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Saturday, December 15, 2001


Greek Arms Purchases, the US, and the Greek American Community

Part 3: Arming the Greek Navy

This is the final part of a series on the politics of Greek arms purchases.

CF Adams/Knox-class destroyers
The transfer of the CF Adams-class destroyers to the Greek navy almost 10 years ago was a textbook example of Greek American community involvement in Greek arms purchases – and of its limits.

During the late 80s, the Turkish government pushed to acquire Brooke- and Garcia-class ships that had been withdrawn from the US navy. The Greek naval staff tried to acquire a proportionate number as well, in order to maintain the 7:10 balance (of US arms assistance to Greece and Turkey, respectively), as well as an equilibrium of forces. In this case, with the Soviet threat diminishing fast, influential members of the Greek American community suggested to the Greek navy that it not press too vigorously, as other classes of more capable ships were to become available soon.

The advice was followed and – despite some unfortunate resignations of key Greek naval officials who were linked (not necessarily for good reason) to the failure to secure Brooke- and Garcia-class ships – the Greek navy found itself in position to acquire vessels of the DDG2 CF Adams class. Although old and crew-intensive, these vessels offered the Greek navy the ability for the first time for area anti-air warfare (AAW) due to the existence of the Standard-Missile-1 Medium Range (RIM-66/SM-1MR) missile system. With all their limitations, these ships enhanced Greek capabilities in an unprecedented way. Thus, the cooperation of the Greek American community, officials of the Greek navy, and the Greek government allowed Greece to reject a dubious offer for a far better opportunity.

Unfortunately, from this point on things went less well, pointing to the Greek American community’s limited abilities to act positively. On the one hand, the Turkish government was somehow notified or simply became suspicious of the Greek navy’s rather low profile regarding the proposed Brooke- and Garcia-class vessels. Turkey consequently canceled the deal, and instead acquired vessels of the newer and more capable Knox class. On the other hand, the Greek navy purchased ships with unprecedented abilities, but not in the best possible condition. Indeed, it became clear quickly that not only was it out of the question to keep all of them operational, but that maintaining just some of them was going to be a challenge. Moreover, their weapons suite was typically poor for American warships, especially at the close-in layer, where there was practically no missile-defense system.

The worst aspect of the arrangement, however, was that although the US navy had decommissioned the entire class, it somehow became impossible for Greece to acquire vessels with the New Threat Upgrade kit. This kit augmented the ship’s ability to contain and repel saturation air attacks, which is the most probable situation when operating relatively close to an enemy’s mainland and the enemy air force is mostly (or, as in the Turkish case, exclusively) composed of fighters. The older capabilities had been designed to counter the isolated or limited raids of the Soviet long-range naval bombers of the early 60s, which were slow, bulky, non-agile targets that attacked from medium to high altitudes in small groups or by units. This meant that although the Greek navy was elated by the capabilities of the new ships, they were, practically speaking, of limited utility for its war-fighting scenarios.

The insistence of the Greek navy to proceed with the acquisition of its three Knox-class frigates cannot be held against the Greek American community, of course. These awkward ships should have never entered Greek service. The Greek navy’s worst decision, however, was to turn its lease agreement into clear-cut ownership (after all the shortfalls were obvious), which permitted the upgrade of the weapons, armor, and equipment suite, but also meant a long-term commitment to ships that were clearly inadequate and cost-ineffective. A few years later, in fact, the Greek navy decided against steam propulsion, and the Knox-class vessels were decommissioned after less than 10 years of service in the Greek fleet.

The saga of the Kidd-class destroyers
In the second half of the 90s, the Greek navy understood the need for a class to replace the CF Adams-class ships in area air defense with ships that had enhanced capabilities and reduced operating costs. At that point, the US navy was to decommission its Kidd-class destroyers for budgetary reasons. The Greek American community promptly passed this information on to Greek officials, and the Greek naval staff seriously considered the opportunity, as there were a number of obvious advantages.

