Greece Wants F-35s So Quickly It’s Willing to Accept Used Aircraft

Greece has formally asked the U.S. to purchase 18-24 F-35s, and it wants them so quickly it’s willing to accept ex-USAF airplanes, according to Pentagon officials and Greek press reports.

The official Letter of Request was transmitted to the Pentagon by the Greek defense ministry on Nov. 6. The request asks for the “immediate” purchase of aircraft, such that the first ones could be delivered in 2021; the document said this timeline is “crucial.”

While it’s not clear why Greece views the timing of the purchase as so critical, industry officials said it likely has to do with European Union loan guarantees that will expire in the coming months. The financing is also viewed as the reason Greece may be willing to accept used, ex-Air Force F-35s. The LOR said the sale would be affected by the speed of delivery, configuration of the aircraft, and “the repayment plan.”

Greece has publicly indicated a desire to buy F-35s since early 2019, but ongoing fiscal problems prevented a formal request. The Greek defense ministry initially said it was contemplating the purchase of 25-30 F-35s.

A defense official, speaking on background, said the Air Force has “not identified any F-35s that are excess to need,” so it’s not certain that there are any aircraft that could be made available for sale to Greece secondhand. However, the Air Force has wrestled in recent years with whether it wants to spend the money to modify its oldest training F-35s up to the current production standard. Selling the older jets and replacing them with newer models might meet the Air Force’s needs. USAF has indicated, however, that it will use some older F-35s as Aggressor aircraft.

Defense officials said the U.S. has urged Greece to buy the F-16V Block 70, the most advanced version of the F-16 now available for export. With an extensive F-16 support enterprise already in place, Greece could easily absorb that airplane at a much lower cost, but one official said there’s “a prestige factor” involved. A small batch of F-35s could also be a “force multiplier” for Greece’s other F-16s, he observed.

Turkey, an original partner on the F-35, has been drummed out of the program by the U.S. and NATO allies because of Turkey’s insistence on ordering and deploying the Russian S-400 air defense system. Industry officials speculated that F-35s completed for Turkey–but not delivered–could be offered to Greece. While the U.S. Air Force is getting some of those aircraft, others could be made available for Greece.

“You could think of them as ‘pre-owned,’ but not necessarily ‘used,’” a defense official said.      

If Greece is permitted to order brand-new F-35s, it would have to get in line: Lockheed Martin’s production capacity is spoken for through at least 2024, an industry official reported.  

The request to buy the F-35 follows Greece’s recent order of Rafale fighters from France. That sale includes six new aircraft and 12 previously flown by the French air force. France has indicated it will replace the 12 airplanes with new-build examples. The first Rafales are set to be delivered to Greece early next year.

The F-35s and Rafales would buttress a fleet of some 154 F-16s already serving in the Hellenic Air Force. While the bulk of those aircraft—about 84 airplanes—are of the Block 52 configuration, about 70 are older Block 30 and 40 models. In 2018, Lockheed Martin received a nearly $1 billion contract, along with partner Hellenic Aerospace Industries, to upgrade Greece’s F-16s with an array of new gear by 2027.