ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister outlined plans Saturday to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities, including purchasing new fighter planes, frigates, helicopters and weapons systems amid heightened tensions with Turkey over rights to resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
In an annual state of the economy speech, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece would obtain 18 new French-made Rafale fighter planes to replace its aging Mirage 2000 fighters, buy four navy helicopters and four new frigates and was refurbishing another four frigates.
The armed forces will obtain new anti-tank weapons, new torpedoes and new guided missiles, as well as hire 15,000 more people over the next five years, he said.
France welcomed the Rafale acquisition, the first by a European country.
“Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly welcomes the choice announced today by Prime Minister Mitsotakis to acquire 18 Rafale aircraft,” a statement by France’s Armed Forces ministry said late Saturday.
“This choice…strengthens the link between the Greek and French armed forces, and will allow them to intensify their operational and strategic cooperation,” the statement said, adding that a contract will be signed “in the coming months.”
Nominally NATO allies, Greece and Turkey have deployed naval and air force units to assert the countries’ competing claims over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish survey vessels and drill ships continue to prospect for gas in waters where Greece and the European island nation of Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights.
The increasing tension at sea has led to concerns that the situation could spiral into armed conflict.
“We are a peaceful country, ready to cooperate with all… including with Turkey,” Mitsotakis said, speaking from the northern city of Thessaloniki. If Turkey disagrees on the delineation of maritime boundaries in the eastern Aegean, he said, then a solution could be found at the International Court.
Turkey accuses Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of maritime resources and Cyprus of disregarding the rights of Turkish Cypriots on the ethnically divided island.
Greece and Turkey have conducted rival naval exercises amid their standoff. On Friday, Turkey announced live-fire exercises starting Saturday and running through Monday between its southern coast and northern Cyprus.
“Ankara is now adding to the provocations in the Aegean, the undermining of peace in the entire Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, noting that Greece’s armed forces had lacked funding in recent years during a recession. “The time (has come) to reinforce the armed forces as a legacy to the security of the country.”
Athens has been pushing for the European Union to impose sanctions on Turkey unless Ankara withdraws its research vessel, the Oruc Reis, from the area of the eastern Mediterranean that Greece claims as its continental shelf.
The prime minister also addressed economic measures to tackle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, announcing some tax cuts and the extension of subsidies. The economic package adds up to 6.8 billion euros ($8.1 billion) injected into the economy, Mitsotakis said.
Part of the extra defense spending, as well as aid to businesses, will be financed with 2.5 billion euros ($3 billion) that Greece recently raised in a bond auction.
The Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), on whose grounds Mitsotakis spoke, was canceled this year because of the coronavirus. He gave the traditional prime minister’s speech about the economy in front of a restricted audience, all of whom wore masks and practiced social distancing.
Around 5,000 people protested outside the speech venue, with riot police monitoring. Similar demonstrations in previous years have turned violent, but not this time.
Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report from Paris.