  • First and foremost, the weapons system of this class was much more capable than that of the CF Adams class. Practically, it was probably the most advanced system of non-phased-array radar on American warships. It could make use of the improved Standard Missile-2, which allowed much-enlarged salvoes to be launched at increased ranges, resulting in an outstanding ability to repel even saturation attacks. The large number of antiaircraft missiles aboard each vessel (around 100) meant substantial combat endurance.
  • Second, the weapons array was complete. In composition, it resembled the suites onboard European destroyers (generally more heavily armed than their US counterparts of the same displacement class), but in quantity it was rather cruiser-like. Most of this secondary weaponry was already in use in the Greek navy and thus the requisite experience and infrastructure were already in place.
  • Third, its power plant consisted of four LM-2500 gas turbines, doing away with steam turbines, a fact of great appeal to the Greek navy at a time when it wanted to discard steam propulsion altogether. The LM series of turbines was already in service in Greek ships, although in smaller vessels (i.e., Hydra-class frigates).
  • Fourth, its design for the imperial Iranian navy meant an excellent air-conditioning system, a must for Greek waters during summer, and the ship was judged efficient and sail-worthy in general.
  • Fifth, the ships were readily available. This meant that the Greek navy could have a much improved capability within two to three years, instead of the seven years that a new shipbuilding program would entail. This in turn meant that the Greek navy could significantly increase its capabilities in the short term, permitting itself enough time during the next 10 years to organize a well-structured replacement program, while the emerging AAW technologies would also be mature enough and less risky to invest in. Moreover, with the funds released by such a stopgap measure in the AAW sector, the building of a series of multi-purpose anti-submarine warfare corvettes would stay on track, in order to keep the vital sea lines of the Aegean clean of Turkish submarines while increasing Greek naval presence on the sensitive eastern borders.
  • Finally, the fact that the ships were surplus meant reasonable costs in acquiring them, which was important for making the purchase worthwhile.

Of course, there were substantial disadvantages as well. The vessels were extremely maintenance-intensive, and required very large crews, which was problematic for the Greek navy since it always has a manpower shortage, especially for fleet duties. In addition, these ships possessed systems incompatible with those of the Greek navy, which meant an exceptional investment in infrastructure and logistics, in some cases for subsystems that were already dated and occasionally even out of US service or due to be retired soon. The sheer size of the ships (a staggering 10,000 tons of displacement, reminiscent of Second World War German “pocket-battleships” such as the Graf Spee) required extensive works at the Greek docks from which they were to operate. Finally, the ships were almost 25 years old, as was their weapon-system technology. It was not only designed in the 70s, but, even worse, the US had discarded this type of area AAW system for Aegis-equipped ships, bearing vertical launchers for their impressive missile batteries. Nevertheless, after careful analysis, the Greek naval staff decided in favor of the purchase, assuming a reasonable price.

At first, the US preferred to see the ships not going to Greece, but rather to a more “dependable” ally. As the Cold War was over, however, this “dependability issue” clearly had no justification. In truth, the US was concerned that the ships were to be used by one ally against another, more favored ally. The opposite, of course, was not true. US administrations continually supplied weaponry to Turkey, which openly admitted the potential use of such weaponry against Greece.

US budgetary problems were urgent, however, and the ships had to go. Australia firmly declined the bargain price of $30 million per ship, but the Greek navy indicated serious interest in two ships. The cost of operation for all four ships was prohibitive, while the greater combat potential and reliability of the class compared to the CF Adams theoretically permitted most Greek operational scenarios to be satisfied with half the ships. The US had to swallow the bitter pill of the ships going to Greece, but decided to make the most of it.

The US government presented the sale to certain individuals of the Greek American community as a major concession to Greece (which it was not, since there were no other potential customers and the US navy was eager to get rid of the ships, preferably with reimbursement of some kind). A similar line was adopted with the Greek government by the US embassy in Athens. However, when the details of the purchase were made public, it just did not seem right.

First, the US was not giving the vessels to Greece for free, although they were surplus ships. They were being sold. Second, they were being sold as “all four or nothing,” whereas the Greek navy clearly needed – and could only afford to acquire and operate – two of them. Third, the matter of price arose. Not only were the ships for sale, and not giveaways, but the price suddenly skyrocketed. The-$30-million-per-ship deal for Australia became $100 million for Greece! Moreover, when the Greek staff made its calculations – i.e., 4 x 100 million = 400 million – it did not account for American bookkeeping. Simply put, the US was charging $750 million for the four ships to cover the added infrastructure in Greece that had to be built to maintain them, with other costs (such as dockyard expansion and improvement) not included!

