The Turkish fleet: threat or pillar of the Euro-Mediterranean defense?

(To Renato Scarfi)

The relationship between Turkey and Europe has changed over the past few years. It is, in fact, undeniable that the Turkey we knew seems to have dissolved after the failed coup of 2016, even if the sovereign drift of its president had already begun in 2013. A geological era seems to have passed since the European Councils of 2003 -2004, with Ankara's accession process to the European Union on the agenda, they often saw the presence of Erdoğan, welcomed with all honors. His party, the AKP, then presented itself with the vocation of reconciling the rural and conservative Turkish masses with the modern state, bringing its religious values ​​but with a secular approach. Despite some aspects to be clarified, Turkish democracy then seemed sufficiently mature for the country to be included in the European system.

With its 80 million inhabitants, a geographic location as a hinge country between Europe and Asia, between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and close proximity to Russia, Turkey is well positioned for an important stabilizing geopolitical role. Nevertheless, in recent years Ankara, due to Erdoğan's unscrupulous and aggressively expansionist policy, has raised numerous doubts about its role in the Euro-Mediterranean area and, in particular, on maritime issues, closely related to the economy and to energy resources.

Precisely for this reason it is worthwhile to take a look at the deep-sea fleet that, on the sea, is implementing Ankara's assertive policy.

The fleet and rearmament programs

In recent years, the old Cold War units that had helped oversee the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean have been replaced by a new generation of military ships. Turkish shipyards have, in fact, tried to recover the technological gap that separated them from NATO allies, thanks above all to the transfer of technology that made it possible to launch some modern and competitive units.

At the moment the Turkish Navy, the Turkish war fleet, has the availability of 8 4.100 t class "Gabya" frigates (photo) of US origin ("Oliver Hazard Perry" class), modernized in 2007 and equipped with a modern sonar, 76 mm Leonardo cannons , anti-ship missiles Harpoon, anti-aircraft missiles and Mark 46 or Mark 50 torpedoes. These units can also house an SH-70 helicopter Seahawk.

In addition to the above are 4 3.400 t "Barbados" class frigates, an improved version of the "Yavuz" class (of which 4 old units remain operational), equipped with a 127 mm Leonardo cannon, anti-ship missiles Harpoon and anti-aircraft Sea Sparrow. They can board an AB-212 ASW helicopter for anti-submarine combat.

Among the smaller units we should mention the 4 2.300 t "Ada" class missile launching corvettes, armed with a 76 mm Leonardo cannon, 8 anti-ship missiles Harpoon, 21 anti-aircraft RAM missiles (Rolling Airframe Missile, a version of the Sidewinder) and 6 324 mm torpedo tubes for the Mk 46 mod 5 torpedoes. The unit can also house an SH-70 helicopter Seahawk. The interesting aspect of these units is that the last of these, the in kinalia (F-541) is equipped with cruise missiles Hawk, of Turkish manufacture. It is a missile which, in Ankara's planning, should replace the Americans Harpoon on all units of the fleet. Furthermore, expressions of interest from the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ukraine and… Canada seem to have already arrived for this type of naval unit.

The Turkish fleet is then completed by 8 diesel-electric submarines of 1.500 t (class "Gür" and "Preveze"), for mainly coastal use and now more than half of their operational life, 4 diesel-electric submarines of attack class 1.180 t “Ay” which, modernized in 2011, should be progressively withdrawn with the entry into service of the new attack submarines type 214/1200 with anaerobic propulsion. The six new submarines will be built at the Gölcük shipyard, under German license. With a speed of 20 knots they will be armed with 14 missiles Sub Harpoon and 533 mm torpedoes. The first of these is expected to enter service at the end of 2020. The second boat in 2022 and the other four in 2025.

But the flagship unit is the amphibious assault unit Anadolu (photo), which should finish the set-up and enter service in 2021. It is one Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) of about 27.560 t for 232 m of length, like the Spanish one Juan Carlos I (L-61). The unit has one sky jump to allow the take-off of STO / VL aircraft, designed for flight operations of F-35B aircraft (naval version), as Turkey has joined the US program Joint Strike Fighter.

However, it should not be overlooked that last year the USA suspended the supply of the F-35s, due to the Turkish purchase of Russian anti-aircraft armament (S-400). A not insignificant fact considering that, at the moment, there is no other aircraft capable of replacing the F-35B, except for the Russian Su-27K (or the Chinese equivalent J-15) and the old MIG- 29K which, however, have no features stealth and need a much longer flight deck for take-off. In the absence of aircraft to embark, the operational capabilities of the Anadolu will therefore be severely limited.

