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A developing Greek-Israeli defense partnership and the potential of establishing an armed drone program in the Hellenic Armed Forces is increasingly worrying Turkey.

While Turkish President Recep Erdogan is trying to enhance ties with Israel, the possibility of Israeli drones operating from Greek islands in the Aegean Sea is a concern for Ankara. In fact a prominent Turkish newspaper recently claimed claimed that Athens’ actions are an act of aggression which could quickly escalate to war.

The Greek-Israeli Agreement

The Hellenic Parliament approved a bill earlier this year on July 7 which established the partnership between the Greek and Israeli Defense Departments. The bill came as the concluding step of long negotiations between the two states that officially started back in 2011, when both sides signed a Principal Memorandum of Understanding.

The agreement formally consolidated the cooperation of Athens and Tel Aviv in the defense sector and highlighted the aligning geopolitical interests of the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Among other matters, in the context of this defense bill, the Israeli defense industry has agreed with Greece to provide a number of Heron drones on a leasing basis. Athens will initially lease the drones for a three-year period; at the end of the leasing timeframe, the drones could then be fully purchased by the Hellenic Armed Forces, according to further arrangements that will be finalized at a later stage.

How Will the Drone Partnership Work?

At the moment the program is ongoing, with military personnel of the two countries already working together in terms of training and familiarization with the control and operational procedures of the new systems. According to the current reports from the Greek side, Heron drones are expected to be operational within the next few months.

Based on information provided by senior-level officials the drones will be strategically based on specific Aegean islands in the proximity of the Turkish coastline. It is not clear as of now if Israeli personnel will be assigned to Greece for the primary stages of the drone deployment, but there are indications that the system will be fully operated only by Greek personnel once the necessary training has been completed.

The Strategic Significance of Drone Deployment in the Aegean

The eventual deployment of advanced drone systems in the Aegean islands would probably mean Athens turning the tables on Ankara. Both countries share extended maritime boundaries and airspace across the Aegean region. The Greek-Turkish decades-long dispute – which has been rapidly escalating during recent months – never led to a full-scale war, partly due to the balance of powers between the two sides.

Air power is a critical aspect of this balance of power, and the Hellenic and the Turkish Air Force have been in a state of constant antagonism, with both trying to outdo the other in their abilities, equipment and strategic edge.

The remarkable advancement of the Turkish drone industry and operational capabilities – as have been witnessed in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh – indicate clearly that Turkey has been rapidly establishing key infrastructure and skills in this vital field over the last few years.

Greece is seemingly behind. The scheduled deployment of Israeli drones in the Aegean islands could totally change the current status quo. However we should emphasize that in order to fully exploit the capabilities of the drone, the Greek government should make a priority the armament of the recently obtained UAVs.

According to the press release following the Greek-Israeli Heron deal the drones will be used vaguely for border defense purposes. The notice did not clarify if there is a potential for the drones to be armed, or they will be only utilized for reconnaissance missions.

Heron Drones and the Turkish Backlash

At the moment, two Heron drones have  reportedly been stationed at the Greek island of Skyros. The Heron model is one of the pioneering UAV systems of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). With a Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) range of over 1,000 km, an operational attitude of over 35,000 feet and endurance up to 45 hours, Heron presents a huge challenge for Turkey.

It should be noted here that in early 2010s, Turkey has purchased a former version of the Heron UAV and there are unconfirmed claims that this model was used as the base for the development of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones. 

Heron is not only superior from the Turkish UAV spearhead, the Bayraktar TB2, but also the geographical advantage of Greece – namely the numerous small islands in the proximity of the Turkish mainland which can be used as a base of operations for the Greek drones – presents an unparalleled challenge for Ankara.

On the top of that, Herons have the capacity to be equipped with ATG Missiles, laser-guided bombs, and long-range Air-to-Surface Missiles. This is why the deployment of armed drones would give a strategic advantage to Greece. Any weapons systems that will be chosen for the potential armament of Heron, combined with the unique capabilities of the drone, could literally enable Athens to conduct crucial strikes in the very center of the Turkish heartland.

Turkey is Worried About The Greek Drone Deal

If Greece take the decisive step to deploy a considerable number of armed drones across the Aegean islands, a harsh reaction should be expected from the Turkish side. President Erdogan will fully exploit any sort of leverage available to establish his plans for the eventual dominance of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in this sense any move that could give a strategic advantage to Greece will not go uncontested.

Turkey has been traditionally putting forward the casus belli blackmailing method to create geopolitical faits accomplis, with the most prominent example being the Greek reluctance to make use of its legal rights and expand its territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea.

Back in the late 1990s, we saw a much weaker – politically and militarily – Turkey blackmailing the Cypriot Republic (and essentially Greece) with regards to the deployment of the S-300 missile system in the island of Cyprus. In that case Athens and Nicosia eventually backed down and the missiles were transferred to Crete in a quasi-solution.

In the current situation, with Turkish operational and strategic capabilities significantly upgraded and an expansionist foreign policy from the Turkish side ever growing, it is up to the Greeks to have political willingness to proceed with the necessary steps, in order to consolidate robust defense and military capabilities, before the balance of power has irreversibly turned in Ankara’s favor.