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US confirms Greece is seeking to buy F-35s amid tensions with Turkey

The US acknowledgment follows a report earlier this month that Athens formally requested to buy as many as 24 of the advanced fighter aircraft.

The United States’ ambassador to Greece confirmed in a statement today that Athens has sought to purchase Lockheed Martin’s advanced F-35 fighter jet amid tensions with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“The United States, at the highest levels, has welcomed Greece’s interest in acquiring the F-35 for the Hellenic Air Force,” Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a statement.

“We have signaled our support for procurement and are working closely together on a future acquisition program,” Pyatt said.

The nod from Washington follows high tensions between Turkey and its Eastern Mediterranean neighbors over hydrocarbon drilling rights, as well as concerns in some Arab states over Ankara’s growing influence in the region.

Athens formally requested to join the F-35 program in a letter to the US Defense Department, Greece’s Proto Thema newspaper first reported earlier this month. The letter included a preliminary request for between 18 and 24 of the aircraft by 2021.

“The US-Greece defense relationship is at an all-time high and is one of America’s strongest military relationships in Europe,” Pyatt said. “The path to acquisition of the F-35 is a multiyear process that would naturally build upon the successes realized in Greece’s F-16 Viper upgrade program.”

Greece is also set to buy 18 French-built Rafale fighter aircraft to replace its older Mirage 2000 jets, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced in September.

Tensions flared between Turkey and its neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean this summer as Ankara dispatched the Oruc Reis hydrocarbon exploration vessel to waters claimed by Greece. In response, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, France and Italy sent air, naval and other military assets to Crete for joint training. Officials in Ankara slammed the move.

Greece, Egypt and Cyprus are now preparing to kick off joint naval and air exercises off the Egyptian coast in the next few days after postponing the drill for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Greek news reports have also suggested that the UAE and France may participate in this year’s exercise, dubbed Medusa-10. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar again accused Turkey’s neighbors of escalating tensions on Monday.

Earlier this month, Greece’s Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos announced plans to build a new major naval base on Crete. The island proved its value to NATO’s reach in the Mediterranean during the campaign against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Panagiotopoulos’ announcement came shortly after a visit by the US State Department’s assistant secretary for political and military affairs, R. Clarke Cooper. Cooper visited Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece during the October trip, his first overseas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cooper stopped at the US naval station at the deep-water port at Crete’s Souda Bay to visit the NATO Missile Firing Installation and NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center.

Asked by Al-Monitor during a conference call with reporters on Nov. 2 whether his trip included a search for potential alternatives to the US presence at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, Cooper responded vaguely.

“It’s not unusual to see officials like myself actually take some time to do some side assessments,” Cooper told Al-Monitor. “When we’re looking at the macro-[level] of the entire continent … through the frame of great power competition, the United States has taken a closer look at where we need to be or maybe where we need to adjust our posture in particular places,” he said.

The Pentagon announced in July it would begin shifting nearly a third of its forces currently in Germany to the Italian peninsula, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, while others were set to come home to the United States. The announcement came after outgoing President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement ordering troops to be drawn down from Germany. The president has long accused Berlin of not contributing adequately to NATO.

Since the announcement of the shift in Europe, the Trump administration also partially lifted a 33-year-old arms embargo on Cyprus to allow for certain nonlethal defense sales and services, despite objections from Turkish officials.

Cooper told reporters in a conference call earlier this month that the United States would like to authorize additional nonlethal defense aid to the island. “For us to go further with the Republic of Cyprus, we do need to see further assurances on their ability to deny port access to Russian naval vessels,” Cooper said on Nov. 2.

The United States expelled Turkey from the club of F-35-approved nations last year after Ankara purchased Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system. Turkish officials said the United States was noncommittal amid requests for Ankara to buy its Patriot defense missile system.

Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and James Lankford (R-OK) renewed calls for Trump to impose legally mandated economic sanctions on Ankara for its purchase of the S-400 last month.

Turkey test-fired the S-400 on its northern coast in October, drawing more objections but no sign of sanctions from Trump administration officials.

The Trump administration this month formally notified Congress of its intent to sell the F-35 to the UAE. Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has said Abu Dhabi’s recognition of Israel amid a White House initiative dubbed the Abraham Accords, aimed at hedging Iran’s regional ambitions, laid the groundwork for the potential sale.

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