OMS – Part II: The Old Trick of Turkish Sailors and Three Essential Tools - Ercan Emre Çelik

Sir James Eric S. Cable, a former British ambassador, described by The Telegraph as “one of the most influential naval strategic thinkers of the last half-century”, defines gunboat diplomacy as the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of visible display of naval power; signaling an adversary with the threat of using force should the terms of the practicing state are not agreed.

On Issue 8, we have briefly talked about Operation Mediterranean Shield (AKH), its scope, jurisdiction, and naval assets available to counter detrimental efforts by foreign states on the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the island. Today we will be touching upon what particular tactics and exercises are being carried out by the Turkish Navy (DZKK).

We can split the Turkish response into two as the first one being the operational arm that is spearheaded by the AKH, and the second one being the exercises which lately is having more weight due to its flexible use to prevent Cypriot drilling efforts. When we observe the operational arm of the Turkish activities in the region, apart from the AKH, which we discussed in our previous issue, we see three mission-critical, fundamentally important military platforms. Submarines, uncrewed aerial vehicles, and the E-7T aircraft. The Turkish Air Force operates the latter in the region.

Submarines are understood as ships swimming under the sea that can launch torpedoes. But it is more than that. First of all, for navies, including the DZKK, submarines are also valuable tools for gathering intelligence. It is hard to detect a submarine, especially a diesel-attack submarine, even for militarily advanced states. And apart from torpedoes, they can also carry missiles to strike naval and land targets. Turkish Submarine Fleet entirely consists of German-made Type 209 diesel-attack submarines. DZKK operates two variants of this model, first one being the 209/1200 which is slowly being phased out of the fleet for the incoming new Reis-class submarines (Type 214TN) and the second one is the 209/1400 which differs from 1200 by being able to launch the Harpoon anti-ship missiles’ submarine variant with a range of 220 km.

Given that, DZKK conducts clandestine and AKH-related submarine patrols on the south of the island, this is a very important capability for the Navy’s efforts in the region because the 209-1400 model is a crucial safety guarantor by being able to closely approach contested zones such as the gas fields near the island and fire missiles if necessary that provides firepower beyond the range of a torpedo. They are useful stealth assets to monitor military and research vessel movements of the Greek side. The problem, however, is that the Greek Navy’s submarine fleet also consists of the boats of the same class, and it also operates a more advanced submarine type of the same manufacturer, but this is a topic for the next issue.

The second and the third vital assets are coming from the aerial domain of warfare, and their contributions to AKH significantly supports efforts to formulate a naval picture that in turn makes DZKK sure of knowing the exact locations of every Greek, French and Egyptian ship and as well as their contracted commercial research vessels. It is reported that the Turkish Navy currently operates two types of unmanned aerial systems; Bayraktar TB2 and Anka. These two systems are medium altitude long endurance platforms (MALE) that work on attitudes above 20.000 feet with an endurance of 12-24 hours depending on the payload. The variants operated by DZKK are accurately reconfigured for naval requirements and have sensors that are used to detect submarines and low-visible surface targets. They have more massive payload with decreased endurance of 12 hours when compared to Air Force variants of the same UAV models. But this length is operationally satisfying for DZKK due to a variety of reasons. Firstly, as of October 2019, according to Turkey’s defense industrial state body SSB, the Turkish Navy currently operates 22 Anka UAVs, and the number of Bayraktar TB2s with full operational capability is at least 5. It means a sizeable naval drone fleet of at least 27 aircraft, which several of them are armed variants. Few navies in the world possess a drone fleet as large as this that are capable of handling MALE-characteristic UAV missions. Neither the Egyptian nor the Greek naval aviation commands have this type of capability. This capability extends the surveillance and reconnaissance scope of the Turkish naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Also, it is essential to note that these UAVs are also used to support AKH by escorting the research vessels Fatih, Yavuz, and Barbaros. They make a valuable escort asset for these vessels because warship and submarine escorts protect against conventional threats only. UAV support with strike capabilities also includes protection and the ability to respond against the danger of sabotage and boarding, which are likely to happen in the region, given the intensity of confrontations.

As part of the AKH, the Turkish Navy also has assets tasked to follow and monitor foreign research vessels in the region. If the ship approaches close to a contested sector of gas fields, the Turkish warship quickly increases speed to reach the destination before the research vessel and is joined by another Turkish warship they issue a NAVEX stating that they will be conducting a naval exercise in the region with the usage of live, explosive ammunition. The downside of using this method to prevent the foreign actors from accessing contested zones is that, when you are also involved in seismic research and drilling efforts, they can be used against you as well. And there is no legal regulation that prevents you or the other side from doing so. And the Turkish Navy has been using this method or ‘trick’ as some would call, for over decades not only in Eastern Mediterranean but also in the Aegean Sea on contested lines of territorial water boundaries.

The third vital asset used to support AKH is the E-7T Peace Eagle airborne early warning and command aircraft of the Turkish Air Force. These are flying giant radars that scan the air and sea for targets and relay target data-friendly assets. Turkey currently has 4 of these planes; they are used continuously to support AKH and monitor foreign military activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. When compared to the aircraft of same roles, used by the neighboring countries involved in drilling efforts in the region, E-7T provides unmatched scanning, detection and locking capabilities with a radar scan radius of 240 kilometers against surface naval targets and from 370 to up to 600 kilometer scan radius for aerial targets depending on the search mode.

Therefore, it is crucial for Turkish naval staff to observe developments around the world that embark legal, geographical and military similarities with the situation in Eastern Mediterranean, such as the South China Sea crisis and the methods used by the Chinese Navy such as using large boats and Coast Guard cutters to ram foreign warships, that would propose new techniques and tactics for the Turkish Navy to maintain its area-denial capability and effectively prevent the other sides’ efforts. Nevertheless, we should always remember that military effectiveness should always be supported by effective diplomacy.

On the next issue, we will be covering Greek-led efforts to counter the Turkish Navy and the civilian research ships Yavuz, Fatih, and Barbaros.