The same goes for the twin unit, the Thrace, whose construction was already planned but which, in the absence of aircraft, appears compromised. Even the national industry cannot make up for these gaps, given that the program of a Turkish fighter stealth, the TF-X, despite 10 years have passed since its start-up, has not actually arrived at anything concrete and, therefore, the realization of a naval version seems even more distant. Consequently, the current Turkish posture and the US blockade of the F-35Bs remain, in order to obtain aircraft, Turkey should start cooperation with "non-NATO" countries (China? India? Russia?) For the development of a modern fighter STO / VL to ship, but this would take no less than ten or fifteen years, before having a machine with a minimum of operational reliability. This goal would allow Turkey to have a modern aeronaval group, capable of carrying out the indispensable projection of power to implement the "Blue Patria" (Mavi Vatan) maritime policy, conceived by retired Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, with whom Ankara has initiated a new "gunboat diplomacy", aimed at aggressively protecting its borders and maritime interests by any means.

But, in the current Turkish plans, the protection of borders and national interests also passes through the achievement of independence from the main suppliers of naval armament, such as the United States, also in terms of maintenance and the availability of spare parts. Precisely with this in mind, in 2004 Ankara launched a large naval program called MILGEM (Mili Gemi = National Naviglio), of which the aforementioned anti-ship missile Hawk and the combat system genesis, embarked on the "Gabya" class frigates, are the most obvious example, together with the aforementioned "Ada" class corvettes (in service - photo), the 3.000 t "Istif" class frigates, whose first unit (Istanbul) of four in total should enter service in 2021 and the others between 2022 and 2024, and to the destroyers TF-2000 (still in the planning stage), designed for area anti-aircraft defense and anti-ballistic missile defense. The aerial discovery radar is also expected to be designed and built in Turkey.

Finally, it is worth noting the manifestation of President Erdoğan's will to equip Turkey with nuclear weapons, despite Ankara being among the subscribers of the Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation (since 1980), as an interesting and detailed New York Times article highlighted in 20191, published in the absolute indifference of international analysts and political circles, especially Italians. This provides a further indication of Turkey's willingness to use not only a muscular but also an aggressive approach to foreign policy because it forgets its commitments to regional and world stability.

Mavi vatan or the economic interests on the sea

As is known, the military instrument (in particular the naval one) is one of the means used by a state to support its foreign policy.

In this context, in recent years Erdoğan has behaved like a dominus, moving towards more purely nationalist tones and establishing himself as the successor of what remains of the caliphate. Probably also to stem the erosion of consensus for the AKP he must appeal to national sentiment to continue to benefit from an electoral income. Nonetheless, it also needs the support of the far-right MHP party to secure a majority in Parliament. The defeat in the 2019 municipal elections, particularly in Istanbul, accentuated this trend. Here, then, is the one already mentioned Mavi vatan, which has led to a gradual and progressive escalation of political and military tension, first sending ships to prospect in disputed maritime areas that are relatively uninteresting from a hydrogeological point of view or by sending military ships to protect their drilling in a stretch of sea south of the island of Cyprus. Here, however, it passed the mark because the area in question was located south of the island of Cyprus and away from the Turkish coast, which made it objectively difficult to support Ankara's thesis that Turkish ships operated within the platform. Turkish continental. The military, religious and political provocations then continued in 2020 with increasing intensity (see previous articles), up to the disconcerting, provocative and aggressive statements of October 26, in relation to the murder of the French professor. Statements that have attracted various and profound criticisms from a large part of the international community.

However, if on the one hand it is worrying that Turkey has embarked on the path of a power politics that is increasingly difficult to reconcile with the expectations of its traditional allies, the attitude that worries the most, and that spreads a dense fog of uncertainty about the future, is that Erdoğan is assiduously pursuing the policy of the 'two ovens'. From the acquisition of Russian weapons, paradoxically designed precisely to counter NATO (S-400), to the use of Russian nuclear technology (Akkuyu) or, despite some rough edges, to the intensity of relations with Moscow, of which the abstention from sanctions applied by the West in relation to Crimea is only an indicator.

Erdoğan, therefore, both from a military and political point of view, has become an often unpredictable protagonist, as he does not deny either the (increasingly difficult) relations with the European Union or those (equally ambiguous) with NATO, but moves with unscrupulousness along the two lines of the West and Russia, "sparing" the cards in the Atlantic Alliance and antagonized the United States and the European Union.

The EU and NATO

Europe, increasingly politically dumb and deaf, continues to make an enormous effort to measure itself against the dimension of power in international relations. Despite being at the center of a rapidly evolving geopolitical framework, it is stuck in possible foreign initiatives due to cynical and opportunistic political divisions, whose vision does not go beyond selfish partisan interests or the upcoming national elections (for example the Netherlands). By now strategically blind, it is unable to organize a credible political or military response, so much so that, for example, armaments continue to arrive in Libya, escorted by Turkish naval units, despite the UN embargo. A Turkey that, even in Libya, is playing a shrewd game of expansion, whose latest success (in chronological order) is the task of training the crews of Libyan patrol boats to patrol the search and rescue area of ​​competence. A task that, until last September, was assigned to Italy.

