The deterioration of Turkey’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) means Greece is now effectively the alliance’s southern flank. Because of the somewhat outsized nature of this role for a small country, Greece needs a more survivable fighter to counter potential moves by Russia and Turkey. Such a warplane will be the anchor of allied airpower in the eastern Mediterranean. That makes the decision to sell the F-35 stealth fighter jet to Greece a relatively easy one.
Given its geographic vulnerabilities, Athens is building up defenses as quickly as possible. To supplement the F-35 jets, it has also purchased around forty Rafale fighters from France. In addition to these, Greece is planning on upgrading its existing fleet of around eighty-four F-16s, which remain agile and affordable tactical aircraft. Upgrading them will even out the scope of Greece’s capabilities once it acquires the F-35.
In November of 2020, it was reported that the Greek government had agreed to the sale of eighteen to twenty-four F-35s, and it was predicted that the F-35s that would be delivered to Greece were the ones originally destined for Turkey.
This January, those reports were confirmed by Athens, incensing Ankara. Part of the admission of both countries—which are oftentimes archnemeses—into NATO was to ensure the prevention of the outbreak of conflict in the eastern Mediterranean and focus their attention on deterring a common adversary in Russia. But the reality is not so simple; the NATO membership turned out to be a band-aid solution for a deep-rooted mutual enmity.
Turkey was excommunicated from the F-35 consortium after its purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia in 2017. Nevertheless, it remains part of NATO to prevent its president from “going rogue” and running into the arms of Russia, China or Iran. Even after Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, it still continued to clash with Greece over territorial water claims, as well as the sovereignty issue in Cyprus, which is unofficially split between Turkish and Greek control; Greece does not recognize the entity formed from that conflict, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, nor the Turkish occupation itself.
That means that in terms of protecting NATO’s Mediterranean theater from Russian aggression, Turkey is a non-starter. Greece, with help from Italy and possibly Romania, is under pressure to fill the vacuum left by Turkey. Getting the F-35 jet is crucial to Greece because of the fighter’s capability to evade detection by Russian radar while gathering intelligence. Perhaps most importantly in this theater, without the F-35 warplane, Turkey only has an aged force of F-16s.
Russian aggression in the Mediterranean is becoming a more realistic scenario. As recently as September, Russia has signaled to Cyprus that it is willing to “mediate” on Turkey’s behalf when it comes to their conflict (and Greece’s conflict with Turkey with Cyprus as a proxy) over oil and gas exploration in Cypriot waters.
That messaging itself could be construed as worrying. Because Turkey and Cyprus have no diplomatic relations—Turkey only communicates with its unofficial enclave in the north of the island—Russia quickly stepped into the role of middleman. Russia has not only increasingly aligned itself with authoritarian governments in the area, such as Turkey, Egypt, and the Assad government in Syria, but has also attempted to sway countries like Italy through the donation of medical supplies during the height of Europe’s battle with the coronavirus. For its part, the Italian government took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to NATO after receiving that assistance.
Meanwhile, Russia is putting pressure on NATO’s eastern flank, not too far away. There has been a sudden but steady military buildup of Russian forces on its border with Ukraine. The president of Ukraine recently made a televised statement informing civilians they might have to prepare for an imminent war with Russia. Shortly thereafter, on April 22, Russia’s defense minister announced that troops would be withdrawing from the border. However, as the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region appear to remain densely occupied by Russian forces, another escalation of tensions seems unavoidable.
However, it will reportedly take Lockheed Martin around five years to build the infrastructure that will accommodate the presence of F-35 jets in Greece. Given the volatility of the region, any steps feasible to accelerate delivery and fielding of Greek F-35 warplanes would be advisable.
Sarah White is a Senior Research Analyst at the Lexington Institute.