This package of three quarters of a billion dollars included spare parts and an array of ammunition for the ships’ weapon systems, most of which already existed in rather adequate quantities in the Greek arsenal and were thus redundant. What was not included in the bill was the primary missile of the ships, the standard surface-to-air missile. At a price of $400,000 apiece, with 100 carried by each vessel, a full missile load – making no provisions for test firings and reloads – was a respectable $160 million. And this was not all. In 1998, when the package was proposed (proposed meant “take it or leave it,” with no choice to reject some aspects of it), the US refused to permit the acquisition of the SM-2, in which the main merit of these vessels lies. Greeks had to contend themselves with the older SM-1 used on their CF Adams destroyers and in the Turkish OH Perry frigates. With the SM-2 not available, the ships’ value to the Greek navy decreased. (The SM-1 is the first-generation Standard Missile, which, as indicated above, is the primary missile of this class of vessels. The SM-2 is a newer model of the same missile, but much improved. It has longer range, improved sensor and warhead assembly, and can be “ripple-fired,” in order to repel saturation attacks.)

The enormous price tag for a mere 10-year difference in age, and some improvements in the weapon systems compared to the Adams class, was just not worth it. The US consented to rethink the Greek request for the SM-2 in two years’ time. This was not a significant compromise, however, as the US government could easily revert to its previous decision when it reexamined the Greek request. Even if this were not the case, the Greek navy would have had to spend another $160 million for just one shipload of the improved missiles (on top of an immediate $160 million for a shipload of the older missiles as a stopgap measure).

Moreover, as negotiations continued, the US navy did not suspend its decommissioning process, which meant that the ships were being mothballed despite Greece’s expressed desire to acquire them “hot.” Consequently, Greece would have had to expend additional monies, not included in the original bill – and going to American shipbuilders – to make the vessels seaworthy. Such behavior was rightly considered by many to be a kind of extortion, and turned many influential people in Greece against the deal.

The deal still had its supporters, however, including Greek Americans, who exerted tremendous pressure on Greece. Some of them simply had financial interests in the deal. The rest were dragged along by ignorance, believing that the sale was a good gesture to Greece on the part of the US, whereas Greece was just acting wildly “again,” irreparably compromising the Greek American community, its good services, and its reputation in the eyes of US officials.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The Greek prime minister himself had decided in favor of the deal in October 1998, at least in principle. Only the details were left to be worked out – which, however, were of tremendous importance. Moreover, the US demanded that the Greek government guarantee that these ships (paid for by the Greek taxpayer) not be used to enforce the common defense doctrine with Cyprus. Such a direct imposition of restrictions on what would be Greek property was generally considered to be a bit much.

The turning-point was US insistence that, as a tradeoff for the Kidds (which were to be bought at premium prices), the Greek government give its corvette contract to a US shipbuilder! This was an almost incredibly shameless demand – and an outrage to all the other governments whose shipbuilders were bidding for the Greek contract. The proposed US corvette, based on the Israeli Sa’ar 5, was expensive, but nothing exceptional. True, when first presented in the early 90s, it was a revolutionary design, much more advanced than anything available at the time, but, by 1998, the competition had more than caught up, and many of the other designs were superior, and backed with better financial and industrial offers.

Despite the furious support for the sale in Greece, especially in the press, by various special interests, it was clear that such an array of unbelievable restrictions, limitations, and demands had simply poisoned the deal. The US tried to extort Greece even further with the threat that if the agreement were not signed soon, the US government would restart negotiations with other interested parties. This was perceived as blackmail, however, by the Greek government and did nothing to advance the deal.

Two years later, late in 2000, the bluff was made ludicrously obvious when the US contacted the Greek defense minister offering to “re-examine the issues that had hindered the deal.” This move clearly showed how desperate the US was to get rid of the ships in question, and further exposed the hollowness of previous arguments by partisans of the sale in both Greece and the US. Although everyone with a direct interest in it tried anew to persuade the Greek government that the time was ripe, it was clearly too late. The Greek navy had taken considerable pains to specify a new AAW major surface combatant, to be built partially in Greece and wholly to Greek needs and specifications.

Manousos E. Kambouris is is currently pursuing a doctorate in biology. He is a frequent contributor to numerous Greek defense-related publications, focusing on front-line hardware and tactical missiles.
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