The Alleged Rafale Deal: French-Greek Rapprochement in the Troubled Eastern Mediterranean

Since late July 2020, we have been witnessing the most severe escalation in Greek-Turkish relations in decades. It seems that both sides are pushing for a definitive solution on the long-term pending issues of the maritime boundaries across Eastern Mediterranean, changing the regional dynamics and prompting new geopolitical alliances to emerge in the region.

French-Greek Political and Security Rapprochement

The current Greek-Turkish crisis has created the appropriate circumstances for a new approach in relations between Athens and Paris.

On the one hand, France is concerned about the rise of Turkey as a considerable power in the Mediterranean region. Ankara is gaining significant momentum in an area that is actually connecting France with Africa, the continent where traditionally vital French interests are at stake. A potential Turkish dominance in the Mediterranean at the expense of Greece, would be catastrophic not only for Athens but also for Paris, since it could possibly disrupt the French maritime routes to Africa.

At the same time the current framework is the perfect chance for President Emmanuel Macron to showcase that France could still be seen as one of the key players within the European Union, a role that has gradually been overshadowed by Berlin, especially in the past decade.

The Greek Perspective

Meanwhile, Greece is actively looking for a reliable partner, a country with substantial international standing and with aligning interests, which could be used as a counterbalance and a deterrence for the Turkish claims in the Mediterranean. The unsympathetic role of Germany in the last months has prompted Greece to turn to France for this sought-after assistance and assurance. Macron in mid-August — at a moment that the Greek-Turkish dispute seemed to be reaching its peak — publicly adopted an unambiguous position in support of Athens. In response the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, thanked the French President with a tweet in French, making clear that Athens has a strong ally by its side.

Apart from the close bilateral relations in political and diplomatic level, there have been some critical moves in a military context.

By late August, with the Turkish unauthorized research activity still ongoing in the Greek continental shelf, a joint Cypriot, French and Greek naval exercise took place, in the area of interest. French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly publicized the activity through her Twitter account sending a political message to all the parties involved.

The developments have been even more interesting in the field of armament programs. Following some failed -possibly due to German and US involvement- negotiations in July for a major upgrade of the Greek Navy, Athens and Paris are currently holding fresh talks about the acquisition of a significant number of Rafale jet fighters.

Potential Rafale Acquisition; a Tactical Rather than Strategic Advantage

The Greek Ministry of Defense has been considering over the previous year the purchase of the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter aircraft. However, the latest developments and the rapprochement with France have put on the table the potential acquisition of 18 fourth-generation (or 4.5 generation) Dassault Rafale.

The alleged French-Greek deal could take place quite soon on very favoring terms for the Greek side. The current reports indicate that 10 aircraft of the latest F3 Rafale version would be purchased by the Hellenic Air Force and another eight earlier variant versions would be donated.

Rafale Negotiations Reportedly Moving Quickly

The negotiations between the two sides are moving fast and the aircraft could be delivered quite soon, since it is highly likely that the jet fighters are either already deployed and would only need to be moved to Greece or are a part of another major purchase — probably for Egypt — which is to be delivered soon and will be simply be diverted to Greece.

The presence of numerous upgraded operational Mirage 2000 in the Hellenic Air Force would accelerate even more the inclusion of the new aircraft in the Greek arsenal. Mirage 2000 is another Dassault trademark which has many resemblances with the Rafale.

Turkish Air Capabilities

On the other hand, the Turkish Air Force is mostly relying on variants of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and upgraded versions of the outdated F-4 Phantom II. The potential addition of the 18 Rafales in the Hellenic Air Force fleet, would definitely tip the balance in favor of Greece.

However, one should consider that prior to the final deal on the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, Ankara had agreed with Washington to participate in the F-35 program. The recent confirmation that eight F-35 aircraft, which were initially built for Turkey were eventually bought by the US Air Force, was the final blow to any Turkish aspirations for participation in the F-35 program.

However, there are rumors that the Turkish Ministry of Defense is already considering alternatives, with the Russian Su-35 and Su-57 being on the table. Apparently if such an agreement proceeds, Turkey will be considerably upgrading its Air Force capabilities in the long-term and combined with the deployment of the S-400 system across the country, then the potential should be rather worrying for Greece.

The Bottom Line on the Potential Rafale Deal

In this sense, the procurement of the French Rafale at the moment, could be seen as a boost that the Greek defense needs at this crucial moment. Rafale could provide a serious tactical advantage and temporarily shift the regional balance in favor of the Hellenic Air Force against its Turkish counterpart.

However there is little significance of this move in a wider strategic context. The future prospects of a substantial French-Greek defense partnership which could possibly limit the Turkish influence in the region is probably the most important aspect of these latest developments.