OMS – Part III: The Hellenic Navy and Eastern Mediterranean in-depth - Ercan Emre Çelik

For Greek national security authorities, the development of a robust naval power is a principal defense planning objective. If not, it’s already the primary one. Historically over the last three decades, the air forces and navies of Greece and Turkey periodically engaged in dogfights and naval escalations over the enormous Mediterranean basin on the military control of some geographical regions disputed by both parties. And at times, these escalations transformed into crises pushing the two NATO allies on the brink of war, as seen in the Kardak (Imia, for Greek) islets in 1996 which the crisis was defused with the United States stepping in.

To get a full glimpse of the day-to-day activities of the Hellenic Navy in the region, it is crucial to understand the naval inventory. Especially in regards to hull design and equipment used by both states are almost identical, which renders both sides from technological superiority and using this as an advantage. Therefore, two important aspects come forward. One being the modernization programs of both states and the force composition and formation of Greek Navy to understand what particular military importance is given at strategic and operational levels to counter Mediterranean Shield which had gained international recognition just recently when the Turkish Navy (DZKK) announced on November 24 that Jordanian and Pakistani navies joined the Operation Mediterranean Shield as observers. It comes as a surprise to many states in the region because although observant participation in military exercises is quite frequent and encouraged, this is the first time two friendly countries actively provided personnel to observe an ongoing operation underway by the Turkish Navy.

Now back to our primary topic on the nature of force composition concerning activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Within the Ministry of National Defence, structurally both in terms of resources and workforce, the Navy ranks as the second-largest service branch after the Land Forces. There are four main strategic-level commands in DZKK; Turkish Fleet Command, Southern Sea Area Command, Northern Sea Area Command, and Naval Training and Education Command. Hellenic Navy’s strategic-level command functions, however, differ from that of DZKK’s by having its regional commands at the operational level, not as strategic-level commands subordinate to central headquarters.

In diplomatic situations that require military power to support foreign policy objectives, a state needs to have an excellent military picture of the geographical area in question, which for the energy crisis in Cyprus island, is an essential requirement that we have discussed at our previous issues.

Greek Navy has three regional commands subordinate to its Fleet Headquarters which is one of the three main command posts of Greek Navy. Within that structure, the authorities mentioned above are designated and given responsibility for the following regions; Northern Greece, Aegean, and Ionia. So there is one command assigned for the western shores of the country, including the Corfu Channel near Albania, and the remaining two are given jurisdiction on the Aegean Sea, including areas that Turkey recognizes as international waters. DZKK, on the other hand, basically has two regional commands; Southern Sea Area for the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea and Northern Sea Area for the Black Sea and Turkish Straits. Regional authorities in the Turkish Navy are kept at strategic-levels, to begin with, meaning that unlike the Greek Navy they are not subordinate to any existing strategic-level command such as fleet command or logistics command, and they are directly subordinate to Commander of DZKK.

Additionally, there are no existing task group formations for specific regions apart from the assets of regional commands in the Greek Navy, which relies on its Hellenic Frigates Command for that purpose. In DZKK, however, also within the Turkish Fleet Command, there are small fleet commands such as the Task Group-North, Task Group-South, and Task Group-West, which together constitute the Surface Action Group of Turkish Navy. Compared to the capabilities of Greek forces, this provides an additional workforce to DZKK and augment its ability to quickly reinforce its assets in the region by having high readiness task groups explicitly assigned for the given areas.

Having no regionally assigned task units independent from its zone commands, Athens relies on the Hellenic Frigates Command (HFC) for attempts to counter Turkish naval presence in Eastern Mediterranean. HFC is the only military leadership in the Greek Navy, which openly outlines having a presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is among its tasks. HFC has three support ships to provide logistical support to overseas naval presence.

The areas contested for natural gas exploration near the island of Cyprus are very far from the home bases of these frigates. In contrast, the Turkish ships enjoy proximity to naval bases in the Turkish mainland along with a vast and newly modernized auxiliary support fleet. Greek frigates have to rely on a small number of logistical support ships to extend the durability of its presence or have to sail back to the closest base, which is at Souda Bay in Crete Island. But it is essential to remind that when compared to other naval bases in the region, including that of DZKK’s, this base has a higher capacity in terms of supply and port services to support warships. It is the only deep-water port in the entire Mediterranean Sea that is capable of hosting huge ships, including the largest classes of aircraft carriers. For this reason, the US Navy also is based on the installation, which makes it one of the three bases of such kind in the world that the American aircraft carriers use for porting.

It poses a threat to Operation Mediterranean Shield because both France and Egypt are taking more active stances in the region, supporting Greek claims in the region not only politically but also by military means with participating Greek exercises in the area having an active naval presence near the island. And both France and Egypt operate a total of six Mistral-class amphibious assault ships.

For non-military folks, these are carrier ships that operate several transportation and attack helicopters along with a battalion-level marine force, armored vehicles, and several landing crafts, such vessels are known as landing helicopter docks (LHD). France, whose relations with Turkey today is seemingly uncooperative and opposite in several areas, also possesses a nuclear-powered aircraft carries, the Charles De Gaulle, which has a history of having ported at Greece’s Crete Naval Base before. Since later 2018, France launched a naval presence in Eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece and foreign oil companies with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs citing Turkish activities in the region as the reason for deploying ships.

