On Friday, 19 February 2021, the Minister of National Defence, Mr. Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, replied to Parliamentary Control question Nr. 3133/8-1-21 by Movement for Change (KINAL) MP for Heraklion, Mr. Vasilis Kegeroglou, on the subject “Air Force Training Centre in Kalamata”.
In his first address, the Minister of National Defence stated the following:
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: “Sir, the creation of an International Training Centre for flight training in Kalamata is certainly not the only great project for the Armed Forces that we inherited delayed and are now trying to catch up. It is not the only one, but it is one of the most monumental, since we may have recently signed the procurement of 18 modern “Rafale” aircraft, we may have the four F-16 upgrade program to the Viper configuration in progress, so the Hellenic Air Force’s capabilities in terms of assets are, I would say, “dramatically” upgraded, but we also need personnel. This personnel are the pilots, the Hellenic Air Force Academy graduates, who must be trained in a modern training centre.
The need was identified early with the decision of 1 November 2017, when the Joint Chiefs of General Staff Council approved a study to complete the subprogramme for the creation of an International Flight Training Centre at the 120th Air Training Wing, i.e. the Hellenic Air Force’s training centre in Kalamata.
According to that study, the Hellenic Air Force would lease a comprehensive flight training programme, including assets and ground training asset support (simulators, PCs for training on individual systems, etc.) for at least 20 years. This need was deemed urgent already since 2017, because time was running out and the Hellenic Air Force’s flight training was reaching a dead end, since aircraft were ageing and Hellenic Air Force Academy cadets could not complete their flight training. The cadets could not train on air assets; this created an ever increasing load and it was decided to proceed to the implementation of this subprogramme.
The solutions have been explained, because we used this subprogramme as a basis to submit the proposal, which was discussed for almost four hours at the Parliament’s Committee for Foreign Affairs. You were there and I think at least the technical and financial aspects of the proposal were thoroughly and satisfactorily answered. So the solution involved upgrading the existing T6 aircraft using 2020 specifications (the existing ones are too few and are using 2010 specifications), as well as procuring new jet trainers (currently there are three available and we are talking about ten new modern ones). They will train cadets flying fourth generation aircraft or higher. What we have are equivalent to the “Phantoms”, i.e. 3rd generation aircraft. You do realise that this is not the way forward.
The Air Force had foreseen this impasse, but nothing more was done. Continuing with the history, with the decision of the Supreme Air Council in March 2018 to examine the Canadian company‘s proposal, there were two options, to acquire training aircraft either from “Lockheed Martin” or from the Canadian company. In July of the same year, a working group was formed upon order of the Chief of Hellenic Air Force General Staff to examine these proposals in depth. The cost was indeed €1.8 bn. How did we arrive at a much lower cost? Perhaps due to competition. From the moment a second company expressed interest, offers started pouring in. This is to the benefit of National Defence and the Hellenic Air Force. I am not concerned, but glad, since after we took over the negotiation, prices kept dropping, until we reached the offer based on which we finally agreed. Right now – I should also mention this – negotiations are in progress between the parties.
A negotiation team has been formed by the Ministry of National Defence and the General Directorate for Defence Investments and Armaments which is currently in negotiations with the Israeli company’s representatives in order to agree on a contract to be signed in the near future. In any case, there is no more time to lose.
In August 2018, the Joint Chiefs of General Staff Council provided an opinion on the subprogramme, again due to its urgent nature. But, due to lack of financing for the €1 bn proposal that was on the table at the time, we did not bring a suprogramme approval proposal to the Armaments Committee, since we did not have the money.
In January 2019 (and this is interesting), the Defence Council met under the then Minister Mr. Kammenos and decided essentially three things:
First to continue negotiations with the Canadian side to see if we can lower the price. This did not happen because negotiations did not continue that intensively.
Second to submit to the Prime Minister a request for additional funding. Let me remind you that the Defence budget at the time was €530 m per year. He could not see the necessity of this programme for the future of the Hellenic Air Force.
