Capital Athens
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
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The Hellenic Coast Guard: Greece’s First Line of Maritime Defense editor’s note: as southeastern Europe continues to grapple with an unprecedented influx of illegal migrants amidst an explosive regional security atmosphere, Greece’s coast guard is again being called on to confront maritime security threats. The following detailed survey provides a comprehensive overview of the Greek Coast Guard, its structural and organizational make-up, fleet, operations and related issues of current concern.

Readers of this article may also enjoy the authors’ previous e-book, Studies in Greek Security, 2006-2011.

By Ioannis Michaletos and Chris Deliso

The Greek (Hellenic) Coast Guard is often overlooked by both the domestic and international media when it comes to security-related affairs in the country.

Nevertheless it plays a crucial role in a host of major contemporary security areas that affect globally-relevant issues, such as illegal immigration, anti-narcotics operations, combating arms smuggling, seizing counterfeit contraband and untaxed tobacco, among many other different transnational illicit sectors.

In fact, considering the maritime nature of Greece, its coast guard can be said to be the bulwark of Greece’s maritime defensive security architecture. Indeed, it has more far-reaching responsibilities in many cases than do the police or the intelligence structures, and it complements the navy’s operation across a wide geographical area, spanning from the Adriatic-Ionian seas to the Aegean and a large sector of the Eastern Mediterranean which borders with Cyprus, Turkey on the east and Egypt, Libya, Italy and Malta on the south and towards the west.

The Greek Coast Guard: Mandate, Activities and Relative Size

The Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG, in Greek, Λιμενικό Σώμα-Ελληνική Ακτοφυλακή or Limeniko Soma-Elliniki Aktofylaki or LS-ELAKT) was originally established in 1919, and since then has developed into one of the largest such forces in the wider region. It numbers 8,000 personnel spread across Greece, with dozens of island stations and bases, and several diplomatic representatives in Greek embassies and consulates a0broad. It has around 200 vessels and over 10 helicopters and light aircraft.

Quite interestingly the Hellenic Coast Guard is administered by the Maritime Affairs ministry (incorporated by the current government into a Ministry of Economy, Infrastructure, Shipping and Tourism). Thus the HCG is not institutionally related to the police or customs administration- a fact that has led to occasional ‘turf related’ antagonistic relations. HCG authority extends also onshore, in ports (where the Port Police falls under HCG control) and in any kind of maritime installations, and covers the entire Greek seafront. This extensive area is among the 10 largest national seafront areas in the world.

On certain occasions, the Hellenic Coast Guard has exercised its right to conduct surveillance and make arrests inside of urban centers- and sometimes even without consulting local police forces.

In terms of size, Greece’s coast guard is larger both in proportion and in actual numbers than its counterparts in neighboring countries. Turkey’s coast guard boasts 5,500 personnel, for example, though it too has an extensive coastline (and a population more than seven times that of Greece). The HCG is in fact the second largest force of its kind in the Mediterranean after than of Italy, which has a lengthy coastline, 11,000 personnel, and also a population six times greater than that of Greece.

In fact, if the Greek coast guard was a separate navy, it would be larger than the Bulgarian navy (4,000 personnel), Romanian navy (7,000 personnel), and almost the same as the Israeli and Portuguese navies (8-9,000 personnel). On the other hand, the extensive and intricate Greek coastline – among the largest in the world – the tremendous sea traffic year-round and the existence of thousands of islands, contribute to such an augmented force. Nevertheless, according to experts the coast guard still needs a 25% boost in order to be able to cope with its ever-increasing duties.

Scope and Structure of Activities

In order to better illustrate the significance of this force when assessing Greek domestic security affairs, a basic outline of its structure should be provided. By this an interested reader should understand that it is modeled as a combination between a conventional navy and police agency, with numerous civil duties as well.

The hierarchy starts with the head of the force, who is always a vice-admiral. He is complemented by 1st and 2nd deputies, who are rear-admirals, and there is also the general inspector, a rear-admiral as well. The directors of the specific internal branches are all normally rear-admirals also.

Coast Guard Branch A could be considered the operational one; it is composed of the directory of operations, port control, fishery control, means and methods, border and state security and anti-contraband operations. It is the branch which has the everyday workload often portrayed in the media when hunting down criminals or securing defense. It is also the one with intelligence and security functions.

Coast Guard Branch B is specialized in maritime affairs and is composed of the sector of international commercial merchant marine, maritime security of the aforementioned, directory of maritime labor affairs, maritime transportation directory, sea and environmental protection and the commercial maritime education directory.

Coast Guard Branch C is involved in regulatory affairs, such as checks and regulations of organizations dealing with maritime affairs, construction and maintenance of vessels, inspection of the commercial maritime fleet, inspection of port and maritime installations regarding safety.

