Tanagra, Greece – “La bas!” – “Over there” – a French journalist broke the silence pointing at a formation of specks in the overcast sky.
Greece’s newly-acquired fourth generation Rafale aircraft made a series of deafening overpasses before landing at Tanagra Air Force Base, 70km (43 miles) north of Athens. They had flown from Merignac airport near Bordeaux.
A ceremony was held at the airbase to mark their arrival, in which a Greek priest blessed the jets and their pilots.
The Rafale mark a turning point in Greek defence capabilities, defence experts say, because they carry more advanced targeting and weaponry than anything seen in the Aegean theatre until now.
“They have very advanced [surveillance], possibly greater than 100km [62 miles], in the form of a camera that scans for the thermal signature of other aircraft,” said Konstantinos Grivas, who teaches weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy.
“Unlike radar, this doesn’t let the enemy know when they’ve been spotted because it’s not emitting a beam,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The most important thing of all is this plane comes with the Meteor air-to-air missile, which is currently considered the best of its kind in the Western arsenal. Its range is officially 120km (75 miles), but it is thought that it can be as much as 150km (93km).
“These six planes can unleash a very large firepower without the enemy knowing they’re even there.”
Greek pilots and technicians have spent a year training on the aircraft in France, so they will enter service immediately.
The Metropolitan of Thebes and Livadeia blesses the newly arrived Rafale fleet and their pilots [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Greece’s air force is among the most active in NATO because Greek pilots are constantly intercepting Turkish F-16 fighter jets performing incursions into its airspace or overflying Greek islands.
Defence Minister Nikos Panayotopoulos told Al Jazeera that Rafale would be doing more important work. “It’s not a weapon we have for daily interceptions over the Aegean, it’s a strategic weapon,” he said.
Pilot Theodoros Christodoulou offered an idea of what Rafale missions might involve. “In older aircraft, if the radar locked on a target, only that radar was locked on it. Here … one aircraft can pass on its information to another,” he told Al Jazeera.
Grivas calls this capability of being an eye in the sky and passing on targeting information to other air, naval and land-based assets a “force multiplier”. Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Konstantinos Floros told Al Jazeera this networking capability across branches of the Greek military was already up and running.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomes the aircraft as the linchpin of a new Greek-French relationship [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Greece placed a fast-track order for 18 Rafale jets and weapons systems for 2.32 billion euros ($2.63bn) just 16 months ago. Parliament ratified the contracts in January 2021.
Dassault Aviation, which makes the aircraft, sold Greece six new aircraft that were already in production for Egypt. Greece is to receive six used planes from the French air force this year, and six next year. It has also ordered an additional six new aircraft to make up a squadron of 24.
Greece last year also ordered three state-of-the-art Belharra frigates from France’s Naval Group for an estimated 3 billion euros ($3.4bn). The Belharra and Rafale purchases underpin an unprecedented intra-NATO mutual defence treaty Greece and France signed last October.
“The Rafale renders our air force one of the most powerful in Europe and the Mediterranean, which promotes the flexibility of our national diplomacy and our broader alliances,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.
“And it seals the Greek-French defensive compact, and gives new breath to the prospect of a European strategic autonomy.”
A pilot climbs out of the cockpit of a two-seater Rafale [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Turkey’s population is eight times Greece’s and its military is the largest in NATO after that of the United States. Greece cannot compete in size. Unlike Turkey, which is building up its own defence industry using relatively simple technology, Greece has sought a leap to high technology through a strategic relationship with France.
“Many Turkish analysts don’t consider Greece to be Turkey’s rival. Rather they consider France as the competitor in the East Mediterranean,” said Ioannis Grigoriadis, who teaches European studies at Bilkent University in Ankara.
“So France’s decision to reinforce Greece’s defence with the Rafale is seen as a French decision to put pressure on Turkey using technology Turkey doesn’t have … Greece has access to weaponry that balances out Turkey’s numerical superiority. That allows Greece to speak as an equal to its neighbour.”
Greece and Turkey flirted with armed conflict in 1974, 1987 and 1996. They almost came to blows in August 2020, when a Turkish frigate came close to ramming a Greek one and was heavily damaged in the process.
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated since 2017, mainly because of disagreement over how to demarcate territorial waters and rights to undersea mineral resources. Exploratory talks to solve the issue resumed last year after a five-year hiatus, but have not led to an agreement.
The Rafale overfly the runway [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]