Third to examine other proposals to see whether there was a better proposal or whether, as was mentioned in the Committee, we could do it ourselves, with our own powers, based on an idea of the Hellenic Air Force leadership at the time, which however was never transformed into a specific proposal, supported by a specific study saying that with such and such conditions, the Hellenic Air Force could undertake the project. Reasonably so. It would take great investment in ground and air assets to escape from this impasse.
But the cadets were waiting in line to train and book more flight hours, without an apparent solution. We reached a point where a cadet would go on to his Unit to start flying at the age of 28! Why? Because he waited too long in line, since there were not enough assets to complete his flight hours.
In December 2019, the General Director of the General Directorate for Defence Investments and Armaments made his first visit to Israel. The Israeli company that expressed interest dropped this proposal on the table. Then came my visit in February 2020 and the mission under the Prime Minister in the summer of 2020, at which time the Israeli company’s proposal came up and was deemed the most beneficial financially and more detailed by the Committee on Armament Programs and Contracts last December”.
In his replication, Mr. Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos replied noting the following:
“I will try to reply as briefly as possible, starting from the end and saying to the honourable fellow MP that there is a constant – so to say – massaging of local stakeholders. It is reasonable to attract lots of interest, to have certain reservations concerning whether the operation of this Centre may affect the operation of the Kalamata Airport and its very positive perspectives for tourism.
I believe that all these questions have been answered, many have been raised by local MPs. Obviously the local community will be constantly briefed in order to relieve any concerns and convince them that this matter will ultimately be to the benefit of the local economy and potentially tourism, since its conversion into an International Training Centre aims, among others, at attracting pilots from foreign Air Forces. Particularly now with Israel, since this choice further enhances our strategic relationship in the area of Defence Cooperation.
Certainly the Israeli Air Force comes closer through this venture with the Hellenic Air Force and we can also attract pilots from other countries, perhaps from NATO member states. It is possible to attract pilot trainees from NATO member states. As you understand, having all those come to Kalamata to complete their flight training may have benefits for the local economy and may also boost tourism.
Other than that, I believe all technical matters have been extensively examined at the Committee. What is the backbone of the programme? Time lease by the Hellenic Air Force of air assets, i.e. propeller aircraft, which constitute the first trainer in the career of a cadet. Then comes the jet, which will be the M-346 by the Italian company “Leonardo”, modern and adapted to the modern technology requirements of 4th generation plus aircraft.
We are talking about ten jet and 25 propeller aircraft, according to the contract and the specifications. Right now, we have eight propeller trainer aircraft. The rest and the existing ones will be upgraded in order to reach a final total of 25. An equivalent number of ground training hours, as well as ground training hours, is offered. This is a qualitative difference of the Israeli proposal, because they offer more training hours and clarify that hours on the ground (until the aircraft takes off) are one thing and hours in the air are another (something that was not clarified by the Canadian side), as well as many ground training assets, e.g. modern simulators for the jet aircraft, simulators for training on individual systems, as well as PCs for ground training on individual aircraft systems.
These are all very clearly specified in a specific offer using the time lease method, because this is deemed financially more beneficial for the Hellenic Air Force, for a period of 22 and not 20 years, since the Israelis (correctly) take into account that it will take approximately two years to make these investments, to purchase the aircraft, to upgrade existing ones, to bring the other main training assets, and have the centre operational.
Consequently, it is a comprehensive proposal, it has been justified, negotiations are in progress, we will – very soon, I believe – have a contract and then the implementation of the investment in Kalamata will start as soon as possible. In two years from today, when the life cycle of the existing jet aircraft ends, because in two years there will be no spare parts to support it, Kalamata will be ready with new jet trainers, upgraded propeller aircraft, and the complete infrastructure of a comprehensive international air training centre, with all the benefits for the Hellenic Air Force. Thank you”.