They’re at it again, Miss. It’s appropriate that Doug used the phrase “ramming speed”, because that was just what the Greek and Turkish fighter planes were travelling at when they collided. This has been going on for ages. Among Greece and Turkey’s catalogue of territorial disputes is one over the line between the Athens and Istanbul Flight Information Regions, the basic units of state sovereignty in the air. The Turkish air force regularly probes the Greek air defence, and the Greek QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) is scrambled, and they try to force each other to turn away or land. A form of hypermodernist ritual combat.
It’s not new. In the cold war, Soviet aircraft would roar down the North Sea to prod the NATO radar chain, and (mostly) British and Norwegian fighters would red-alert into action to intercept them. And then the jousting would begin, often in distant corners of the Arctic seas. Both parties put a lot of effort into this; sometimes there might be US F15s from Iceland, Norwegian F-16s, British Lightnings, Phantoms or Tornados, British VC10 tankers, US KC135 tankers, British Shackleton AEW aircraft and perhaps a US or NATO multinational AWACS involved at the same time. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was because it was fun, something the governments would never admit and the pilots would be the first to declare with suitable gestures.
Greek-Turkish relations aren’t great, but are not bad at all compared with almost any other period except the burst of fraternity after the Turkish earthquake. So why all the drama? After all, a high rate of FIR violations has been going on for a year or so. Well, the best explanation is that it’s the internal culture and preferences of the air forces involved. If you ask fighter pilots if they’re up for a bit of supersonic aerobatics, you’re only realistically going to get one answer. Fortunately neither side has nukes, given the short distances and hence warning times involved. (Although there is an argument that it was precisely the balance of nuclear terror that meant it was possible to piss around and survive.)
The danger is that someone will take it all too seriously, which happened back in 1996 when the Greek-Turkish situation was considerably more poisonous than it is now. A Greek Mirage-2000 shot down a Turkish F-16, the only F-16 ever shot down in air-to-air combat. But the grown-ups stepped in and war was avoided. There’s only one lasting answer, of course-which group of countries with highly developed air forces and common borders don’t do this? The European Union. Greece and Turkey amply show that NATO doesn’t cut it on its own. Whe EU member states feel the need…the need for speed, they take it to somewhere like the RAF’s instrumented range in the North Sea to settle it like gentlemen.