Coast Guard Branch D deals with human resources and management, having the directory of personnel, directory of training and the communications management section.

Furthermore, there are a number of agencies directly subordinated to the HCG chiefs of staff such as: general inspection, health issues agency, airlifting, electronic border surveillance, special operation forces, rescue service, maintenance agency, HCG schools and training facilities and, not to be forgotten, its official musical troupe.

Moreover, the head of HCG is operating directly the Search and Rescue Coordination Center (Enniaio Kentro Syntonismou Erevnas kai Diasomisis, or EKSED) in Piraeus and the operations center (Kentro Epicheirision, or KEPIX),which both in most cases involve coordination with air force, navy or other military, as well as police units. The aviation units and special forces are also directly operationally subordinated to the head of the HCG.

There is also an HCG Emergency Radio Communications Station SXE, located at Aspropyrgos in Attica, and the Vessel Traffic Service (VTMIS) around the ports of Piraeus, Elefsis, Lavrio and Rafina. The latter was actually developed under government tender by a private Greek company, Intracom IT Services. The coast guard uses military radars that are actually manned by the navy. However, they are shared with the HCG, which on many occasions receives data in real time, especially in the case of urgent operations.

The HCG includes nine peripheral administration commands that span the breadth of the country, the most important one being the Piraeus headquarters.

The coast guard is also responsible for regulating the nine Greek state merchant marine colleges. They are located in Aspropyrgos, Hydra, Kymi, Thessaloniki, Oinousses, Chios, Syros, Preveza, Chania and Kefalonia.

During peacetime the HCG is subordinated to the ministry of maritime affairs. However, at times of mobilization or war it falls under the orders of the Hellenic Navy’s fleet command. Moreover, the coast guard retains a military status on all occasions, which means that all personnel are subject to military regulations and courts, not civilian ones; this marks a notable difference from the police, for example.

Provenance and Types of Craft Used

The HCG has historically provided one of the most specialized and important domestic markets for Greek shipbuilders, a traditional industry that has unfortunately declined in recent years due to cheaper foreign competition, which means that a number of the Greek-produced boats are older and need to be replaced. Thus, not all of the vessels in inventory are in everyday use.

The latest information indicates that procurement officers at the HCG hope to acquire 16 new mid-range vessels, but no tender competition for them has been announced as of yet. Presumably this is due to the country’s general financial problems.

Out of Greece’s almost 200 HCG craft, around 160 are Greek-made. Various models of Lambro, Olympic and other patrol boats, and numerous RIB coastal patrol boats are included. Other vessels in use were imported from Israel, Britain, Sweden, Holland and Spain. In 2004, the United States donated several craft including the highly desirable Boston Whaler (Guardian model)- a boat long known for its unique designs and ‘unsinkable hull.’

As for Greek production, an HCG mainstay has been the Panther 57 Fast Patrol Boat, an evolution of the Lambro models built by MotoMarine (formerly, the Lambro company). Equipped with an M2 Browning machine gun, this vessel is almost 60 feet long and can reach speeds of up to 44 knots. It has long been considered very effective for complex operations.

From the air, the HCG has a small number of fixed-wing aircraft stationed at Dekelia air base, just north of Athens. Its four AS 332 Super Puma helicopters, however, as based at Elefsis air base and use mixed air force and coast guard crew.

Special Operations

The HCG traditionally places great importance on maintaining a high-level and extensive S.O.F. structure, which is composed of two elements.

The first one is the Underwater Operations Unit (MYA), which numbers around 100 personnel and was first created in the early 1970’s, having an official establishment in the early 1990’s. Their tasks are similar to the units of the “Navy Seals” of the navy and are related to anti-terrorism, close coordination with the armed forces’ SOF’s, VIP protection in sea and port environments, special rescue operations, and special “raid type” operations in the maritime theater of operation.

The whole issue of VIP protection in Greece is a fascinating one that deserves a separate study, considering the variety of means of transport within Greece, high density of private yachts, and the presence of wealthy businessmen and Hollywood celebrities looking for a low-key Greek vacation- often to the extent that they travel under false identities and have phalanxes of private security. The HCG’s special MYA unit, however, provides protection only for state and diplomatic VIPs. For private individuals seeking such support, private local security is available for hire, but they still need to get permission from the HCG (or other state bodies when relevant) and getting this permission is not always guaranteed. One exception regards events such as international athletics, artistic competitions and anything else in which the state has some involvement.

