ATHENS - Greece and France have sealed a $2.8 billion deal for the purchase of 18 Rafale fighter jets for the Greek air force. The deal is part of a larger weapons purchase program that Greece is carrying out as it sits down to negotiate a solution to a growing dispute with Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
The deal makes Greece the first European country to acquire the state-of-the-art Rafale jet fighters, made by France’s Dassault company.
It is also the first major arms purchase Greece has made since it emerged from a 10-year financial crisis that imposed some of its most brutal budget cuts on its armed forces.
Monday’s agreement involves the purchase of six new and 12 used Rafale combat aircraft — the first batch of which will be delivered in July. All will come fitted with combat missiles. Greek combat pilots will also undergo special training in France.
Nikos Panagiotopoulos, the country’s defense minister, said the new warplanes would replace the country’s aging fleet of French-made Mirage aircraft that Greece purchased almost three decades ago.
France has long been a defense supplier to Greece.
"The choice of the Rafale planes reflects the strategic relations between Greece and France, and the unyielding support that France continues to provide Greece," said Panagiotopoulos.
France has sided with Greece in the energy dispute with Turkey, challenging what Ankara maintained as its boundaries and drilling rights in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions have flared in recent months. Last year, France sent a frigate to the region, and came dangerously close to having a confrontation with Turkish gunboats in disputed waters.
Now, Panagiotopoulos says that with the Rafales, Greece’s air force will gain substantial superiority over the forces of its rival neighbor, Turkey.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly was present at the signing ceremony in Athens. There, she revealed that the Rafale deal is paving the way for additional purchases including a number of French frigates.
"The two countries share many common values," she said. "They have a common conviction to face threats together, to provide for lasting and durable solutions."
Greek Defense Ministry sources tell VOA Athens is exploring the prospect of purchasing at least four frigates from France, but under the condition that at least three of them are manufactured in Greek shipyards.
The arms deals are part of a $6-billion procurement program the government in Athens announced in September as tensions with its NATO neighbor, Turkey, soared over oil exploration rights.
Greek officials tell VOA both France and Greece chose to seal the ambitious defense agreement on Monday, when Greek and Turkish diplomats sat down for the first time in nearly five years to resolve differences over sea and air rights in the Aegean.
The same officials tell VOA that while Athens supports the ongoing diplomatic process, it will not abandon its plans to upgrade its defenses against its rival as fears of a breakdown in the talks loom, and with it a fresh spike in tensions between the two NATO allies.