Sunday, November 15, 2009

Challenges Facing the Hellenic Armed Forces

Part IIIB – Air Force

This is the final part on the challenges facing the different branches of the Hellenic Armed Forces. In the previous part the New Fighter Programme was covered. There are several more programmes that have been stuck for some time and need to be resolved one way or another.

Search And Rescue Helicopters

The Greek Air Force already operates a number of AS332C1 Super Puma (Combat) Search and Rescue helicopters. These are used alongside the same type of helicopter which the Air Force operates on behalf of the Greek Coast Guard. The Coast Guard helicopters were acquired from a different budget which included European Union funds. By having both batches operated by the Air Force savings can be made in both training as well as logistical support. Unfortunately the Coast Guard has a bad track record in servicing other aerial assets which it operates (or not as is the case with some). In that sense it is a blessing that the Air Force operates all Search and Rescue helicopters of this type. These helicopters are part of 384 Search and Rescue Squadron. This squadron came to supplement the legendary 358 Search and Rescue Squadron which until the arrival of the Super Pumas was the only SAR squadron in the Greek Air Force.

It would seem that expanding from one SAR squadron to two is a sufficient expansion for a country’s SAR capability. However, as with many other cases, politics plays a big role here. For decades Turkey has been claiming responsibility for Search and Rescue duties in areas which fall under the Athens FIR and which are assigned to Greece. Turkey has been backing up these claims by acquiring a great number of SAR helicopters and actively assigning them to that role. At the same time, Turkey has been making the case internationally that Greek SAR assets on certain islands should not be considered as valid assets as those islands should be demilitarised. This issue will be discussed in another article; however, Greek diplomacy has been very weak in defending Greek rights which has had an impact on maritime safety. Things have come to the point that in a potential accident situation a Greek SAR helicopter on Limnos Island is not recognised while a Turkish SAR helicopter which is stationed much further away is recognised. This is a typical example of (international) politics playing with people’s lives. Thankfully the Greek Air Force is not backing down, regardless of politics, and maintains its SAR assets on alert wherever they are really needed and for the safety of whoever may need them.

The current need for additional (Combat) Search and Rescue helicopters comes as a result of several factors. The first is the reason discussed in the previous paragraph. Greece needs to have enough SAR assets available to cover an entire archipelago and the Greek mainland. The second reason is that the original SAR squadron (358 Phaethon) operates with antiquated AB205A helicopters. These are essentially Vietnam era UH-1 helicopters built under licence by Agusta in Italy. They are single engine helicopters which is not ideal when operating over water and need to be replaced. The third reason is that with the introduction of the original Super Puma helicopters the Air Force created the 31st MEE which started out as a Combat Search and Rescue squadron. This squadron is a collection of specially trained men whose task has evolved from CSAR to all sorts of special operations, including target designation and other sorts of special operations. There are not enough helicopters available currently to cover all tasks. Lastly, the availability of CSAR helicopters and crews offer psychological support to combat pilots who will need to fly over enemy territory. They will know that in the event they are shot down there will be a good chance they will be rescued.

Modernisation of Existing Fighter Aircraft

The topic of modernising existing fighter aircraft in the inventory has been covered before in this blog. The Greek Air Force has in the past not been very active in keeping its inventory on the cutting edge through Mid Life Update (MLU) type programmes. The first exception to this was the MLU programme carried out on part of the F-4 Phantom fleet. The programme was delayed by several years and encountered many hurdles but in the end it paid off. The aircraft that underwent the modernisation have gone from being 2nd generation fighters to 3rd generation fighters with true BVR capability as well as night attack using Litening targeting pods. The difference in operational capabilities is staggering.