Long-distance to home ports significantly decrease Greece’s sustainability of operations in the region because it is not a blue-water navy. Neither is Turkey meaning that they do not possess capabilities to project power and presence far away from mainland ports. It either has to allocate more resources to maintain its presence or decrease the number of frigates it operates in the region. And as mentioned above, both surface and sub-surface platforms of both navies are almost identical. Especially their submarines and frigates, this would help the Turkish Navy to have fewer Greek ships to monitor or deny access to contested gas exploration fields if the necessity arises.

To conclude, Greek Navy not only has to allocate more resources for a presence in Eastern Mediterranean, but it also has to establish supply lines to support its naval presence here which Turkey can easily cut and demobilize it due to close geographical proximity and having a sizeable fast attack craft fleet, should a military crisis escalates. But when we question Greece’s supply capability for HFC, a danger for Turkey is revealed from an unexpected domain. In the foreseeable future, France and Egypt would increase its naval activities to counter Turkish efforts in the region. And if one were to comment on Turkey’s relations with the two, it would be defined as hostile and increasingly getting worse and crisis-prone.

Although Egypt is as close as Turkey to the island, enjoying a quick reaction time for force presence; its fleet is aging but it has launched an extensive modernization plan over the last years by procuring from France with Saudi financing and as we mentioned it operates two Mistral-class LHDs which can be a launching point for several reconnaissance helicopters that can be used to support Greek Navy on formulating a naval picture, including the east of Cyprus and as well expanding Greek Navy’s search grids for tracking down Turkish submarines operating in the region. France, on the other hand, has a more advanced navy than Turkey, and in addition to LHDs, with its aircraft carrier, it can drastically increase the scope of Greek naval operations in the region. But for French Navy, De Gaulle is the flagship of France and its only aircraft carrier, at least on short to medium terms, it might not be considering to deploy it on Eastern Mediterranean as it is often used on either combat deployments such as fighting the Islamic State or overseas deployments as those in the Indian Ocean or the Atlantics.

Another valuable asset for any navy is its naval infantry arm, known as its marines, which can be used in Eastern Mediterranean to seize and board civilian research and drilling ships and as well as taking control of offshore oil platforms. Greece has a brigade-level marine force, the same as DZKK’s. But unlike the Turkish Amphibious Naval Infantry Brigade, the Greek 32nd Marines Brigade is part of the Hellenic Army, not the Navy, and it lacks armored units such as tanks and rocket launchers allocated for its use for which it relies on army resources. In contrast, the Turkish Naval Infantry Brigade also has an armored unit. But it is important to note that its armored battalion consists of the aging M-60 Patton tanks. Still, being subordinate to Navy as a historical naval force within the amphibious task units, it has better response time, more diverse and more interoperable resources. But in this case, given the diplomatic sensitivity of such mission scopes, having a long-distance to home ports and lacking large hulled transportation ships, Athens might opt for its naval special forces for such options rather than its marines.

Turkish Navy maintains nine Naval Special Operation Task Units, publically known as Underwater Assault (SAT) under the umbrella of SAT Group Command, led by a rear admiral, which is directly subordinate to the commander of the Turkish Navy. In comparison, the Greek Naval Special Forces, however, is led by an officer at the rank of captain who is equivalent to colonel in army and when we took a look on the biographies of the current and past commanders of this unit, each of them have also received training in US naval institutions and have the US Navy SEALs trident, meaning that they are trained by the American naval commandos which Turkish Navy’s SAT also has a close working relationship with.

Greek Naval Special Forces are is also subordinate to Hellenic Fleet Command instead of being directly subordinate to naval headquarters, as is the case in Turkey. In the history of military confrontations between Turkish and Greek navies, naval individual operation units (SOF) often took part in almost each of them. Therefore, both Greek and Turkish naval SOFs would indeed be in the front-lines if a military crisis occurs.

Our general conclusion on the force structure of Greek Navy, its activities in the region and how it compares with DZKK shows that the Greek Navy has a more decentral and bureaucratic structure with a smaller fleet with the exception of its frigates and submarines and as well as a somewhat distant proximity to the region when its naval basing is mapped. It leaves the Greek Navy as more time and resource prone force giving Greece two options to fulfill these demands. First one is to establish and expand its political relations and military cooperation with neighboring friendly states who do not have close ties with Turkey to solve the time factor by encircling the Operation Mediterranean Shield’s jurisdiction and Turkish presence in the region and to find alternative forms of intelligence support to support the efforts to formulate a maritime picture in the region. And these moves are taking place as over the last years, Greece has secured many military cooperation deals and closer diplomatic ties with Egypt and Israel.

The second issue is resources. To increase its resources, and by that word, we also include military logistical resources operational levels such as having an advanced logistical fleet, the Greek Navy has to push forward a large modernization plan to counter the Turkish Navy, which has an extensive and robust modernization program on its own. For this aspect, Greece has sought the support of France on multiple forms such as defense contracting, military financing, and naval support from the French Navy with a presence in the region. It has also recently acquired light attack and reconnaissance helicopters with a lease from the US Army and last year it secured a deal to upgrade its Air Force’s fleet of F-16s fighter planes with which will increase the range and scanning capability of its aircraft with the induction of conformal fuel tanks and AESA radars. This upgrade is scheduled to be for the half of the entire F-16 fleet of Greek Air Force is due to be completed on 2027. With the US decision to halt Turkey from the F-35 program, this would indeed give Greece an upper hand in air superiority unless an alternative source of supply is found to meet the modern aircraft needs of the Turkish Air Force.

On the next issue, we will be covering Greek military modernization plans to catch up with Turkish defense procurement, which has increased over the last years with many platforms such as UAVs and imperial warships not only becoming operational but also put in use to support Operation Mediterranean Shield.