Australia moves quietly on Greek warships sale

The Australian Department of Defence has moved forward on a possible sale of the Adelaide class FFG frigates to Greece, although the Department is keeping its cards close as alleged American pressure mounts for a deal.

Greece is urgently seeking new frigates to patrol and protect gas fields around Cyprus amid growing tensions with Turkey. Ankara has previously used warships to prevent an Italian company from drilling in the area.

High-ranking officers from the Greek Navy were hosted on-board HMAS Newcastle as it was docked in Singapore during Exercise Indo-Pacific Endeavour in May. Sources in Greece have indicated the officers were ‘not satisfied’ with the condition of the ship and have concerns about the availability of spare parts, although ADM was unable to confirm this with Defence.

When asked about the purpose of the Greek visit on-board HMAS Newcastle, a Defence spokesperson gave the following answer: “HMAS Newcastle hosted numerous international guests, including representatives from the Greek Government, in Singapore as part of the very successful Indo-Pacific Endeavour 19 program.”

Greek sources indicate Australia requested the meeting to put forward a new offer on the Adelaide class frigates. When pressed to expand on the purpose of this visit, Defence declined.

“Defence has no further comment to what was previously provided,” the spokesperson said.

Two months later, the Australian Embassy in Greece requested a meeting with the head of the Greek Agency for Military Procurements, Vice Admiral Kyriakos Kyriakidis. According to a Greek government press release, the conversation covered “issues of mutual interest in the field of defence equipment and cooperation in the defence industry.” Greek sources indicate Australia requested the meeting to put forward a new offer on the Adelaide class frigates, although ADM has again been unable to confirm this with Defence.

“Defence is unable to comment as all engagements with foreign governments on the transfer of ADF assets are treated as commercial-in-confidence,” a spokesperson said.

Although it is unclear whether “the transfer of ADF assets” refers to the Adelaide class, it seems unlikely that RAN would host Greek officials on the ship they have previously expressed interest in buying, and then request a meeting with the Greek chief of military procurements, if not to either develop or put forward a new offer on the FFGs.

It seems Greece’s previous interest in the Adelaide class waned because Defence was unwilling to include SM-2 Block IIIA air defence missiles and surface-to-air Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs) with the warships. It is unclear whether these missiles have now been offered to Greece under a possible new deal, which would need US end-to-end user certificates given FMS/ITARs issues.

US approval, however, may not be hard for Greece to gain. The Hellenic Navy has also entertained a frigate offer from Lockheed Martin, which could involve a local build: Greek/American company ONEX has moved to buy Greece’s Syros shipyard (the country’s third-largest) with the blessing of the American ambassador, who commented that Greece is ‘back and open for business’. The ambassador has also spoken of American interest in the port of Alexandroupolis, which hosts elements of the US Army’s 10th Combat Air Brigade.

Greek sources believe that the US sees RAN’s Adelaide class frigates as an interim capability for Greece, able to fill acute operational requirements whilst American-designed ships (possibly an LCS variant) are built locally.

Whilst this is speculative, a joint sale of Australian FFGs and future American frigates would come in the context of strengthening relations between Washington and Athens: Lockheed Martin is currently overhauling Greece’s F-16 fleet; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently met the out-going Greek PM Alex Tsipras alongside Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot leaders in Israel; Greece and Cyprus are cooperating on energy issues with Egypt, another major American ally; and Athens has opened the way for the renamed state of North Macedonia to join NATO, which would help Washington counter growing Russian influence in the Balkans. It would also come as relations sour between the US and Greek rival Turkey, as demonstrated by the recent F-35 debacle.

In short, the Commonwealth is quietly negotiating with Greece over a sale of the FFGs and possibly associated weapons systems as US industry positions for a longer-term Greek frigate program with the blessing of the White House.