When the Defense Ministry and Parliament passes an agreement in just four months after the start of negotiations, and the delivery of the first aircraft to Greece is expected in less than a year after the start of negotiations, I think it has not been done, at least for Greece.
But we succeeded because we all worked hard, political and military leadership, and of course we had the support and good mood from the French side, which for its own reasons also wanted it to process the acquisition of Rafale quickly .
Beyond that, the history of frigates is completely different.
To put it bluntly, there was no MoU signing with the French other than a letter of Letter of Intent, which in turn was a formulation of our desire to start negotiations for the acquisition of the two [email protected] without any commitment.
These evolved, they reached a point of final configuration of a ship, which was considered too expensive for our financial capabilities.
At the same time, however, the acquisition of French ships was never ruled out.
There was virtually no shift to an American solution.
In the process, the Americans came up with their own proposal for the acquisition of four new frigates. At the same time, new proposals arrived from other countries.
The Navy evaluates, one by one, each of them.
In any case, the final evaluation will be done in the first half of 2021.
At the moment our problem is… pleasant, with so many interesting suggestions.
However, the final decision will be based on the satisfaction of the needs of the Navy in new frigates, in combination with many sub-parameters such as the possibility of involving domestic defense industry in the construction project.
We consider necessary the participation of Greek industry, as well as the provision of an “intermediate solution” (ie some ready, as far as possible, warships) until the new units of the Navy are built, something that will develop in 7-8 years.
After Rafale comes, the turn of F-35? What is the timetable for their supply?
The F-35 is the new 5th generation fighter aircraft. I have said that sooner or later Greece will have to acquire a 5th generation aircraft, namely the F-35.
At the moment, however, we have just completed the purchase of the Rafale, which amounts to about 2.5 billion in total, and the 84 F-16 upgrade program to the Viper version is in progress, which is entering its most critical point.
Following the departure of the US Air Force F-16 Viper prototype, the ODA production line will be activated, producing 8 to 12 aircraft per year for the next six years. Therefore, the core fleet of our Air Force is undergoing an extensive upgrade.
In the process, the discussion about F-35s will open. I believe that such a development will follow the completion of these two programs in time.
We have shown our interest to the Americans to join the F-35 program, but of course this will also be a function of our financial capabilities which are not inexhaustible.
Do not forget that we are working with a comprehensive re-equipment plan of the Armed Forces over a period of seven years, with interventions in all three sectors, with prioritization of needs, costs and possibility of financing.
This, then, evolves over time.
The time for F-35s will come.
Will you give financial incentives to the professional personnel to stop the tendencies of resignations from the Armed Forces?
The first thing I have to say is that the decision of the personnel to stay or leave has to do with his morale.
To give a typical example, where last year in Tanagra we faced resignations, today we face a competition who will be the first to participate in the Rafale pilot and technician training program.
In just one year, Tanagra with Rafale and Mirage 2000-5, which are constantly being re-made and available, has become a “place of anticipation and joy”, with a positive effect on the morale of personnel.
Of course financial incentives play a role.
We made interventions especially in the era of mobilisation and we will do what we can in the future.
What I have to say, however, is that in any case, the professionalism and the sense of responsibility shown by the personnel throughout the Armed Forces, especially in critical moments, show that they are fully aware of their duty and mission.
We will help them where we can.
Are you considering the possibility of compulsory conscription at the age of 18 -on the Israeli model- and voluntary conscription of women?
It is difficult to change Greece into Israel overnight, in terms of the mentality towards military service.
Beyond that, however, given the threats and challenges we face, I believe that we need to change our mentality as a whole as a society, in order to deal with them successfully.
Women’s enlistment is not on the table.
However, there is the government’s plan – the Prime Minister has also said – for future conscription at 18.
In order for this to happen, however, a very careful planning by the Staffs must precede it.
There is no such issue at the moment, after all we have just made a small increase in the term.
However, this issue could be raised in the future, always in consultation and following proposals from the General Staffs.
In any case, conscription at 18 could in the future be useful for the Armed Forces and for the mentality of young people towards their constitutional obligation to serve compulsorily for a period of their lives in the ranks of the Armed Forces.