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Weapons of Mass Debate - Greece: a Key Security Player for both Europe and NATO

ARTICLES - 12 July 2021

During the Cold War and until 2001, Greece hosted US nuclear weapons on its territory, as part of a NATO nuclear-sharing agreement. Yet, recent geopolitical developments - the US’s progressive military disengagement from the Middle East, its "pivot to Asia", debate around removing nuclear weapons from Turkey - highlight Greece’s potential to become a nuclear base again. Greece is sold to the idea of greater European strategic autonomy and is not suspicious of France, unlike other member states. However, Athen’s lack of reaction following French President Emmanuel Macron’s February 2020 speech is due to the country’s other internal priorities and its commitment to NATO as the only actor capable of offering nuclear deterrence at the moment. In this fifth episode of our series Weapons of Mass Debate, Yvonni Efstathiou, Programme Coordinator and Research Analyst for Defense and Military Analysis at IISS, and Bill Kappis, Lecturer at the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies in the University of Buckingham, analyze Greece’s position on the future of European security.

There is hardly any evidence of a debate concerning nuclear weapons within the Greek military and political apparatus, mainly due to concerns regarding the sensitivity of the issue in international affairs, but also due to the political cost associated with the topic. Despite the fact that from 1978 to 2001, the Hellenic Airforce Araxos Air Base hosted the NATO 345 Air Munitions Company under the NATO nuclear sharing arrangements, the Greeks are sceptical about nuclear deployments, with most critics, unsurprisingly, hailing from the left of the political spectrum. 

In any case, the fact remains that Greece has been one of just seven nations to have hosted US nuclear bombs on their territory, as part of NATO nuclear-sharing agreements. Yet, the country’s decision not to retain its nuclear strike capability by scrapping its A-7E warplanes, meant that Athens curtailed its capacity to participate in the US nuclear deployment programme. This reportedly resulted in the withdrawal of 20 US thermonuclear gravity bombs (B61) in 2001, following years of discussions around the subject. Nevertheless, Greece continues to support the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence doctrine, as indicated by the country’s endorsement of relevant Alliance statements.

Recent geopolitical developments suggest there should be a renewed interest in bolstering conventional and nuclear deterrence within NATO and, more specifically, within the European operational theatre. The reduction of US troop numbers in the continent has continued unabated since the first steps of American disengagement from Europe and the Middle East, during the Obama administration. The so-called US "pivot to Asia," meanwhile, suggests that future American deployments will be aimed at bolstering power projection in the Asia-Pacific, bearing an adverse impact on the only superpower’s capacity to face concurrent security crises across the globe. This major geopolitical shift will undoubtedly "test" the credibility of American deterrence in Europe. Extended deterrence (preventing an armed attack against another allied state or group of states) is, in theory, much more demanding to maintain in a credible manner, as the deterrer should, in principle, be perceived as both capable and willing to deliver an appropriate response to the perceived challenger. Providing a robust extended deterrence umbrella to both European and Asia-Pacific allies is conceivable for the US, but far from straightforward, even for the sole superpower.

The need for a renewed debate becomes all the more important as the demise of the INF treaty could further weaken Europe’s nuclear deterrence, as the INF was heavily geared towards intra-European strategic stability. The advent, moreover, of hypersonic missiles and their potential introduction into the European nuclear strategic landscape opens the door to additional pressures on the perceived credibility of the continent’s nuclear deterrence. Finally, the Russian and Iranian nuclear programmes, as well as the nuclear aspirations of other regional powers in Europe’s vicinity, (i.e. Turkey) should mobilize Europe and thereby Greece to revisit and reflect upon this policy domain. Taking into consideration Greece’s desire for a strategically autonomous Europe, Athens should be, at least in theory, in favour of a renewed debate around nuclear weapons both as part of NATO burden-sharing arrangements and as a proponent of French deterrent capabilities within the EU.

Greece as an alternative to Turkey?

