KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — Greece on Friday launched operations at a new international pilot training center created in partnership with Israel, as it tries to build on its relative air power advantage over regional rival Turkey.
Israeli defense contractor Elbit, which finalized a $1.65 billion deal with Greece’s government, assisted by Israel, last year, will help run the facility located on an air force base outside the southern Greek city of Kalamata.
Greece is undertaking an armed forces modernization program largely focused on its air force, as it hopes to outpace Turkey. Athens is acquiring advanced French-built Rafale jets, upgrading its aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets and wants to join the United States’ F-35 jet program.
Turkey was dropped from the F-35 program after its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
NATO members Greece and Turkey remain at odds over sea boundaries and the military presence on eastern Greek islands that Ankara maintains violates international treaties.
The new training center started operating Friday with 14 of an expected 25 T-6 single-engine turboprop aircraft. The fleet is set to expand next year with the delivery of 19 Italian-built M-346 training jets equipped with embedded virtual avionics that simulate combat and and flight scenarios.
While the flight school officially opened Friday it will not be fully operational until early 2024, Elbit officials said.
Major Gen. Georgios Vagenas, commander of the Greek Air Force Training Command, said the T-6 aircraft would provide 7,000 flight training hours annually, while the M-346 jets would provide 3,500 hours.
“These facilities will prepare fighter squadrons for the generation of fighter aircraft that the air force recently acquired,” Vagenas said. “It will be the main mechanism to counter threats … coming from our neighbor to the east.”