The MYA is based in the Agios Kosmas region of Athens. Training for prospective candidates is almost identical to that of the navy, a rigorous process lasting almost a year, and including specialization courses. Every year, a large number of candidates don’t ‘make the cut,’ which again indicates the rigorousness of the training program.

A second force is the “Special Missions Detachments (Klimakio Idikon Apostolon, KEA) which number around 300 personnel. These teams were established in the mid-1980’s. Their tasks involve anti-contraband operations, port security, maritime border patrols in the regions neighboring Turkey and Albania, as well as bomb squad operations.

Both of the above forces cooperate strongly with the Greek Navy’s SOF units and in essence augment the latter’s operational capabilities.

In recent years, stability has disintegrated in the MENA region. This has helped create increasingly powerful multi-national criminal and paramilitary organizations, and analysts have noted numerous and somewhat ‘mysterious’ cases of the HCG seizing large weapons caches in vessels transiting Greece, as well as large amounts of narcotics and other contraband. However, the coast guard tends to be far more secretive than, say, the police about providing sensitive information. The HCG thus never discusses terrorism-related issues, whereas the equivalent police directorate tends to be more eager to publicize such cases.

International Cooperation

In recent years, several countries and organizations have had cooperation with the HCG in various fields, such as the fight against narcotics trafficking, training exercises for other countries, and anti-illegal immigration operations together with them. Major joint operations partners of the HCG working on a regular base include FRONTEX, the Republic of Cyprus, and the Drug Enforcement Agency of the US.

At various periods, the HCG has enjoyed participation in joint exercises or provision of training with Albanian, Montenegrin, Georgian, Egyptian, British, American, Spanish, French and Italian maritime forces. In general, considering the rising tide of illegal immigration from the MENA region and Greece’s increasing defense orientation to its southern and southeastern flanks, we can expect cooperation with allied countries in those areas to increase in line with the country’s general defense doctrine.

It is interesting to note that even when far from home, the Greeks do not forget their country’s vital maritime identity. This is not just a matter of individual nostalgia, but actual state policy. There are thus also 18 HCG attachés located around the world, having official diplomatic status.

These attachés are located in Vancouver, Famagusta in Cyprus, Hamburg, London, Marseilles, New York, Novorossiysk, Port Said, Rotterdam, Santos, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Houston, Perth, Panama City, Dubai and Maracaibo. Their duties are to provide support for, and to take care of anything related with the Greek merchant marine, which conducts maritime trade globally and especially in the above areas.

The duties of these attachés also includes issuing necessary documents on labor and health affairs, providing diplomatic support and being the liaison points between the host country and the Greek maritime sector. The existence of these coast guard official liaison positions also enhances state capabilities to monitor trends in terrorism, organized crime and foreign policies on maritime issues all of which can impact on Greek national security.

Challenges Ahead for the Coast Guard

There are a number of challenges which need to be dealt with in sectors where the HCG operates in future. A significant influx of illegal immigrants and refugees by sea from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands has reached alarming numbers, with more than 500 people entering the country per day over the past three months. For an overview of the issue read our previous article, The Illegal Immigration in Greece: a Strategic Overview.

Concurrently, Libya’s gradual fall under the influence of Islamic State’s loyalists and other similar groups is presenting a new threat which requires a re-engineering of the whole defense system of not only Greece, but also Italy and the European Union as a whole. For more details on this risk, also read our special report on Libya and Mediterranean security here.

Further, the overall surveillance of the seas surrounding Greece, plus the internal sea lanes, are in constant need of pro-active operations due to the large transit traffic of contraband weaponry destined for war zones nearby, places such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and through the Black Sea as well. Another challenge is also the trans-Atlantic cocaine smuggling traffic, eastern-route heroin trade, plus tobacco and fuel smuggling at multiple points.

In the past, the HCG has played an important role in such operations. One famous example was in 1997, when large-scale rioting in Albania led to attempts at piracy against tourist yachts offshore the island of Corfu. The HCG was very effective at that time, and the number of Albanian traffickers’ speedboats using the trans-Adriatic route to Italy was also reduced over time, due to Greek and Italian efforts. With the current rhetoric from the government in Tirana over territorial waters and hydrocarbons reserves off of Corfu, we can say that the HCG is at very least keenly monitoring the area on a heightened level.

At the same time the budget restraints that are having a negative effect overall for the Greek state also tend to limit the capability of the HCG. To do its job, the HCG needs to have all-around operational capacity, all the time, since the navy’s operations are very costly in terms of manpower and fuel costs, and involve traversing distant maritime regions.

A recent NPR report by Joanna Kakissis (“On Patrol with the Greek Coast Guard”) indicates the heavy burden currently placed on the HCG, due to totally unrestrained immigration from Turkey into the Greek islands. As Defense Minister Panos Kammenos recently underscored, Greece continues to be Europe’s first line of border defense. However, in the absence of a realistic EU policy, the country and its coast guard continue to do the job almost unassisted.