Given the increasing speculation concerning a US withdrawal from Incirlik-Turkey, where American nuclear weapons are stored, the potential of Greece regaining its nuclear basing status could well be reconsidered. In recent years, US-Turkish relations have deteriorated over a number of issues, ranging from diverging interests in Syria and accusations of American involvement in the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan, to the detention of American citizens on Turkish soil and the S-400 procurement. Ron Johnson, the former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe, noted the uncertainty over Incirlik, with the associated insinuation of the US having ‘’a plan for the worst.’’ Ankara, on the other hand, has been contemplating the possibility of requesting the US to abandon its airbase, in response to the sanctions imposed over the S-400 purchase, with bilateral tensions reaching new heights following the American recognition of the Armenian genocide. 

Greece’s military bases are not only strategically located at the gateway to the Black Sea, the Balkans and the Middle East, but they are also protected by a dense, multi-tiered air defense umbrella.

Should the aforementioned scenario materialize, Greece would constitute a likely and viable alternative for NATO’s nuclear umbrella. The Araxos base already has the requisite infrastructure for nuclear storage, which should result in a smooth transition for the nuclear arsenal. At the same time, the Greek north-eastern city of Alexandroupoli could also undertake this role. That would provide immediate access to ΝΑΤΟ’s eastern flank and Kaliningrad, where most of Russia’s silos are stationed, while ensuring a presence in the Alliance’s southern flank. Of course, the relevant storage facilities do not exist yet, though if realized, they could bolster the city’s strategic importance, which lies in the port and the road network bypassing the Bosphorus. 

This would enable the transfer of NATO forces to the eastern flank with speed and security, in case reinforcements are needed against Russian assertiveness. 

On the other hand, the Souda Bay naval facilities, in the island of Crete, where the US maintains a robust presence, can host nuclear capable aircraft (type B-2A Spirit) and nuclear submarines. This option would strengthen the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence posture in the region, where most of the challenges stem from, while also enhancing Greece’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is crucial to highlight, at this point, that Greece’s military bases are not only strategically located at the gateway to the Black Sea, the Balkans and the Middle East, but that they are also protected by a dense, multi-tiered air defense umbrella. Thankfully, this has not been compromised by the Russian deployments in Syria, which have already established an A2/AD capability above parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. In May 2021, for the first time, Moscow declared its ability to operate long-range strategic nuclear-capable bombers from its Hmeymim air base in Syria, with three Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers engaging in exercises over the Mediterranean

Under the European prism

Turning to the European debate, it would be hard to imagine Greece opposing the ‘’strategic dialogue’’ and President Macron’s nuclear proposal for a more coordinated EU defense strategy, in which France’s nuclear arsenal holds a central role. In its public discourse, Athens has incorporated the French notion of a sovereign and autonomous EU and a French nuclear guarantee tallies well with these aspirations. Unlike other EU member states, Greece is not suspicious of French intentions and its role within the EU. This is partly related to the unwavering historical French support towards Greek security concerns, primarily with Turkey. This recently prompted Athens to forge a deal with Paris on the acquisition of 18 Dassault Rafale fighter jets, amidst rising tensions with Turkey in the maritime domain.

Nevertheless, NATO is the sole actor offering nuclear deterrence at the moment and Greece is devoted to the Alliance and the single set of forces principle. The transition to a different doctrine would be hard to "digest" at this stage and Athens would be careful not to decouple the nuclear umbrella from NATO and stand isolated with France, while Paris strives to become an EU nuclear guarantor. In this regard, Athens unsurprisingly avoided endorsing or commenting on the French idea. The lack of a formal French proposal submitted through the EU framework, Greece’s preoccupation with internal issues during the pandemic, as well as Greek-Turkish tensions have placed an additional layer of priorities obscuring any potential for a debate on the future of European security. We have to remember that despite its operational tone, President Macron’s message was part of his speech on French defense strategy, addressing mainly a French military audience, rather than the wider EU family.

