1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Greek military reservists march in formation in front of the Greek Parliament during a demonstration of active and retired Greek military officers against their pension and salary cuts in Athens (photo: EPA/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Defense cuts in Greece

Anthee Carassava / sst
April 1, 2013

Greece's budget cuts are strangling the nation's defense capabilities and feeding far-right nationalism, politicians and defense experts warn. However, Greece continues to spend more on defense than any other EU country.


Sipping tea and coffee at an officers' club in central Athens, retired generals and admirals reminisce about what they call the "glorious past." They talk of the fierce armed forces they once commanded and the endless resources at their disposal to combat their country's traditional foe: Turkey.

"Just the other day, a Turkish battleship strayed twice in Greek waters, and what did we do? We chased it halfway through the Aegean with a ship half its size, like a dinghy," said Yiorgos Glitsis, a retired submarine officer, in an interview with DW.

At any other point in time, he huffs, incidents like these would have met with a rapid response. Now Greece is hardly flexing its muscle.

Three years into the worst financial crisis in decades, warns Glitsis' group, and austerity is already crushing Greece's defense capabilities.

Retired members of the Greek OYK Special Forces wearing their old uniforms and waving Greek flags (photo: EPA/PANTELIS SAITAS
Greek military reservists protest against austerity measures they say are hurting Greece's defenseImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Military rebellion?

The naval incident in the Aegean was the latest in a series of regular run-ins and provocations between Greece and Turkey. The countries are age-old enemies and came to the brink of war nearly 20 years ago. Lingering tensions mean that both countries' invest heavily in military capacities, with each side regularly testing the others' combat readiness. They share an oil-rich area of the Mediterranean - an area to which each country claims rights.

But now, Greece's recession-ravaged economy is complicating matters. Biting budget cuts are strangling the nation's defense capabilities, sapping military morale and feeding far-right nationalism. Pundits, politicians and defense experts have even warned of a military rebellion.

"Austerity has amputated our military," said Lieutenant Commander Theodore Boukouvalas.

Since 2010, when the government first took an ax to the defense budget, the military's operational costs have drooped by nearly 30 percent.

This has started to create problems, according to Thanos Dokos, a leading defense expert in Athens. "The issue [is] that the armed forces here used to function with x amount of money. Now you have the same sized organization that has to operate with x minus 30 percent. You can't do that," he told DW. "What you need to do is to adapt the organization to the money available so that you maintain your deterrence capability. Otherwise something will have to give."

Boiling point

The cuts have already started to affect the military: The Greek Air Force has been without spare parts and repairs for its prized F-16 fighter jets; the Navy is left without fuel supplies to conduct extended exercises and patrols in the Aegean; and the Army is unable to pay transport costs for some 400 US-made tanks which the state has already purchased.

A high-ranking military official - speaking on the condition of anonymity - did not rule out further defense reductions. He insisted, however, that disappearing military funds would not jeopardize Greece's combat preparedness and that the armed forces were "committed to doing the same with less."

A demonstrator shouts slogans during a protest outside the Labour Ministry in Athens (photo: REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis)
Many people in Greece have been protesting against the government's spending cutsImage: Reuters

But with the budget crunch taking a 37-percent swipe in the salaries of military personnel, Greece may now be facing a shortage in the most valuable military resource of all: morale.

"The military isn't just bleeding - it's boiling," said Yannis Katsaroulis, a Navy supply officer at the officer's club in central Athens, in an interview DW. "We recently met with the defense minister to voice our anger about the cuts and one of us, a brigadier, piped up and said that we are all dead set on voting for Golden Dawn [a right-wing political party] in the next elections. I added, 'Don't be surprised if tanks roll out onto the street and a military rebellion occurs.' Everything is possible at this point."

Repeated requests by DW for an interview with Defense Minister Panos Panagiotopoulos were not returned. Greek military experts, meanwhile, are ruling out the likelihood of a return to military rule in Greece.

Little wiggle room.

Beyond the military, moves to shut down some 500 bases and barracks across the country have drawn fierce criticism from local politicians. They fear the closures could cost them their jobs, provoke popular anger and push unemployment rates - already at 27 percent - even higher.

Compared to other EU countries, however, Greece continues to spend relatively large sums on defense, allocating 2.3 percent (5.8 billion euros, or $7.5 billion) of GDP to the military in 2012. European NATO members, by comparison, average less than 1.6 percent.

By some accounts, if Greece had dropped defense spending to those levels over the last 20 years, the country could have been spared billions in grueling austerity measures.

According to Dokos, however, that's easier said than done. "It's inaccurate to make any comparison between country X that borders with Luxembourg and spends one percent of its GDP on defense and Greece, which spends two percent in the rough neighborhood it is [in]."

He also added that the Greek public widely supports defense spending. While he agreed that it wouldn't be wise to spend too much on it in tough economic times, he stated that defense costs shouldn't drop below 2 percent "unless there is major improvement in relations with Turkey."

Ruling lawmakers also don't want to appear too compromising, whether to Turkey or their biggest domestic political threat: Golden Dawn.

Golden Dawn is a far-right party whose signature mix of militaristic rhetoric and thuggish practices has prospered enormously during the economic crisis.

Skip next section Explore more