How capable is the Turkish Navy of projecting power?

Update with comments from analyst Ali Demirdas, in paragraphs 11-13. 

As Turkey expands its foreign military bases and becomes embroiled in overseas conflicts, it finds itself in greater need of a navy capable of projecting power far from its shores. 

In Libya, for example, Turkey is directly supporting one side in the ongoing civil war ripping apart the country. In December, Tunisia refused to allow Turkey to use of its territory for carrying out military operations in Libya. Algeria simultaneously expressed its desire to remain neutral in its neighbour’s conflict. Turkey’s military options in Libya are, therefore, limited. 

In January, Turkish Gabya-class frigates were sighted off the coast of Libya. These vessels, all of which are ex-US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates, have a substantial air defence capability and can help defend the airspace around Tripoli. 

In recent years, Turkey has built bases in the Horn of Africa, Red Sea and in the Gulf. Its main rivals in these areas are Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Consequently, Turkey requires a navy capable of deploying and maintaining warships far from its shores for significant periods of time. To meet the need, Turkey is planning to launch new ships, submarines, and even a small aircraft carrier. 

“Turkey’s naval build-up is a significant geopolitical factor in the eastern Mediterranean equation,” said Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow for the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a regular contributor to The Turkey Analyst.

“The battlespace of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean may also evolve in ways unanticipated such as the use of drones as a leveller in the maritime domain,” he said, adding that Turkey is a world leader in the manufacture of drones. 

Tanchum said the deployment of Turkish drones in breakaway northern Cyprus that began in December was significant.

“The opening of a Turkish naval base on Cyprus, which has been rumoured, would be even more significant,” he said. However, “blue-water power projection far away from the Turkish coast is a different matter”.  

“Here we also must distinguish between the southern Mediterranean maritime domain of the Maghreb nations versus the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden corridor that is essential for the sea lines of communication between Turkey and Qatar,” he said. 

The Turkish Navy presently operates a formidable fleet of frigates, corvettes and submarines. Turkey’s present submarine fleet consists of diesel-electric submarines built by Germany for export. 

Ali Demirdas, professor of international relations and contributor to The National Interest, said that Turkey’s Navy should be considered the most effective of the Eastern Mediterranean littoral countries, and has begun operating at increased ranges over the past decade.

In 2014, Demirdas recalled, a naval convoy called the Barbaros Turkish Maritime Task Force sailed to South Africa’s Cape Horn to deliver humanitarian aid. “The last time this happened was some 150 years ago, under the Ottoman Empire,” he said.

Last year the Turkish Navy carried out naval exercises called Blue Homeland which included more than 100 naval vessels in the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas. “This is a very hard task to accomplish for a non-oceanic navy,” Demirdas said. 

In December, Turkey launched the TCG Piri Reis submarine, the first of six German-designed Type 214 submarines Turkey is building which will operate with Turkish- produced systems, including the command-and-control suite. 

Last year, Turkey also started its first indigenous submarine programme, which expects to deliver its first submarine to the Turkish Navy by 2040. 

Under its national warship programme, Turkey is building ships for specific roles such as anti-submarine warfare (the completed Ada-class corvette), surface-to-surface engagements (the planned Istanbul-class frigate) and air defence (the planned TF2000-class destroyer). 

Turkey is also building 'light aircraft carrier' called the TCG Anadolu, using the same design as the Spanish SPS Juan Carlos I amphibious assault ship, that is slated to become the navy’s new flagship.   

Tanchum said the Anadolu would be capable of operating at sea non-stop for a month and have a 1,700-nautical mile range, roughly the same distance as between the Suez Canal and the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where Turkey also maintains a base.

“Thus, the Anadolu will be vital for Turkey’s desire to be a player in the Red-Sea-Aden corridor and the western Arabian Sea,” he said. 

Turkey may also face challenges in projecting power in the southern Mediterranean, especially given the fact that it cannot operate its fighter jets very far from home. 

Tanchum said that in Libya, “Turkey’s ability to project power is severely hampered by its limited and outdated mid-air refuelling capabilities.” 

That being said, “Turkish naval power has exerted a significant impact on the strategic situation in Libya.” 

“The current Turkish operations in Libya give us an indication of the rising importance of Turkey as a Mediterranean naval power,” Tanchum said. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.