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Turkey makes splash in Mediterranean with naval acquisition

Turkey’s purchase of a landing platform dock vessel is raising questions about its naval strategy.

When Turkey’s military planners and defense procurement authorities decided to buy a colossal amphibious assault vessel in early 2010, the two seas of traditional disputes around Turkey, the Aegean and Mediterranean, appeared calmer: Worsening but still good relations with Syria, worsening but manageable relations with Israel, better than "just good" relations with Egypt, normalization with traditional rival Greece and the usual no-relations status with Cyprus. But, when the Turks moved to select a shipyard for the vessel last month, the Mediterranean looked much less calm.

The decision to go ahead with the plan to acquire a landing platform dock (LPD) that will come with a huge price tag of anywhere between $800 million and $1 billion comes at a time when Turkey is at various temperatures of cold war with Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Syria (and the Russian military presence in Syria) and Egypt.

But what, in naval terms, would the LPD Turkey wants to buy offer? It can carry a battalion-sized unit of 1,000 troops and personnel, eight utility helicopters, three unmanned aerial vehicles and transport 150 vehicles, including battle tanks. A ski jump at the front of the deck can be used to launch fighter aircraft. If Turkey signs the contract with the Istanbul shipyard Sedef, which a procurement committee selected as the best bidder, it will go for the BPE/Juan Carlos I class design developed by Sedef’s Spanish partners, Navantia. Main construction would take place in Turkey, but Navantia would get nearly 900,000 man-hours of work, including critical features like engines, the propulsion system and the integrated platform control system. But what may Turkey be hoping to achieve, choosing a 27,500-ton-plus vessel to add to the small landing craft in its naval inventory? 

One reason is Turkey’s determination to build a strong littoral warfare structure on both the Aegean and, especially these days, the Mediterranean seas. Officially, the Turks hope to achieve substantial deterrence to counter both conventional and nonconventional threats on both seas, and expand their coastal defenses. The Turkish navy has no open-seas operations, but Turkey’s geography puts almost every naval threat assessment into the perspective of some kind of littoral warfare doctrine (Turkey is bordered by sea on three sides; the Black Sea in the north, the Mediterranean in the south and the Aegean in the west. In the northwest, there is also an important internal sea, the Sea of Marmara, between the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, important waterways that connect the Black Sea with the rest of the world. The Turkish coastline is 4,474 miles, excluding islands).

“[Our] littoral warfare concept requires sophisticated gear,” one senior navy officer explained to Al-Monitor. But he remained silent when I asked him about a “potential command weakness despite sophisticated gear,” since a third of its admirals have been put in jail on charges of plotting a coup. One opposition politician recently opined sarcastically: “There is every indication that the government is hoping to put city ferry boat captains in command of warships.” The navy officer insisted, “In naval terms, the LPD will be a major operational multiplier.”

But without blue-water ambitions, why would Ankara spend billions of dollars on expensive naval programs it may never need to resort to? To fight a bizarre alliance of all of its Mediterranean enemies at the same time? That’s not a likely war scenario, especially when Turkey’s enemies include the technologically mighty Israeli navy and European Union member Cyprus.

One explanation is “just flexing muscles,” which traditionally pleases the average Turkish voter. All the same, as one Turkey specialist put it realistically a couple of years ago, when “Turkey’s bark is worse than its bite,” things may get complicated. Just when the Turks thought they were successfully monitoring the Syrian (and Russian) military capabilities on the shores of Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Syrian artillery downed a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance aircraft in June 2012. The loss of two pilots with a missile launched by the “weak Syrian army” was a true embarrassment for most Turks. And a retaliatory Turkish move to shoot down a Syrian Mig-17 military helicopter last year was a relief for the national pride.

Ankara may be hoping for international prestige, too, in case its allies ask for the use of its future LPD for multinational overseas operations. But a London-based Turkey specialist believes that hydrocarbons on the Mediterranean could be a more realistic explanation. “Turkey’s enmity for Israel in the last few years has changed the naval balances on the Eastern Mediterranean against Ankara, especially in view of the Turkish state’s long dispute with Cyprus and the discovery of unknown quantities of natural gas reserves off Cypriot and Israeli shores,” he said.

Turkey views Cyprus and Israel as rivals competing for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean, and has threatened to militarily intervene if its two rivals went ahead with their plans to jointly develop natural gas — a move which Turkey thinks would be a major geopolitical blow on its longer-term ambitions, especially at a time when Cyprus’ eastern and southern territorial waters border those of countries growing increasingly hostile (Syria and Egypt) or nearly hostile (Lebanon) to Turkey.

“We shall keep on encouraging Turkey to be wise and realistic about the future of Mediterranean and its hydrocarbon resources,” a Greek diplomat in Athens told Al-Monitor. “We would not view it a threat if Turkey decided to spend a lot of money on a military ship of impressive capabilities as long as Turkey did not threaten any of its neighbors.”

Turkey’s other naval ambitions include the construction of national-design corvettes and the procurement of naval unmanned aerial vehicles, coastal surveillance radars, marine patrol aircraft, submarines and support units such as electronic and command-and-control systems. One particularly ambitious program is the local design and development of a multi-mission phased array naval radar similar to the ALPHA multi-mission M-2258 advanced lightweight phased-array radar developed by Israel’s IAI and Elta for blue-water and littoral-warfare support.

With all these expensive programs, the Turks may be hoping to reverse their reputation of having a bark worse than their bite.