From a Eurocentric point of view, and to a certain extent from a Greek perspective too, bolstering the European pillar of nuclear deterrence could be a favourable development. To that end, one could say that the strategic dialogue between NATO and the EU on nuclear stability should not necessarily be an awkward one. On the contrary, an increasingly autonomous Europe should complement the perceived American grand strategy of "offshore balancing", as well as bolster the European nations’ commitment to NATO burden sharing principles.

Athens would be careful not to decouple the nuclear umbrella from NATO and stand isolated with France, while Paris strives to become an EU nuclear guarantor.

In the near future, a European nuclear "strategic triad" could possibly consist of French, American and UK assets in the air, land and sea, stabilizing the most likely flashpoint for a Russian challenge of NATO’s resolve.

A "Europeanization" of the nuclear "escalation ladder" would, therefore, prove beneficial for the continent as well as NATO as a whole, by essentially removing the "tripwire" mechanism from Washington’s hands. A tripwire, in the language of military strategy, is a small force deployed as a signal of the defending side’s commitment to an armed response in case of aggression. While in theory a small forward-deployed force would not trigger an escalation, the difficulty lies in balancing the potential of being perceived as an aggressor, while maintaining a credible deterrent. EU members in the Baltics and Eastern Europe would be reassured that deterrence would hold irrespective of the White House occupant and his/her willingness to place the American arsenal at the service of Europe’s integrity. A European nuclear umbrella would allow the Alliance’s eastern and southern flanks to no longer be the weakest links in crafting an effective deterrence posture. 

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the UK’s nuclear weapon stockpile will be increased from 225 to 260 warheads, according to the recent Integrated Review, which outlines the UK’s grand strategy for the coming years. This increase seems rather odd, at first glance, considering the country’s privileged position within NATO and its special relationship with the US. Nevertheless, the strategic logic behind this initiative is revealed when paying close attention to the country’s nuclear submarine capability, which is the only nuclear deterrent of the UK. The Integrated Review emphasizes the importance of reducing the UK’s vulnerability against "pre-emptive action by potential adversaries," indicating the need for more robust capabilities at times of technological change and geopolitical flux. Maintaining a robust second-strike capability in the European operational theatre, therefore, is not part of a competitive posture by Europe, but an ideal complement to the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence.

Under the aforementioned strategic logic, France’s nuclear forces, the only nuclear power within the EU, would "strengthen the security of Europe through their very existence," complementing Western European defense, which will remain anchored to the US nuclear deterrent. A majority of EU member states may find it difficult to discern French intentions within an oftentimes politicized rhetoric, and it is fair to say that for the foreseeable future, there will be no appetite to formally uphold a French nuclear guarantee in isolation from NATO. Yet, an open and honest dialogue "will naturally contribute to developing a true strategic culture among Europeans," an aspiration undoubtedly shared by the Greeks. At the end of the day, there is little disagreement among EU capitals that a more coherent European foreign and security policy is necessary in order to tackle existing and emerging challenges. 

Conclusion

In light of a shifting strategic landscape in the nuclear domain, with developments ranging from the growing assertiveness of several nuclear-armed nations, to the forthcoming US Nuclear Posture Review, and the recent French proposal for a dialogue on the role of nuclear weapons in Europe, Greece would be forced, one way or another, to become involved in the debate. The country’s reflexes will probably depend on the intensity of the debate within Europe, as suggested above. The country’s potential contribution, in any case, is quite robust. Due to its geostrategic location, Greece could well play a significant role in the continent’s nuclear deterrence and function as a pillar of NATO nuclear burden sharing arrangements. The initiation of the debate would be accelerated should the US decide to withdraw their nuclear weapons from Turkey, as Greece constitutes a plausible alternative for the Alliance. There is no doubt that the issue is a politically sensitive one for the historically polarized Greek constituency and political elites. Nevertheless, successive Greek governments from the left to the right of the political spectrum have recently showcased that they are capable of transcending ideological stereotypes and engaging in long term strategic thinking. There is, thus, optimism that the country will play a bold and constructive role in the effort to enhance the continent’s security outlook amidst rising tensions in Europe and its periphery.

 

 

Copyright: POOL / AFP

 

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