Greece to upgrade 85 F-16 fighter jets to Viper configuration

Greece on Saturday announced an upgrade for its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 warplanes, a programme pending over the past six months due to concerns over cost.

The decision comes amid growing tensions with neighbour Turkey over sovereign rights in the Aegean Sea where the two sides have a series of longstanding territorial disputes.

An emergency meeting of Greece’s Council on Foreign Policy and Defense (KYSEA) chaired by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras approved the decision.

“The council unanimously approved the implementation of the 85-plane upgrade programme,” Tsipras’ office said.

It added that the decision was based on “preliminary approval” by the U.S. of a “revised Greek proposal taking into account the country’s fiscal obligations over the coming years.”

Defence Minister Panos Kammenos tweeted that the planes would be upgraded to F-16 Viper level.

The F-16V variant includes an active electronically scanned array radar, a new mission computer and electronic warfare suite, automated ground collision avoidance system, and various cockpit improvements. The F-16V first flew in October 2015.

No details on the cost or delivery dates of the programme were given.

The upgrade deal was first announced in October during a Tsipras visit to Washington, but the government came under immediate criticism over the price tag. The U.S. State Department at the time estimated the cost to upgrade around 120 Greek F-16s at more than $2.4 billion for a 10-year programme.

Athens had insisted the cost would not exceed $1.3 billion and would not destabilise its precarious budget.

Reports on Saturday said the programme agreed runs to 2021 at a cost of €450 million ($546 million).

Update April 29 The Associated Press reported the program was valued at $1.45 billion, with Greece paying for improvements until 2027 or 2028, and that the U.S. will cap payments at $182 million per year thereafter.

Greece operates a fleet of around 150 F-16s, and Tsipras has said the planes, some of them dating from 1989, risked being rendered inoperable without the upgrade.

Greece spends two percent of its budget on defence, one of only five NATO members to meet this alliance target.

Tensions with Turkey in the Aegean Sea

Greek fighter planes see extensive action in the Aegean Sea, and are regularly scrambled to intercept Turkish jets entering what Athens considers Greek airspace, occasionally engaging in mock dogfights.

On April 9, Greek soldiers fired warning shots at a Turkish helicopter after it approached the small island of Ro, which marks their border in the Aegean Sea. Days later, the pilot of a Greek air force jet was killed when his Mirage 2000-5 jet crashed in the Aegean as it returned from an earlier interception of a Turkish jet that had violated Greek air space.

Last week, deputy defense minister Fotis Kouvelis confirmed that Greece is to lease two French FREMM frigates for its navy. The lease is for five years, and the vessels are expected to be inducted into the Greek Navy by August.

With reporting from AFP

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