TANAGRA, Greece (AP) — French-built fighter jets roared Wednesday over the Acropolis as Greece races to modernize its military and flaunts new security alliances aimed at checking neighboring Turkey.
Six advanced Rafale jets, purchased from the French air force, flew in low formation over Athens before their official handover to the Greek armed forces at a nearby air base.
“The arrival of these Rafale aircraft signals an upgrade for our country operationally, technologically and geopolitically,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said at the ceremony.
The event was broadcast live on private and state-run television. Fire trucks greeted the aircraft with a water salute at the base, where the local Greek Orthodox bishop led a blessing ceremony.
The multirole combat aircraft with a distinctive triangle-shaped wing were the first major delivery to result from multi-billion euro defense deals the Greek and French governments sealed last year. Greece has earmarked nearly 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion) to buy 18 Rafale jets, 12 from the French air force and six newly built by Paris-based military contractor Dassault.
Greece also plans to acquire six more Rafale jets at a later date and to spend an additional 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) to buy three new French-made frigates.
NATO allies Greece and Turkey have longstanding disagreements over boundaries and oil-and-gas drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, a dispute that flared into a tense naval stand off in 2020.
Turkey and Greece mount competing air force patrols in the eastern Aegean Sea around Greek islands facing Turkey’s coastline. The tensions in the region prompted Athens to speed up its military upgrade program and strengthen defense ties with allies France and the United States.
Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said Greece had also developed military cooperation with Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“Athens’ efforts are paying off big. … These relationships provide Greece with much needed strategic depth,” Tanchum said.
The delivery of the French jets to Greece will be completed in January 2025, military officials said.
Greek officials say the Rafale jets have advanced electronics and weapons systems that will give its air force an advantage while confronting Turkey’s much larger military.
“This was and still is a matter of addressing the strategic context in the Mediterranean. And in this context of tension, French President (Emmanuel) Macron decided to show full support to Greece,” Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier said.
Greek pilots and technical staff have completed the first round of training in France, lasting 10 months, Trappier said. One of them was Squadron Leader Panagiotis Tsoumanis who returned to Athens flying one of the new planes Wednesday.
“We are extremely lucky to have an aircraft that is so advanced in our arsenal,” Tsoumanis said. “In combination with the weapons it carries, I think the (Rafale) will certainly make a difference in the Aegean Sea and wherever else it is required in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Turkey’s air force modernization drive suffered a setback in 2019 when the United States dropped Turkey from its F-35 program over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
Other countries that have signed up to the Rafale program include the UAE, Qatar, India, Egypt, and Croatia.
___ Lefteris Pitarakis in Tanagra contributed.
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