Military News from Eastern Mediterranean - Ercan Emre Çelik

For far too long, since the late 1990s, the Turkish Navy had desires to augment its surface fleet with amphibious assault ships consisting of large flight decks. Today, one of Turkey’s most ambitious and expensive defense programs is coming near completion. TCG Anadolu, the Navy’s future flagship with a length of 230 meters and 32 meters of width, has completed its main propulsion and drive system integration on the 1st of February. The ship will now undertake harbor tests followed by sensor and armament integrations.

Although often portrayed by media as an “aircraft carrier,” this vessel is a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship that can be fitted with various configurations, including fixed-wing aircraft such as the F-35B or the legacy AV-8B Harrier in addition to a combination of attack and medium utility helicopters with a 990 m2 aviation hangar below the flight deck. With a displacement of over 27,000 tones and a 1400 m2 cargo bay, the ship will also carry 13 main battle tanks and 27 amphibious assault vehicles. But so far, what you just heard are only numbers. When ready to be accepted by the Navy with full operational capability, one major problem awaits TCG Anadolu.

Initially, when the contract was awarded to a joint consortium of Sedef Shipyards and Spain’s Navantia, the preliminary design did not include a ski-jump flight deck, which is the ramp curved upwards at the front of the ship, used to launch combat aircraft. But on late months of 2016s amid the developments in Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish forward basing posture expansion towards Africa and the Gulf, the Navy has decided to amend the contract and go back to the original Spanish design to include a ski-jump with a declared requirement to have a fixed air wing stationed on TCG Anadolu. And although there were no official memos submitted to United States government at the time, the director of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program at Lockheed Martin, a US naval officer made remarks on social media that they were having talks with the Turkish Navy for the acquisition of STOVL variant of the fifth-generation plane, the F-35B that would be able to take off and land at TCG Anadolu. The problem is, of course, in 2019, Turkey was removed from the F-35 program. And once the ship is ready for service, it will lack a fundamental force multiplier that nowadays the Turkish Navy is in dire need of.

Because the ship was built on NATO standards and had a ski-jump ramp instead of a conventional arresting system (CATOBAR) for aircraft such as F-18 Hornet or the Russian Mig-29K, there is only one alternative platform left for Turkish authorities to think of and that is the AV-8B Harrier which we are familiar with from Hollywood movies. As much as this is an aviation legend for being the first aircraft that can take-off and land vertically like a helicopter, it has also become a 35-years old plane with a high-ratio of flight accidents due to its aging engine. But still, it instead seems like the only viable option until the political problems between two allies remain unsolved.

In the meantime, existing national aircraft projects such as Hürjet or TF-X can be expanded to have naval variants, but this will also require significant adjustments to the flight deck of TCG Anadolu which would be both very expensive and take so much time that would not be optimal to meet the medium to long term need of the Turkish Navy. And with the TF-2000 class destroyers and I-class frigates not even near completion, when completed, TCG Anadolu will need a significant aerial capability to protect itself until the projects mentioned above are completed to provide escort.

Now looking beyond our horizon, there is another naval development that occurred concerning the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt has become a customer for a French/Italian-made FREMM-class modern frigate initially built for Italy. Italy decided to cut the number of frigates of this kind, Egyptian authorities sat to table with Italy to negotiate a sale. As we have talked about this class of frigate earlier in our previous issue, these are robust and modern frigates able to provide a sufficient anti-air capability that can put Operation Mediterranean Shield’s aerial arm at risk by harassing and locking-on Turkish aerial surveillance and patrol missions.

European defense journals report that the Egyptian Navy is ‘very close’ to purchase the ship from its Italian shipbuilder. As a platform designed and produced jointly by Italy and France, Paris has become one of the primary suppliers of the Egyptian Navy. Although Macron administration had reluctant views on Egyptian government citing human rights violations, amid Turkish efforts in Eastern Mediterranean, France and Egypt had opened a new page in their relations, especially on regional issues to counter Turkish activities in the region.