Other types of challenges exist too. A recent report by Giannis Souliotis in a leading Greek newspaper, Kathimerini noted that several coast guard officers had been implicated in a corruption scheme of protecting human smugglers in the country, a charge which if valid would result in an overhaul of the HCG. Since immigration is an exceptionally sensitive issue presently, for the EU as well, it would probably involve also a re-examination of the need for more political oversight of HCG activities along with a broader anti-corruption policy.

Lastly, the HCG has to battle with obligations in the civil sector and most importantly, the large burden of work it has regarding the regulatory affairs of the shipping sector and ports. In most countries in the world, and especially in the EU, coast guards are police or paramilitary forces and not related to bureaucratic affairs, since that costs money and time and consumes the productivity of the force. However, in Greece – historically famous for its excessive bureaucracy in general – the coast guard is tied down with these cumbersome duties as well, which limit its capacities and concentration on more urgent issues.

Moreover, aside from time lost in shuffling papers, there is the fact that corruption tends to increase when any law enforcement agency is entrusted to deal on an everyday basis with mundane yet profitable activities such as licensing, issuing permits and running audits. The financial situation in Greece – which will inevitably sooner or later lead to an overhaul of the entire public sector in the country – will also certainly have effects in the mid-term on the structure and operations of the HCG.

Recent HCG Operations, as Noted in Official Reports

The HCG communications department has despite the financial crisis kept up a fairly good public information effort. Researchers (and the general public) thus have an extensive supply of frequently updated information on coast guard operations, courtesy of the HCG’s official website (in Greek).

Some of the recent operations conducted by the HCG are listed here (in reverse chronological order). Note that these entries represent less than two full days of work for the HCG at present levels of work; even these represent only the most urgent maritime operations, and do not count other activities.

6/8/15: Migrants detained in Chios, Kalymnos and Lesvos

In early morning hours, some 40 illegal migrants arrested in southeast of Chios island, and 45 more in Agia Fotia on the island. The day before, 54 more migrants were discovered to the south, in Kalymnos island. Also, large numbers of migrants were discovered in two motorized dinghies off of Lesvos to the north and brought into Mytilini port by the coast guard.

6/8/15: Illegal migrants discovered near Kos and Chios

The HCG patrol boats discovered boats containing 12 and 20 illegal migrants off the coasts of Kos and Lesvos, respectively.

6/7/15: Large numbers of illegal migrants discovered in Mytilini port, others in Chios, a death in Crete

Mytilini Port Authority discovered 249 undocumented migrants, while 40 more were discovered near Kardamyla in northeastern Chios, 28 of whom were found on a rocky shore by salvage crews. Near Chania in Crete, a 60-year-old individual was found dead in the water and taken to Rethymno Hospital for autopsy.

6/7/2015: Illegal migrants discovered in Farmakonisi, Kos, Lesvos and Chios

On the northeastern coast of Farmakonisi, 33 undocumented migrants were discovered by HCG. They will be transferred to Leros island, where the port authority will carry out the preliminary investigation. Another 39 migrants were found in the same area and would also be transferred to Leros for processing. In the sea area northeast of Kos, an HCG patrol boat discovered an inflatable raft with a large number of migrants. In Skala Kallonis port in Lesvos, meanwhile, 54 migrants were discovered by the port authority. In Kardamyla, Chios another 43 migrants were discovered. Finally, in the island of Inousses, east of Chios, military observation identified three boats carrying 109 migrants. They were transferred by the HCG to Chios.

6/7/2015: More migrants discovered in Farmakonisi and Kos, ship captain arrested in Milos

In the early morning hours, 46 migrants were found at Farmakonisi wharf, and later another 43 were detected in the northeast of the island. They will be transferred to Leros. Meanwhile 42 migrants were discovered in an inflatable raft off of Kos and were brought into harbor. Also, the captain of the vessel ‘Anastasia’ was detailed over certifications irregularities by the port authority of Milos, after arriving in harbor. Finally, the captain of the ship Kapetan Georgios was detained in Palaiokastritsa, due to an irregular passenger total.

6/7/15: Migrants discovered in Samos, Agathonisi and Kos

In Samos, 50 illegal migrants were discovered by HCG in the Poseidonas area of Samos, and another three were found separately and brought in to Pythagorio. Also brought to this harbor were 47 more migrants found at sea by an HCG patrol boat. Near the wharf on Kos, 44 additional migrants were detained. A patrol boat discovered 38 more migrants off of Kos and brought them into port.