Souda Bay named ‘best in the Med’

Grow­ing use of naval base prompts US to broach re­newal of de­fense deal with Athens

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY VASSILIS NEDOS

Res­i­dents and vis­i­tors at Souda Bay in north­west­ern Crete had the rare treat of ad­mir­ing the awe-in­spir­ing bulk of the USS Ge­orge H.W. Bush su­per­car­rier ear­lier this month as it re­mained docked at the NATO port of Marathi of four full days.

The Amer­i­can pres­ence in Souda has hit a new record over the past year, with dozens of mil­i­tary units hav­ing tied up at Marathi as the base there be­comes in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to al­lied ac­tiv­i­ties in the broader re­gion. Be­tween Naval Sta­tion Nor­folk on the east coast of the US and the In­dian Ocean, the Souda base is the only one in the area that al­lows the US Navy fleet to dock, carry out re­pairs and main­te­nance and stock up on sup­plies. Lit­tle sur­prise then that Souda Bay has been nick­named “Best in the Med” by the Amer­i­cans.

US use of the Souda base has been in­creas­ing over the past few years, prompt­ing the Amer­i­cans to broach a re­newal of the Mu­tual De­fense Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment (MDCA) with Athens, which, among other is­sues, de­lin­eates the uses of the Cre­tan base, for a pe­riod of one or five years. This de­vel­op­ment, how­ever, is still at the dis­cus­sion phase.

US Am­bas­sador to Athens Ge­of­frey Py­att is in reg­u­lar con­tact with Greek For­eign Min­is­ter Nikos Kotzias and De­fense Min­is­ter Panos Kam­menos, the lat­ter of whom re­cently an­nounced plans to up­grade Greece’s F-16 fighter jets.

Com­ment­ing to Kathimerini on the im­por­tance of Greek-Amer­i­can co­op­er­a­tion, a spokesman for the US Em­bassy said: “Greece is an im­por­tant pil­lar of sta­bil­ity and demo­cratic val­ues in a re­gion that faces nu­mer­ous se­cu­rity chal­lenges. The United States is ap­pre­cia­tive of the close co­op­er­a­tion and mu­tual sup­port we have with our Hel­lenic al­lies. We par­tic­i­pate reg­u­larly in joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, our stu­dents work to­gether on com­bined mil­i­tary ed­u­ca­tion and, more­over, we train to­gether. In fact, Amer­i­can and Greek forces have trained to­gether more in the past year than at any other point in re­cent his­tory.”

The lat­ter ob­ser­va­tion is un­der­scored by the reg­u­lar air and land ex­er­cises held over the past few months by the Greek and Amer­i­can armed forces.

The same of­fi­cial also stressed that “even dur­ing dif­fi­cult eco­nomic times,” Greece is one of the few coun­tries in the NATO al­liance that shells out 2 per­cent of its GDP on de­fense spend­ing and points to Souda as ev­i­dence of Greek-Amer­i­can co­op­er­a­tion.

“Our abil­ity to use the fa­cil­i­ties at Souda Bay is a crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to how the United States ad­dresses ar­eas of mu­tual se­cu­rity con­cern in the re­gion,” he said, adding that Amer­i­cans re­gard the base as “a ‘home away from home’ for for­ward-de­ployed forces, en­abling lo­gis­tics sup­port and a hos­pitable portof-call.” He also said that Souda has been a part of the com­mu­nity of Ha­nia since 1969, em­ploy­ing 400 Greek work­ers and con­tribut­ing an es­ti­mated 34 mil­lion eu­ros to the lo­cal econ­omy ev­ery year.

The level of Greek-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion can also be seen in a se­ries of de­vel­op­ments re­lated to pro­cure­ments. Af­ter years of de­lays span­ning sev­eral gov­ern­ments, De­fense Min­is­ter Kam­menos has ac­ti­vated the process for up- grad­ing Greece’s F-16s, while also ex­press­ing in­ter­est in the avail­abil­ity and prices of F-35s.

Ac­cord­ing to sources who spoke to Kathimerini, the Hel­lenic Air Force is ini­tially in­ter­ested in up­grad­ing at least 93 of the fleet’s 155 F-16s, with the op­tion of ex­pand­ing this fig­ure to 123. For the re­main­ing 32 jets, the op­tions are ei­ther to use sur­plus ma­te­rial from the up­graded F-16s or look for buy­ers in third coun­tries. Re­gard­ing this is­sue, the new Hel­lenic Air Force Chief of Gen­eral Staff, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Chris­tos Christodoulou, says he is more in­ter­ested in qual­ity that quan­tity.

The same sources es­ti­mate that work on up­grad­ing the F-16s can­not start for at least a year, while the first 15 up­graded jets will be de­liv­ered by Hel­lenic Aero­space In­dus­try (EAV) around mid-2019. As far as the F-35s are con­cerned, the air force es­ti­mates that 20 new air­craft is a re­al­is­tic tar­get.

Be­yond these spe­cific initiatives, it also ap­pears that progress is be­ing made on the ac­qui­si­tion of around 70 OH58D Kiowa he­li­copters by the Hel­lenic Army Air Ser­vice, which are be­ing con­ceded to Greece as sur­plus ma­teriel.

USS Ge­orge H. W. Bush at Souda Bay, in Crete, ear­lier this month. The Amer­i­can pres­ence in Souda has hit a new record over the past year, with dozens of mil­i­tary units hav­ing tied up at Marathi as the base there be­comes in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to al­lied ac­tiv­i­ties in the broader re­gion. This Amer­i­can model – which, of course, has been adapted to Greek con­di­tions and needs – ap­pears to be one of the com­po­nents in an over­all re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of de­fense in the Aegean. The Hel­lenic Na­tional De­fense Gen­eral Staff (GEETHA) is be­ing tight-lipped on the is­sue, though a com­mit­tee has been formed on the or­ders of its chief, Ad­mi­ral Evan­ge­los Apos­to­lakis, which is tasked with bol­ster­ing co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the dif­fer­ent forces in the Aegean.

The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in the area, and par­tic­u­larly given the re­cent provo­ca­tions from Turkey, de­mands un­ortho­dox so­lu­tions, some­thing that Apos­to­lakis ap­pears ea­ger to ex­plore, also by ex­pand­ing the scope of the spe­cial forces so they can be de­ployed when and where they’re needed.

Apos­to­lakis is also putting a great deal of ef­fort into the Hel­lenic Navy port at Souda, which he would like re­turned to its for­mer grandeur. The aim is for the navy to be able to dock a squadron at Souda so it can re­spond faster in the broader re­gion and also take some of the pres­sure off the navy dock at Salam­ina, off the coast of Pi­raeus.

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