Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Greece Could Save on Defense Spending

July 26, 2012

Greece is struggling to achieve the deep cuts demanded by its international creditors. But the country's military budget still offers plenty of room for trimming. Athens, though, has refrained from tackling the primary problem: too many soldiers and too many military bases.

The Hellenic Army IV Corps is headquartered in Xanthi, a city in north-eastern Greece, close to the Turkish border. Yet when it is time for the unit's hundreds of jeeps and other vehicles to go in for regular maintenance, they have to travel 570 kilometers. The technical corps for Greece's largest unit, after all, is based in the western Greek city of Ioannina, not far from the Ionian Sea.

The long journey is not cheap: Military personnel get travel expenses, work hours are lost and of course, copious quantities of fuel are consumed. A former senior officer with the corps described the operation, which he oversaw several times while on duty, in a conversation with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Why the detour? "Probably because some locally elected politician wanted the unit in Ioannina so that he could act as a 'visma' and get people transferred." In Greek military jargon, a "visma" is a politician who ensures that his constituents get transferred as far as possible from the Greek-Turkish border.

The example of the military vehicles' long westward journey is particularly topical this week as the troika, made up of inspectors from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, begins examining the country's progress on austerity. At the same time, politicians in Germany and elsewhere have begun speculating even more openly about the country's possible exit from the euro zone. The country needs to show clear progress on budget cuts, and the military would seem to be a good place to make them.

Costly armament purchases are, of course, part of the equation. According to the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Greece has spent much of the 2000s as one of the top five arms importers globally, lavishly spending on new submarines, tanks and fighter jets. Just last year, the country spent €4.6 billion on defense, representing 2.1 percent of its economic output. European NATO members, by contrast, spent an average of 1.6 percent, Germany just 1.4 percent.


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