After decades, if not centuries, of being mainly a land-based power, Turkey is now increasingly looking to the sea as a viable space to expand its influence. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself proclaimed in 2020 that, as a country that has depended on gas imports for years “there will be no stopping [Turkey] until [it becomes] a net exporter in energy.”
Crucially, however, a number of countries and interests stand between Ankara and Erdoğan’s stated goal. Starting in 2017, Turkey has been acquiring a fleet of drillships and seismic survey ships that rivals those of some of the biggest players in the field of exploration. Paired with this campaign of acquisitions, the country has been engaging in exploratory activities in disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters, which have contributed to raising regional tensions considerably.
Turkish exploration ships have been deployed in disputed waters in the proximity of Cyprus, a move that has attracted international condemnation and the deployment of naval assets by France, as well as a flare-up of tensions with Greece and criticism from Egypt and Israel.
Ankara’s exploration activities, combined with unilateral declarations of maritime boundaries were in line with a doctrine referred to as “Blue Homeland”, or “Mavi Vatan” in Turkish. Originally developed by Turkish admiral Cem Gürdeniz in the mid-2000s, Blue Homeland rejects Greek and Cypriot claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. It also calls for Turkey to invest more into the maritime domain as a way to enhance Turkish power.
Unsurprisingly, then, Turkey’s navy is a crucial enabler of Ankara’s renewed interest in the Mediterranean. Indeed, the country is looking to expand its fleet’s numbers as well as its capabilities to such an extent that its navy may well be on the verge of becoming a blue water navy.
Planned and Under Construction Vessels
In its efforts to enhance and modernise its navy, Turkey is presently building six Piri-class Type-214 air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines, which will allow the country to catch up to its Aegean rival Greece, whose navy now operates five AIP boats (four Papanikolis-class subs and one Okeanos-class). The Piri Reis, the first boat in this class, has already been floated out and is scheduled to enter service in 2022. Along with its sister vessels, it will be armed with Turkish-made heavyweight torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and mines.
By 2027, four Istanbul-class frigates (part of the MILGEM program) are expected to enter service and replace the aging Yavuz-class frigates. They will be armed with 64 surface-to-air missiles, 14 Atmaca anti-ship missiles, as well as an OtoMelara Super Rapid main gun (76mm), a 35 mm Aselsan Gokdeniz CIWS, two 25mm Aselsan STOP machine guns and two torpedo launchers. Clearly, the Istanbul class represents a serious upgrade from the Yavuz-class frigates it was designed to replace, both in terms of anti-ship offensive capabilities as well as anti-air defence.
The Anadolu Problem
However, the one ship expected to lift the Turkish navy’s capabilities to ‘blue water’ status was Anadolu. Still under construction, this amphibious assault ship was designed to operate six F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL). It is now destined to enter service without any hope of ever carrying the 5th generation jets after the Turkish government acquired Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, prompting the U.S. to end Ankara’s participation in the F-35 programme and subsequently dealing its navy a serious blow.
As we’ve discussed in a recent article about the Spanish navy’s own problems as they find themselves without a carrier-launched jet for the future, the F-35B currently remains the only viable option for navies looking to deploy multirole jet fighters from small- or medium-sized STOVL carriers and amphibious assault ships.
Ironically, the Anadolu’s design is based on the Spanish Juan Carlos I, which is currently complemented with an aging fleet of Harriers that may never be replaced in the ship’s lifetime, as the Spanish government refuses to acquire F35-B aircraft.
So far, Ankara has put on a brave face by making a number of announcements about plans to equip the Anadolu with unmanned aerial vehicles and an all-new naval variant of the Hürjet trainer now in development. However it’s been argued that the Hürjet may need over 300 metres of runway in order to take off with a full load of fuel, let alone a decent payload. The fact that the Anadolu is only 231 metres makes this option rather unrealistic and indeed perhaps cost-ineffective, especially considering that a way to improve its takeoff distance would be to strip it down considerably.
A stripped-down trainer jet is a far cry from the F-35B and realistically could do little more than provide a small degree of air-cover and reconnaissance during amphibious operations in low-intensity combat scenarios.
What appears to be the more viable path for the Turkish navy is also the more innovative: equipping the Anadolu with a complement of fixed-wing armed drones. Indeed, the government’s President of Defence Industries Ismail Demir has stated that Turkish companies are currently working on a new version of the Bayraktar TB2 (the TB3) and other projects to turn the ship into a drone carrier.
According to Demir, the completed project would allow the amphibious assault ship to deploy at least ten armed drones simultaneously in operations as part of an embarked fleet of between 30 and 50. Given that drones still lack air-to-air capabilities, this option would at best grant the navy with enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as modest strike capabilities.
A Turkish research group has pointed out that Turkey’s current drone designs would also struggle to take off with a decent payload without the addition of some sort of Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system. However, the CEO of Baykar has announced that the company plans to “develop a new [unmanned combat aerial vehicle] that will successfully land and take off on LHD Anadolu in one year”. No rumours have transpired as to the need to fit the ship with a CATOBAR system so there is a possibility that the navy is planning to simply make up for the need for lighter payloads to facilitate carrier take-offs by ensuring a high number of drones can be operated from the ship simultaneously.
The Carrier Enigma
Erdoğan has spoken of the urgent need for the country to equip itself with aircraft carriers.
“Turkey’s sole objective is to protect its legitimate rights and the rights of its friends”, he said in 2020. “Looking to the future with confidence is not possible for countries that are not strong and independent in the field of defense”. Crucially, he added that “[Turkey needs carriers] to be a deterrent at sea”. Turning to representatives of the Turkish shipbuilding industry he asked: “We can build the second and third aircraft carriers, right?”.
As we’ve already discussed in this article, Anadolu will not take the role of a true carrier without a complement of proper multi-role jet aircraft. Early in 2021, it was reported that Turkey had allegedly held unsuccessful consultations with the UK in order to discuss the purchase of a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, decommissioned or brand new. The same report claimed that after denying the request, UK officials offered to provide Turkey with a new design and the technical expertise to build it in Turkey, though Ankara eventually decided to go it alone.
Whether these reports were accurate or not, it’s hard to see how Turkey could decide to design and build two additional carriers or amphibious assault ships as long as the carrier-launched jet problem remains unsolved. Furthermore, President Erdogan has spoken of a deterrent at sea, and drone carriers, such as the Anadolu is now set to become, can’t be an alternative to the same ships operating even a handful of F-35B aircraft.
The Turkish Navy in 2030
Turkey’s navy in 2030 will have acquired substantially better assets than it operates today in its six Piri Reis AIP subs and two Istanbul-class frigates. Barbaros-class frigates will be modernised and equipped with more modern indigenous sensor systems. The TF-2000 destroyers will also represent a big step forward for Ankara in terms of major surface combatants, especially considering that those ships, as well as many of the aforementioned naval vessels will be fitted with sensor and weapon systems developed and built in Turkey.
With the uncertainty surrounding the Anadolu’s aircraft complement, as well as the two extra carriers requested by Erdoğan, a huge question mark still looms over the Turkish navy’s future role as a blue water navy. However, should the drone carrier project be successful, it may give Ankara the ability to flex its military muscle by deploying armed drones away from its shores without the need for land-based airfields. Given the rising levels of instability in the Mediterranean, this new capability could come into play in the coming years and decades.