By now, I believe that every Greek speaking person knows that Greece is about to purchase two Belhara frigates from France to act as anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) vessels for the Greek navy for a cost close to €1.4bn. The frigates are supposed to be delivered around 2025 and will mainly be armed with the Aster-30 long-range (active radar) anti-aircraft missile. While the French variant will carry 16 Aster-30, the Greek Navy is negotiating a version carrying at least  24 Aster-30 + 8 MdCN cruise missiles. It is not clear up to this point whether the frigates will also be equipped with a CIWS, either the RAM, Phalanx or other variant.

In this essay I will add my (less than) 2 cents in addressing two important questions: (1) is the specific type of ship appropriate for the Greek navy and (2) are AAW frigates really all that necessary.

In answering the first question we have to realize that the threat profile for any vessel in the Eastern Mediterranean during the next decade will be quite different from what it was a few years ago. Current AAW ships are designed mainly to fight against high profile targets such as enemy (manned) aircraft and whatever missiles they manage to fire before being shot down. Yet the emerging threat environment will be quite different in the coming years:

  1. Turkey has developed a complete array of indigenous UAV/UCAVs capable of carrying lethal weapons, mainly short-range small missiles (MAM-L/C) but even the SOM cruise missile for the Akinci UAV. It already has the Harpy autonomous anti-radar UAV in its arsenal while developing an in-house variant will not be any difficult given its large experience by now.
  2. An anti-ship version of the SOM missile is under development and will certainly be available by 2025 enhancing the Turkish arsenal which already includes the SLAM-ER missile. This weapon will equip the large fleet of Turkish F-16s as well as the Akinci large UAV.
  3. The Bora tactical ballistic missile is about to be equipped with active radar turning it into the Turkish variant of the Chinese DF-21 and being able to target nautical targets at a range of more than 280 km. Due to their high velocity and ballistic trajectory these missiles are quite difficult to detect and intercept.
  4. All new frigates built by Turkey (including the Instabul class of vessels) will come equipped with double (16 instead of 8) the payload of anti-ship long-range weapons (Atmaca indigenous missiles). As a result it will be easier to perform saturation attacks by launching multiple sorties against the same target.

Given the above it is obvious that a saturation attack from multiple directions will be more than likely for the FTi frigates. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the cost of an attack UAV (a Turkish Harpy for instance) will be lower than the cost of a single Aster-30 (which hovers around €3 mn).

An FTI frigate sailing south of Kastelorizo will find itself being attacked by multiple Atmaca missiles from enemy vessels, SOM missiles from F-16s and UAVs, autonomous attack UAVs and even Bora missiles fired from the Turkish mainland. A payload of 24 or even 32 Aster-30, especially without a second line of defence using a CIWS like the RAM or Phalanx will just not be enough to handle all these threats.

Given the cost of producing an attack UAV or a SOM/Bora missile, Turkey will find it more than cost-effective to build an arsenal capable of saturating and ultimately destroying such a high profile target. The Belhara payload will just not be enough to handle this level of threats. Only an Arleigh Burke destroyer hosting multiple layers of defense (SM-2, ESSM, Phalanx CIWS) and a high payload (90 Mk-41 cells able to carry one SM-2 or 4 ESSM each) will be able to withstand such saturation attacks.

Based on the above it seems that the Belhara will not be able to perform its planned mission (AAW protection of the Greek fleet) by the time it is delivered to the Greek navy. Moreover, given the fact that the backbone of the Greek fleet is 9 Standard frigates built almost 40 years ago, paying almost €1.5bn for two ships will mean that the Greek navy will mainly comprise only 4 (slightly modernized) Meko frigates and two Belhara by the end of the next decade while not being able to essentially handle large saturation attacks.

A more cost-effective solution (and use of French low cost financing) will probably be acquiring a larger number of Gowind Corvettes with the UAE configuration hosting an 8-cell Mk-41 equipped with 32 ESSM missiles (for the same cost as 2 Belhara). The ESSM Block 2 variant will be available by the time these vessels are delivered and will provide active radar AAW capabilities with ranges close to 80km (compared to 120km for the Aster-30) while the Greek defense industry participates in its production. Coupled with a RAM CIWS these vessels will boost a substantial missile payload. As long as a larger number of ships is acquired and at least two of them sail together they will provide a total payload of 64 ESSM and 42 RAM missiles which will be able to handle a saturation attack easier than a single Belhara frigate even at shorter distances.

The smaller and less capable radar capabilities (which are a big plus for the Seafire Belhara radar) can be mitigated up to a point by using Link-16 inter connectivity with other sensors (Erieye airborne radars, F-16s Viper, other Gowind/MEKO vessels etc). Yet the biggest advantage is the fact that, as long as Greece engages in a long-term ship-building program, the Gowind class could be used to replace on a one-for-one basis all of the Standard frigates with ships built in Greek shipyards in a 10 -12 years ship building program minimizing costs and maximizing domestic value. This is in sharp contrast to the Belhara program which will eat all available financial resources for the next 5 – 8 years to build only two ships (with no replacement for the remaining Standard vessels) while any local domestic value will be minimized.

Regarding the second question my answer will be a bit un-orthodox. The main doctrine revolves around the fact that Greece has ever-increasing interests in the Eastern Mediterranean which include Cyprus, the (defense of) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and possible hydrocarbon reserves. Given these interests, vessels with enhanced AAW are more than necessary to defend them, even if that comes at a large acquisition cost.

While I will certainly not disagree with the fact that Greece has large and important interests in that geographical area, I have to stress that defending interests in peace time is quite different from defending them during war time. During peace time what is mainly needed is nautical presence, not specifically a AAW frigate/destroyer. Even a Super Vita fast attack craft is enough for such a task.

During war time the territory in question is an open sea with no clearly defined objectives to defend or fight for. Minimizing and isolating the conflict is not in Greece’s interest. Rather its objective must be to strike military targets throughout the Aegean and deep into Turkish territory thus maximizing the cost of any Turkish endeavor. Given these objectives what is needed is a large number of modern vessels (such as the Super Vita and Gowind) capable of inflicting severe damage on enemy targets while staying under the protective umbrella of the Greek air force instead of a couple of vessels isolated somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Even protecting an island such as Kastelorizo (which is far away from the rest of the Aegean island archipelago and very close to Turkey’s mainland) will mainly revolve around speed and airborne lethality (use of fighter jets, Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters and Zubr LCAC for quick transfer of forces). Given that the island complex is very close to Turkish mainland, even a heavily armed AAW vessel will have a hard time protecting the airspace above the island since it will be exposed to even artillery fire from the mainland.

The same applies for a naval convoy carrying forces and supplies for Cuprus. What will be truly important in such open waters will be avoiding saturation air attacks and enemy submarines. The best way to achieve that is having a large number of vessels, torpedoes and anti-aircraft missiles rather than 1 – 2 high value targets. The main benefit of a Belhara will be its enhanced tactical image due to the advanced Seafire radar (a benefit not easily mitigated through cooperation with other sensors so far from Greece) yet its survivability will be highly in question due to its limited missile payload.

All in all, acquiring a couple of (very) costly AAW frigates does not seem to make a lot of sense. It will eat all available financial resources and leave the Greek navy with only 6 main surface vessels by the end of the next decade, has low survivability in the first place and is not the appropriate way to defend Greek interests in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.