Hellenic army tanks participate in a military parade marking Greece's Independence Day in front of the parliament building in Athens, March 25, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Earlier this summer, NATO conducted its largest military exercise to date. Saber Strike, a drill for defending Poland and the Baltic states, involved 20 member states and featured more than 10,000 troops and a large number of tanks, fighter jets, and armored personnel carriers, among others. The U.S. Army had, unsurprisingly, brought tanks, as had Poland and other countries. But, oddly, Greece didn’t offer a single one even though as Europe’s largest tank-owning nation it possesses more than 1,300 armored vehicles—six times more than the United Kingdom.

Greece justifies its large collection because of its long-standing territorial dispute with Turkey, which owns 2,492 tanks. The two have clashed over Ankara’s occupation of northern Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974. “Greece’s main concern is Turkey,” explained Thanos Dokos, director general of the Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP. “The more conservative school of thought among Greek officers and officials is that a large-scale conflict of unknown duration across the Greek-Turkish border can’t be excluded, and thus Greece needs to maintain this high number of MBTs.” In the armed forces, tanks are referred to as MBTs, or “main battle tanks.”

Perhaps not unreasonable given its history with Turkey, for the past generation Greece has been spending enormous amounts on its armed forces. In 1988, it spent 4.2 percent of GDP on defense, more than any other western European country except Cyprus. By 2000, when most western European countries had cut their defense spending to less than two percent of GDP, Greece was still spending 3.6 percent. And last year the country allocated 2.4 percent of its GDP to defense. That makes it one of NATO’s star performers. But Greece’s well-equipped military is excessive for a country in economic crisis. Despite having to drastically cut retirees’ pensions, Athens has not reduced its fleet. The Hellenic Armed Forces own 1,341 main battle tanks, including 170 Leopard 2A6s, the second-latest version of the German-made vehicle. Germany, by contrast, has only 225 of them.

Not even France and the United Kingdom, Europe’s two main military powers, match Greece in the tank department. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, they have fleets of only 200 and 227, respectively. Indeed, Greece is Europe’s undisputed tank champion, with 12.47 of them per 100,000 residents. Poland on the eastern flank is the major European country with the highest density of tanks—and it still has only 2.6 tanks per 100,000 residents. France’s fleet carries a mere 0.3 tanks per 100,000 residents, while the British fleet maintains 0.36 tanks per 100,000 residents. The Netherlands, a country of 17 million compared with Greece’s 10.8 million, has no tanks. Even Russia has only 1.87 tanks per 100,000 residents. According to NATO, in addition to Greece, only four countries meet the alliance’s two percent defense-spending benchmark: Estonia, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 2015, even as the EU bailed out Greece for the third time, Athens increased its spending on defense.

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies 2017 Military Balance

“Greece is not the only smaller country that spends heavily on military equipment,” noted Dick Zandee, a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and a former director of policy and planning at the European Defense Agency. “Finland, too, spends large amounts on heavy armor, but the difference is that it has a long border with Russia.” And unlike Russia, Greece’s foe Turkey is a member of NATO, and the Greek-Turkish border is only some 124 miles, compared with Finland’s 830-mile border with Russia. Even Finland has only 2.18 tanks per 100,000 residents.

Although countries such as Germany and Italy spend lower percentages of their GDP on defense (last year 1.2 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively), they are mainstays in NATO missions. Some 1,000 German troops are serving in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, which trains Afghan security forces, and Germany is the lead nation in Lithuania for NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative to help protect the Baltic states and Poland. Another 3,360 Bundeswehr troops serve on other international missions. Italy contributes troops to NATO’s presence in Latvia, and several thousand of its soldiers fought in Afghanistan. By contrast, at the height of the Afghanistan war, Greece dispatched a team of only 175, and Greek troops do not currently participate in any NATO or EU military missions. Greece is absent, even though with its 134,000 active-duty troops—nearly as many as maintained by the United Kingdom—it could easily contribute. Belgium, with a population similar to that of Greece, has only some 30,000 active-duty troops.

In fact, Greece’s hundreds of tanks could even signal inefficiency, since the two percent defense-spending requirement says little about the effect of the spending. “Two percent as a criterion is not enough,” Zandee said. “You have to look at capability gaps.” A country that spends large amounts on high-profile equipment but little on, say, maintenance or exercises is left with capability gaps. If Greece spent less on tanks and more on international missions, it would be more valuable to NATO.

That is NATO’s other dilemma: the two percent benchmark doesn’t specify how members should spend their defense budgets. Italy could buy 1,000 Ariete tanks from its national manufacturer CIO, thus boosting defense-spending and employment figures alike. But doing so would do little to benefit NATO or boost the effectiveness of the Italian army. The two percent benchmark measures input alone, even though output is the more crucial aspect of defense spending. But if NATO began to measure output, it would encounter another problem: it would end up naming and shaming the countries that spend their defense budgets unwisely. That would harm cohesion within the alliance. Even by measuring just input, NATO can’t be sure that the spending figures are accurate. Many countries include military pensions in their defense-spending statistics, while others don’t. And according to Zandee, some countries reallocate expenditures from areas such as pensions to inflate their defense spending.

Greece doesn’t have to reallocate expenditures in order to remain a NATO star spender. Even if it does not buy a single tank over the next several years, it will have to keep spending on maintenance, ammunition, and the crews of three to four soldiers required to operate the tanks they already have. “Military armored vehicles are more expensive than civilian vehicles of the same weight,” explained retired Brigadier Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “And the heavier the vehicle is, the more demands there are on the suspension and the gearbox. That makes maintenance even more expensive.” Barry pointed out that the maintenance of tanks often costs more than the acquisition itself.

Indeed, there is a realization in Greece that it may not be able to afford the upkeep of its impressive stock of tanks. “The situation is hardly sustainable, as defense cuts don’t allow the armed forces to keep all those MBTs fully battle ready,” Dokos said. “A new school of thought is slowly gaining ground in the armed forces, which argues that any future conflict between Greece and Turkey will take place in the Aegean.” Such a naval conflict would, naturally, require no tanks.

In the end, Greece will be forced to reduce the size of its fleet. “Since the defense budget is not expected to rise in the foreseeable future,” explained Dokos, “and Greece has other pressing needs, before too long it will be faced with the difficult decision to reduce the number of MBTs.” Perhaps such a sale could add some welcome euros to the government’s coffers—or free up money to send a few troops on NATO missions.

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