Tanking Up in Greece

Athens Is Spending Far Too Much on Its Armed Forces

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’

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