The canceled acquisition of the BELH@RRA frigates is gradually becoming the talk of the day in Greece. BELH@RRA is a massive deal that would further strengthen Greek-French relations and significantly upgrade the strategic capabilities of the Hellenic Navy. Now it has reportedly suddenly frozen.
The BELH@RRA Advantage in the Greek Operational Environment
BELH@RRA is the latest Naval Group (formerly known as DCNS) combat ship to succeed the La-Fayette class stealth frigate. The new frigate could serve multi-purpose tasks, being able to overtake missions as an individual unit or as a part of an expanded task force. Its compact build allows the frigate to operate in a congested operational theater of limited space, making it ideal for specific parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The distinctive “@” instead of “a” in its name indicates its highly digitized structure and the uniquely sophisticated systems contained in the frigate.
BELH@RRA can be equipped with gyratory 3D multipurpose radars or with the state-of-the-art fixed AESA panel radar systems in a Panoramic Surveillance Intelligence Module (PSIM), which would be the case in the versions that were intended for the Hellenic Navy. BELH@RRA is also equipped with Hull-Mounted and Variable Depth Sonar systems, providing passive detection in all frequency bands.
Massive Active and Passive Attack and Defense Upgrade
The building of BELH@RRA provides enhanced capabilities for active/passive attack and defense in each and every warfare theater. The weapon systems can be comprised by up to 32 vertical launched missiles cells and 76 or 127 mm guns. Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) for detecting and destroying short-range incoming missiles are also available. The frigate can be armed with Aster 15 and 30, 8-cell Vertical Launching Systems, with their surface-to-air missiles (SAM) spanning from a 30km to 120km range, respectively. SCALP Naval cruise missiles. The ship is also equipped with Remote Weapon Stations, anti-ship missiles, decoy launchers, and torpedo launchers. But most importantly, BELH@RRA weapon systems include the French MBDA-developed MdCN (Missile De Croisière Naval), surface attack cruise. This missile constitutes the naval version of the renowned SCALP missile, a long-range weapon that can operate in a distance over 250 km, providing the Hellenic Navy with the capability to lock targets across the Turkish inland.
SETIS Multi-Function Combat Management System
The SETIS, multi-function combat management system would be also built in. This tool, developed again by the Naval Group, provides a centralized rapid response to any kind of threat and establishes interconnectivity among the forces with tactical data links. SETIS achieves, through the Combat Information Centre (CIC), operational coordination not only with other naval forces in the area but also with UAV supporting any given operation.
Talks around the BELH@RRA between Athens and Paris have been ongoing since 2018 and everything seemed that the agreement would move forward at this very sensitive moment for the Greek defense. As explained so far this move could remarkably upgrade the strategic capabilities of the Hellenic Navy, and the Hellenic Armed Forces as a whole.
The Importance of BELH@RRA for Greek Naval Power
The addition of the BELH@RRA ships in the force of the Hellenic Navy would provide Athens with a strategic advantage in the Eastern Mediterranean and work as an additional deterrent to the ongoing Turkish ambitions in the Aegean Sea. Assessing Ankara’s actions, and the claims within the Greek territory, alongside the scope of the involvement of major foreign powers in the crisis, we could conclude that the timing of the developments over the BELH@RRA deal, can be all but incidental.
The Intriguing Greek-French Off-the-Record Deal
In October 2019, Greece has signed a letter of intent for the purchasing of two BELH@RRA frigates. In February 2020, during an event in the French Embassy in Athens, Naval Group has announced the plan for the strategic partnership between the two countries, as part of the BELH@RRA deal. The program has been moving forward as planned, with some negotiations taking place with regards to the final cost of the purchase, the built-in weapons systems and the participation of the Greek industry of the project.
The aggressive Turkish moves in the Mediterranean over the last few months and Ankara’s controversial policy in the Eastern Mediterranean off the shores of Cyprus and Libya have been bringing Athens and Paris closer and closer. This context makes the aforementioned deal more topical than ever. The current situation with Turkey has reportedly created an additional term in the Greek-French deal which could be a game-changer not only in the regional context but also internationally.
According to reliable sources close to the Hellenic Ministry of Defense, Greece and France have been working towards an agreement, foreseeing that each country would operationally assist the other in case of a military engagement with a third party. This mutual support agreement would come as a part of the BELH@ARRA deal. Its significant consequences will be examined further below.
The Unconvincing Greek Rationale for a Stalemate on the BELH@ARRA Deal
According to a recent article from the French newspaper La Tribune, the BELH@ARRA deal has unexpectedly reached a stalemate. Given the current context, this development does not make any sense. The news has drawn wide attention in the Greek public, and some major Greek media outlets rushed to provide unconvincing explanations. Among other reasons, it has been stated that the costs have been excessive and due to a latest change in the state budget — following a verdict of the Hellenic Council of State — the deal could not be completed.
Other sources indicated that the estimated time of delivery and operational deployment of the frigates could not cover the Greek needs, as the country is currently under Turkish pressure. Finally, there have been claims that Naval Group would not utilize adequately the Greek industry in completing the project.
None of these statements can be accurate, considering that the budget of the deal was assessed from its initial stages, and the terms described in the press release from the Naval Group back in February made clear that the Greek side would have a conclusive role in the research and development process.
Last but not least, the Defense Doctrine of a country should be shaped in a strategic horizon and not be affected by the temporary conditions. The Greek-Turkish dispute is a matter that could last decades and the Greek General Staffs and Defense Ministries should be planning for the long-term.
The US-German Factor
A much more concrete explanation came approximately a week ago and was provided by Dr. Ioannis Mazis, Professor in the Faculty of Turkish Studies and Modern Asian Studies at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Mazis mentioned in an interview that the French-Greek deal has been probably halted due to direct or indirect US and German involvement.
Interestingly enough, shortly after the Professor’s statement, reports started circulating about the intervention of German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself, who weighed in on the deal in order to avoid a potential Greek-Turkish military conflict. Leaving aside the traditional Greek preference for German and US-built weapons systems when it comes to major military contracts and the political-defense industry complex, we should consider the impact of a potential Greek-French pact on the very essential structure of the NATO alliance.
According to Article 5 of the Alliance: “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Of course, there is no provision in this Article of what should happen in case the attacker and the attacked are both NATO members. In any case the decision of two fellow members to proceed to an agreement similar to the Greek-French pact, substantially undermines the credibility of the alliance and highlights its loose structure, alongside its operational and strategic inefficiencies. In this context, the interference of Germany and the US — two of the cornerstone members of NATO — in an effort to halt this from happening, could be certainly plausible.