Turkey certainly represents an important point of reference for the management of the delicate balances of the Mediterranean area, which has always been a crossroads of economic and political interests, and is now also afflicted by the difficult management of migratory flows, with all the profound social implications that this implies. . Nonetheless, Erdoğan's approach in recent years has raised an atrocious doubt in more than one ally: Does Ankara still represent an important pillar of NATO's security architecture or, rather, does it represent its weak link and, potentially, a further threat to the stability of Europe and the enlarged Mediterranean?

Even if the answer to this question is in the hands of Jupiter and Erdoğan, NATO could be an effective tool to keep the dialogue with Ankara alive. An instrument that boasts a proven, long and up to now sincere collaboration both in the political and military fields. This even though, in recent times, the Alliance has been going through a difficult period, with some delicate issues that are back on the agenda. First of all, there is the question of the distribution of military costs, a topic that has already been raised several times by his predecessors but which Trump has brought to the attention of allies with his usual rough and, therefore, irritating way. Then there is the issue of European disorientation in the face of a US attitude that is often seen as erratic. Finally, there is the risk that Europe itself, in an attempt to "shake" the Alliance, will actually end up with a pickaxe, thus affecting a precious common heritage, which has effectively ensured European defense and security for decades.

Keeping reasonable channels of dialogue open with Turkey could allow NATO to achieve a triple goal. First of all, avoiding the further sovereign drift of Ankara, secondly, recovering its relations with the West and finally, last but not least, achieving the first two objectives would allow to strengthen the ties between allies, avoiding that the issues on the table could delve into the cracks in a relationship that has proved fundamental for everyone's safety. A scenario in which Erdoğan distances further, continuing to sail towards other shores, could accentuate the current difficulties of the Alliance, with potentially very serious consequences on international stability.

On the EU side, however, the instrument that could be activated to bring Turkey back to milder advice would be of an economic and financial nature, given that 70% of the debts of Turkish companies is managed by European hands. However, if Europe decided to apply sanctions, it would still suffer damage, given that the indebtedness of Turkish companies towards European banks is very strong and that, in the country, about 800 Italian companies, as many German and many others are based. European countries. For its part, Turkey has at its disposal an arsenal vis-à-vis the EU with powerful instruments of strategic pressure and blackmail, such as the expulsion of European jihadists to their countries of origin (i foreign fighters captured in the aftermath of the territorial defeat of ISIS), the control of refugee flows by land (through the Anatolian peninsula and the Balkans) and, from October 2020, also the substantial control by sea (with the "supervision" of the operations of Libyan patrol boats). Proof of this are Erdoğan's continuous declarations which suggest the possibility of encouraging new massive flows of migrants to Europe, if the EU does not fulfill some of his expectations. The easy recourse to migratory intimidation, in particular, highlights the ruthlessness with which Erdoğan exploits every slightest possibility to bring his ambitions back to the center of the discourse.

Threat or pillar of the Euro-Mediterranean defense?

We have seen that, from the naval military point of view, the economic and maritime policy guidelines indicated by Erdoğan are slowly leading Turkey to reorganize itself with new means that ensure the projection of power, while at the same time trying to make itself independent both as regards shipbuilding and the supply of weapon systems. For the aircraft to be embarked, the road is decidedly uphill, given the technological advantage achieved by the West, but this does not mean that it cannot be filled in a decade or so, with the possible "disinterested" industrial help of some new external ally to the Atlantic dimension.

It is therefore clear that the Turkish Navy does not appear at the moment to be able to worry the main European navies from a technical and operational point of view. Nevertheless, the smallness of the forces finds a multiplier factor in aggression, even if at risk of possible extreme consequences. In that case, being already politically isolated enough in the Mediterranean, with Cairo and Athens openly opposed to Ankara, and with a shaky legal framework to back up its claims, even a limited armed skirmish would see Turkey's position further weakened and chessboard further destabilized.

It is therefore very important to make every possible effort to try to bring Turkey back to being an element of balance in the Mediterranean theater. To do this, we will have to show firmness towards Ankara, where we believe that its initiatives (or declarations) are unacceptable, but we will also have to react proportionally and progressively, avoiding triggering an escalation that would not benefit anyone. And Erdoğan knows very well that, in all probability, he could not survive politically if he were perceived or labeled as a threat by the international community.

In fact, in the country there is a healthy and hard-working middle class in step with the times, a large young population connected to the world, dozens of respectable intellectuals, who certainly have patriotic feelings but who do not want to detach themselves from a West that has their own allowed to grow economically and technologically, protected by the NATO security umbrella.

Last year's local elections are a signal that cannot be overlooked even by a resolute man like Erdoğan. Added to this is the fact that the Turkish Navy, while slowly growing, is unable to sustain the burden of operationally supporting Ankara's claims for long.

Will Erdoğan be able to listen to these signals and redesign his expansionist ambitions, returning to being a pillar of Euro-Mediterranean security or will he continue to pursue his neo-Ottoman goals, risking to lead the Sublime Porte towards devastating isolation? Only the future will give us the answer.


Photo: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / presidency of the republic of Turkey / NATO