The second exception was when Greece ordered 15 new Mirage 2000-5 fighters and decided to upgrade 10 of its older EGM models to the dash 5 configuration. These fighters, alongside the newly delivered F-16 Block52M aircraft, are the cutting edge of what can be found in the Greek inventory. As already covered in the previous instalment, Greece needs to take delivery of roughly 10 fighter aircraft per year to stick to the foreseen force structure of 300 front line combat aircraft. This also means that fighters will have to stay in the front line for at least 30 years.

Currently the following fighter aircraft are in need of an MLU:
- Around 35 F-16C/D Block 30 aircraft
- 39 F-16C/D Block 50 aircraft
- 25 Mirage 2000 EGM/BGM
- Possibly 59 F-16C/D Block 52+ to be brought to the 52M standard

As shown here, there are many advantages to aircraft being equipped with the Link 16 system. This allows for unprecedented coordination between forces and also allows for cooperative target engagement. The Turkish Air Force is including the Link 16 system in the MLU programme it is conducting for its F-16s.

Several Greek sources have commented on a recent article by Flight International which revealed that Raytheon has received licences to demonstrate its RACR radar to two potential customers, these potentially being South Korea and Greece. The RACR incorporates AESA technology which is currently the cutting edge in radar design. A possible Greek order for new aircraft could incorporate this type of radar but it would be interesting to see whether such a radar would be selected for the F-16 MLU programmes. If this is the case then the MLU could be delayed as testing is due to commence in 2010.

Whatever happens, the Greek Air Force must keep a technological edge over its rival, the Turkish Air Force. This means that the Air Force cannot rely on new purchases alone but that some of the older types will have to be brought up to cutting edge standards.

Advanced Jet Trainer Aircraft

For several decades Greece has relied on the T-2 Buckeye for its advanced jet training needs. However, there is a huge technological gap between the T-2 and the actual combat aircraft it is meant to prepare pilots for. This means more time has to be spent training on actual fighter aircraft. These are much more costly to operate and detract from their primary missions. Many consider advanced trainer aircraft to be somewhat of a luxury. However, selecting the right aircraft means that great savings can be made in ongoing operational expenses.

Unfortunately, since the programme is not one directly related to front line combat equipment, it is the quickest programme to be delayed when budgetary constraints kick in. There are currently several mature designs from which the Air Force can make a selection or even ongoing programmes in which the Air Force can participate. Also, this is the type of programme in which the Greek defence industry can also contribute by means of a workload share and offset programmes.

Air Refuelling Aircraft

There has been much debate over whether the Greek Air Force really requires Air Refuelling Aircraft, commonly referred to as Tankers. Some believe that there is no substitute for actual airfields and anyway Tankers must operate in the relative safe areas where the Air Force has superiority. However, Turkey is a country with great strategic depth and has the advantage of having remote areas which are currently hard to reach by the Greek Air Force, even with the use of stand-off weapons. Also, Greece has a military obligation towards Cyprus which cannot be effectively fulfilled without the use of Tankers.

Tankers are expensive to acquire and operate but they are considered a force multiplier. Aircraft can stay on Combat stations longer or carry heavier payloads to their targets if they are refuelled shortly after taking off or on the way to their target. In the past the Air Force has had the chance to acquire second hand air frames which could be converted into Tankers but nothing ever came of it. Today a similar chance exists as the government owns a number of A-340 airframes which were in the past operated by Olympic Airways. These could be converted or exchanged for other, more suitable types.

The Air Force has shown that it could use Tankers in a variety of roles. Also, it often participates in aerial refuelling exercises with the help of other air forces (for example see here). The time has come to make a decision on this matter once and for all. There is no use of continually allocating small unrealistic budgets to this programme. The use of Tankers is the one area where the Turkish Air Force has a strategic advantage over its Greek counterpart.

As the Greek Air Force is the front line military branch in what is considered to be Turkish expansionism against Greece it is only natural that it receives the most attention from many. There are several other items which can be discussed but the purpose here was to highlight some programmes that have been “stuck” or pending for some time. For a more comprehensive list of programmes that are needed see here.

No comments:

Post a Comment