Turkey’s independent foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean requires some serious muscle, and the Turkish Navy and defence industry have stepped up to make some advances in recent years.
Having been held back by the pressures of the 2008 global economic crisis, the Greek Navy is now racing to catch up with its Aegean neighbour, as the pair’s diverging aims in the seas around Greece, Cyprus and Turkey have sparked a growing rivalry.
Turkey’s Barbaros research vessel and the Fatih and Yavuz drilling vessels continue to search for hydrocarbon resources around the island of Cyprus, despite objections by Greece and Cyprus, and EU sanctions.
The three vessels, accompanied by Turkish naval ships, are currently looking for gas off the divided island.
Turkey is also planning to send another research vessel, the Oruçreis, to the region. According to Greek media, this ship will conduct research in an area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, part of the eastern Mediterranean the Greeks also claim rights to. This is another step that may increase tensions in the region.
Turkey is using the most modern elements of its naval force in the eastern Mediterranean in a display of power. Most of these are the Ada-class corvettes and Kılıç-class fast patrol boats, both of which were either designed or constructed in Turkey.
The new domestically produced TB-2 Bayraktar armed drones, recently acquired by the Turkish Navy, have increasingly been involved in operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Turkish Navy augmented its force of surface fleet with Ada-class corvettes and Tuzla-class patrol ships and replaced its outdated amphibious landing fleet, logistic support vessels and submarine rescue ships with modern updates. It has also modernised the ageing Gabya and Barbaros-type frigates and strengthened its naval air force with new helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Also, construction is underway of the TCG Anadolu, the first of two multi-purpose amphibious assault ships, the TCG Istanbul, the first vessel of four Istif-class frigates, and the construction of the first three of six Reis-class submarines equipped with air-independent propulsion system and TCG Ufuk intelligence ships.
The first TF-2000 air-defence warfare destroyer is scheduled to be put into service in 2027. The design process of the seven-ship project is still in progress, with final tests being conducted on important components designed for the ship – the ÇAFRAD Multipurpose Phase Index Radar and Atmaca Navy Missiles.
A cruise missile for use against land targets, the Gezgin, is still in the development phase.
The Turkish Navy has experienced a golden age in terms of indigenous weapons and shipbuilding projects.
As Turkey developed its sea power, Greece was hamstrung by a major economic crisis starting in 2008 that forced it to neglect its navy, but in recent years, has made remarkable progress.
The Greek Navy gave priority to the acquisition of submarines equipped with air-independent propulsion systems, which allow non-nuclear vessels to operate without access to surface oxygen.
Five submarines entered service between 2010 and 2016, four of which are modern Papanikolis-class vessels that are considered a major threat to surface vessels.
Turkey’s first submarine with this capacity, the TCG Piri Reis, will only enter service later this year and will take a few years before it is fully ready for service.
The Greek Navy is also making efforts to strengthen its naval air force. In May, it reactivated a P-3 maritime patrol aircraft with the help of American defence giant Lockheed Martin as an interim solution. Lockheed Martin has also been given the task of modernising the other aircraft in the Greek fleet.
Last month the U.S. State Department cleared a possible $600 million foreign military sale of seven MH-60R Seahawk multi-purpose helicopters to Athens.
The Greek Navy is also preparing to receive the first of two new Roussen-class fast patrol boats this year, after a 10-year delay due to financial problems. This ship started tests earlier this year and is expected to start service at the end of the year, with the seventh boat beginning active service by next year.
Athens is reportedly negotiating with French government and French naval defence manufacturer Naval Group for the purchase of up to four Belharra-class frigates, a move that could resolve the Greek Navy’s 10-year search for a multi-purpose frigate.
Greece is also reportedly interested in buying second-hand warships such as an Australian Adelaide-class vessel, and in leasing French FREMM-class frigates.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum, a senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a non-resident fellow at the Strategic Studies Centre at Başkent University, said that even though Turkish Navy has undergone impressive modernisation, Greece still holds the geographic advantage.
“Greece has an advantage over Turkey because Turkey must divide its attention between the Black Sea maritime domain as well as the Aegean/eastern Mediterranean maritime domain,” he said.
But Turkey’s acquisition of amphibious assault ships could be a game-changer, he said. The Turkish Navy will be more formidable naval challenge when the assault ship TCG Anadolu becomes operational in 2021.
“TCG Anadolu is capable of sailing non-stop for 30 days and is able to transport a battalion-sized unit of 1,000 troops along with their vehicles, including battle tanks, for an amphibious landing,” he said.
“A blue-water power projection vessel par excellence, the TCG Anadolu will augment Turkey’s offensive capabilities in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean,” Tanchum said.
“From this point of view, the Greek Navy faces a one-to-two-year time window before its naval strength vis-à-vis Turkey will experience a relative decline. This further incentivises Greece to take a more assertive approach in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Marine security expert Mehmet Cem Demirci noted that Greece’s efforts to bolster its navy had faced serious hurdles caused by the economic crisis, but that it had been receiving strong political support internationally.
“Although the Hellenic Navy is experiencing one of the worst times in terms of modernization and new shipbuilding projects due to the country’s economic crisis, Greece is politically experiencing one of its best eras,” he said.
“Greece has been provided with EU support, strengthened its partnerships with countries in the region and formalized U.S. support through the East Med Act 2019, known as the Menendez bill, for the struggle over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he added.
“This political support is likely to turn into military aid if necessary. For example, Israel is building a long-range marine radar system in eastern Crete to monitor maritime traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said.