The Fight for Air Superiority in the Aegean

The Aegean is a crucial element in Turkey and Greece’s geopolitical tension.

NATO members Greece and Turkey, which share one of history’s bloodiest rivalries, are revamping their military capabilities as a contingency for another potential war between them.

A significant factor in their geopolitical strife is the need for air superiority over the Aegean. Numerous incidents have taken place over the Aegean Sea with frequent Turkish Air Force violations — some nearly causing war.

Already having some of the best pilots in NATO, the Hellenic Republic is making strides in bilateral ties, which have allowed Athens to purchase new-generation aircraft while Ankara’s air capabilities have remained stagnant.

Greco-Turkish Dispute

In the aftermath of the catastrophic 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, the original Treaty of Sevres that partitioned mainland Asia Minor between various nations was replaced by the Kemalist-backed Treaty of Lausanne.

In the treaty, the Hellenic Republic recognized all territories of the Republic of Turkey in return for Ankara’s recognition of the Greek sovereignty of the Aegean Isles. Articles 8 and 12 established Athens’ sovereignty and territorial claims over the Aegean Isles, save for Imbros and Tenedos that were given to Ankara.

The treaty has hold for several decades, but air and maritime violations by Turkey are frequent. Turkey, which boasts NATO’s second-biggest military, is also one of the alliance’s few members with a force projection capability.

Due to unstable governments that led to internal conflicts and corruption, Greece struggled to keep up with Turkey’s military might. The countries came close to war, particularly during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the S-300 dispute, and the Imia Crisis.

Feeling emboldened by Greece’s stagnation, Turkey has regressed from Mustafa Kemal’s original policies, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has dreams of Neo-Ottomanism, which directly threatens Greece’s sovereignty.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) in Ankara
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Athens Upgrades Air Force

Greece, realizing it could not keep up with Turkey’s population in a ground war, instead focused on naval and air power. Turkey has a solid and large navy as their responsibility includes rivaling Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. For this, Greece’s military doctrine shifted to complete aerial supremacy.

Already having top-ranked NATO pilots with extensive pilot training, the Hellenic Air Force is currently being revamped with state-of-the-art warplanes.

In early 2022, Athens purchased six Rafale fighter jets from Paris. Consolidating a defensive alliance with Greece against Turkish threats that coincide with French interests, France has helped revamp the Hellenic military.

Turkey’s ploy to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system is Ankara’s most significant foreign policy blunder, as the country has been barred from the F-35 program, while Greece was welcomed in. Athens is also supplemented with the Mirage 2000 and modernized F-16s.

Fighter jets fly over the Parthenon at the Acropolis on March 25, 2017 in Athens, during a military parade marking Greece's Independence Day.
Fighter jets fly over the Parthenon at the Acropolis on March 25, 2017 in Athens, during a military parade marking Greece’s Independence Day. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP

Ankara’s Shortfalls and Attempts to Rebuild

Attempting to mirror Greece’s growing aerial capabilities, Turkey is currently faltering for assorted reasons.

Erdogan’s growing authoritarian government is not just affecting Turkish citizens but also the military. As with any hybrid regime, government purges lead to stagnation with military capabilities.

In the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup, Erdogan ordered military purges in the military. One of the wings directly affected was the air force, which remains stagnant.

Sense of Urgency in Turkey

The Turkish government and military analysts are coming to terms with Greece’s growing aerial warfare capabilities, which is causing a sense of panic in the country.

If Turkey cannot modernize its aircraft, particularly the F-16s, by 2025, Greece will have the edge on air superiority, retired Turkish Air Force Commander General Abidin Unal said earlier this month.

One could argue Turkey’s two year-long blackmail towards Sweden’s NATO membership is not because of Stockholm’s amnesty towards Kurdish and Turkish dissidents but to get America’s attention.

On January 27, the US government lifted the F-16 block on Turkey and approved the $23 billion sale of 40 of the jet towards modernization of the Turkish Air Force, which all but hinted Sweden’s near two-year hold on NATO membership was tied to the standoff between Washington and Ankara.

On the same day, Washington also approved the $8.6 billion sale of F-35s to Greece, which Ankara is still barred from, showing equilibrium has not been reached in Turkey’s relations with the US.

However, US Senator Victoria Nuland opened the possibility of Turkey rejoining the F-35 program if Ankara were to give up the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

Nevertheless, even with a friendship understanding between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan, conflict can ensue between both countries, particularly over Cyprus.

Unless Turkey can somehow find its way back into equilibrium with top Western partners, such as the US and France, it will lose the fight for aerial dominance with Greece.

Headshot Julian McBrideJulian McBride is a forensic anthropologist, former Marine, and journalist born in New York.

He reports and documents the plight of people around the world affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard.

Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy.

As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the
brutality of war better than most news organizations.”

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.

Related Articles

Back to top button