ATHENS — Last month, as millions of Greeks walked off their jobs to protest prolonged fiscal austerity measures, red-alert telephones jangled in the windowless inner sanctums of the country’s navy headquarters in Athens. Green and orange blobs blinked boldly on radar screens; officers scrambled to the situation room, unsure how to respond.
A 1,325-ton Turkish warship had strayed twice into Greek territorial waters, according to naval officials in Athens. In the past, officials said, it would have been met by an equal if not larger response.
But in this case, the warship was tailed by a 500-ton fast-attack Greek naval craft, and a 2,000-ton frigate was dispatched to the region.
“At any other point in time, incidents like these would have met a rapid and relative Greek response,” said Yiorgos Glistis, a retired submarine commander. “Now we’re seeing dinghies dogging frigates… [and] no really flexing of the muscle.”
Biting budget cuts spurred by Greece’s recession-ravaged economy have resulted in the military’s operational costs being reduced by 29% since 2010. Politicians and defense experts say the cuts are strangling the nation’s defense capabilities, sapping military morale and feeding far-right nationalism, even murmurs of a possible military rebellion.
The air force says it no longer has spare parts for its prized F-16 fighter jets; the navy is without fuel to conduct extended exercises and patrols in the Aegean; and the army is unable to pay transport costs for about 400 U.S.-made tanks that have already been paid for.
Military personnel have lost at least 37% of their income since 2010. The head of the joint chiefs of staff earns $3,899 a month before taxes of about 35%.
“The military isn’t just bleeding” because of the reductions, said Yannis Katsaroulis, a navy supply officer. “It’s boiling.”
Yet despite the cuts, Greece continues to spend the largest per capita amount for defense of any nation in the European Union. According to the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Greece’s military spending in 2011 equaled 2.1% of its gross domestic product, compared with the EU average of less than 1.6%.
If successive governments in Athens had spent less than 1.6% over the last 20 years, economists say, Greece could have saved a total of 52% of its GDP, sparing Greeks from international bailouts and grueling austerity.
But such a reduction is hardly likely.
Moves to shut down about 500 bases and barracks across the country — an initial proposal two years ago called for 900 — have drawn fierce criticism from local politicians who worry that closures would provoke popular anger and push the unemployment rate, already at 27%, even higher.
Thanos Dokos, a leading Greek defense expert, cautioned that a drop in defense spending to less than 2% of the country’s GDP would jeopardize its combat readiness.
“Greece is not like any other European or NATO state,” Dokos said. “It almost single-handedly is responsible for securing the EU’s westernmost border, and it faces a real threat from Turkey.”
Despite improved relations between the two countries in recent years, contested claims to tiny islets, airspace and drilling rights in the Aegean Sea continue to fester. The Turkish government also has repeatedly warned Greece that any move to assert its rights in the oil- and mineral-rich Aegean would constitute an act of war. (Turkey already retains an occupation force of 35,000 troops in the northern part of Cyprus, Greece’s sister state.)
As Prime Minister Antonis Samaras headed to Turkey last week on a diplomatic visit, opposition politicians pushed for a start in arms reduction talks with his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Not only is the timing right,” Dimitris Papadimoulis, a senior lawmaker of the radical left Syriza party, said, “but it is an imperative cost-saving exercise that will help release vital funds for social and health projects that have been wiped out by the crisis.”
With abundant stories of extravagant waste, corruption and fraud by military officials and contractors, Papadimoulis said, cutting defense spending would enjoy support from a national consensus bent more on “reforming than funding the armed forces.”
Lawmakers, however, worry that additional cutbacks will ramp up support for Golden Dawn, a far-right party whose militaristic rhetoric has prospered during the lingering economic crisis.
Last month, talks among officials on trimming military spending took an unnerving turn when a retired brigadier warned that the military brass and personnel were so “angered by sweeping spending cuts” that they were “dead-set on voting for Golden Dawn” in future elections, according to an officer present at the meeting.
No defense analyst in Greece, however, fears a return to military rule. A seven-year military dictatorship was toppled in 1974.
“The government’s job is to balance the budget and get Greece out of its trenches, not play vote-grabbing games to win political influence,” Papadimoulis said. “If it can’t do the job, it should resign. Otherwise it becomes a dangerous liability.”
Carassava is a special correspondent.