Turkish fighter jets have increased dramatically their incursions into Greek airspace as crisis-stricken Greek air force has to respond and confront the invaders.
According to an extensive Politico report, through these incursions Turkey challenges their neighbor’s territorial claims.
“The main reason for the [conflict] is sovereignty concerns over the Aegean region,” said Mustafa Kutlay, an assistant professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.
“The Turks are trying to enforce sovereignty over disputed islands and bring Greece to the negotiating table,” said Thanos Dokos, director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “What’s worrying are the low-altitude flights, often by helicopters, over these islands.”
According to the Turkish side, there are worries that Greece might try to extend the six nautical mile-wide zone of the Aegean Sea to the full 12 miles permitted under international treaties, thereby blocking Turkey from the Aegean. Also, Greece claims 10 miles of air space around the islands, while Turkey recognizes only six miles and argues that its fighters are flying in international air space.
Elisabeth Braw, the writer of the article, cites figures from research at the University of Thessaly, according to which in 2014 there were 2,244 incursions of Turkish fighter jets and helicopters while in May 2015 alone there were 361 incursions into Greek airspace.
According to the report, Turkey is teasing its weakened long-time foe knowing that Greece cannot afford the cost of aircraft dogfights but is forced to react.
“In the case of air incursions, you have to react,” Dokos said. “It’s very hard to unilaterally pull back from a situation of military aggression. It’s a tragic situation, because the money we’re spending on dogfights with Turkey is money that we could have spent on other areas of defense.”
However, there is more than national and military pride in these incursions. Recent large gas discoveries by Cyprus and Israel have shown that there are lucrative potential deposits under the Mediterranean, the article says. Greece is also exploring the possibility of claiming a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone around the country. Since Greece controls almost all of the islands in the Aegean, such a move could turn the sea into a Greek lake.
Both sides cannot afford to back down over the Aegean. Turkey is in the midst of an extremely ambitious air force modernization program that has already seen it upgrade its existing fleet of over 100 F-16 fighter jets. In January, the government approved the purchase of four new F-35 Lockheed Martin fighter jets as well as five Boeing Chinook helicopters; it plans to buy a total of 100 F-35s.
On the other end, Greece’s military spending is dwindling tremendously under the economic crisis. Its creditors are even asking for more cuts in military spending in order to give Greece a third loan.