BACKGROUND: The US$3 billion “National Warship” Project, known by its Turkish abbreviation MİLGEM, seeks to upgrade the Turkish fleet by replacing and augmenting its older foreign-made warships with eight domestically produced Ada class antisubmarine warfare corvettes and subsequently four intermediate class TF 100 frigates. After gaining experience from the building of the slightly larger but more lethal TF 100 anti-air warfare frigates, Turkey then intends to build a series of TF 2000 frigates. Double the size of the TF 100, the TF 2000 anti-air warfare frigate will significantly advance the Turkish fleet's transformation into a blue water navy.
Aside from being an intermediate phase for the development of the TF 2000, the TF 100 frigates are of present vital importance as replacements for the German-made Meko 200 frigates that form an essential component of Turkey’s force projection in the Black Sea. The TF 100 frigates will be the first Turkish vessels to carry the American-manufactured RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) system capable of countering the current generation of supersonic anti-ship missiles.
Prior to Russia's annexation of Crimea, the head of Turkey's Undersecretariat of Defense Industries Murat Bayar publicly acknowledged the need to replace the Meko 200 frigates with the ESSM-equipped TF 100s by 2020.
However, in September 2013, upon the commissioning of the TCG Büyükada, the second of MİLGEM's eight Ada class corvettes, the Turkish government abruptly cancelled RMK Marine's contract to build the remaining six corvettes. A subsidiary the Turkish conglomerate Koç Holding A.Ş., the cancellation of RMK Marine's contract appears to be part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political vendetta against the Koç family for providing assistance to anti-Erdoğan protestors from a Koç-owned Istanbul hotel during the summer 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations. (See 9 October 2013 Turkey Analyst)
The next two corvettes will be produced by Turkey's national shipyard while the government evaluates bids for the building of the four remaining corvettes. Despite Undersecretary Bayar's optimistic forecasts that the government's cancellations will delay the production schedule for the Ada class corvettes by only one year, the cascade effect of the production stoppage in setting back the building of the TF 100 frigates, as well as the subsequent TF 2000s, has created a four to eight year window of vulnerability for Turkey in the Black Sea vis-à-vis a resurgent Russia.
Turkey's strategic vulnerability was not anticipated because of the view in Turkish policy circles that Turkey enjoys a relative parity with Russia in the Black Sea. However, the approximate parity exists only when Russia's Black Sea Fleet is matched against all the major assets of the Turkish navy. Prior to the Crimean conflict, Russia’s Black Sea fleet consisted of twenty-four major surface combatants and one diesel submarine while Turkey’s major naval assets consist of approximately twenty-four surface combatants and fourteen submarines. The parity is illusory as it is unlikely that Turkey would be able to deploy all or most of its naval assets in a Black Sea conflict. Turkey's ability to deter Russian assertiveness in what Moscow regards as its greater Black Sea sphere of influence, including the eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus, was already questionable. As Russia’s Black Sea Fleet disposed of Georgia’s miniscule navy during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Ankara passively watched the Russian military destroy Turkey's infrastructure investments in Georgia. Turkey's supposed naval parity did not afford Ankara any significant policy options. Indeed, Ankara revealed its reluctance to provoke Moscow into challenging the Montreux Convention, the 1936 treaty granting Ankara exclusive control over the Bosphorous Straits and the Dardanelles and restricting the transit of heavy warships through this strategic Black Sea-Eastern Mediterranean access corridor.
IMPLICATIONS: With the annexation of Crimea, Turkey faces a stronger and more emboldened Russian naval power in the Black Sea. Russia now possesses the Ukrainian navy's submarine and several, if not most, of Ukraine's eleven major surface combatants. Even without the Ukraine’s naval assets, Russia's own new additions to its Black Sea Fleet will enable Moscow to dominate the region. Russia recently put to sea the first of its six Admiral Grigorovich class frigates. All six frigates are designated for service in the Black Sea Fleet. Larger and more advanced than Turkey's four modified Meko 200 Barbaros class frigates, each of the six Admiral Grigorovich class frigates will be the first vessels equipped with the state-of-the-art, supersonic Shtil-1 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) air defense system. Moscow expects all six frigates to be in service in the Black Sea Fleet by the end of 2016. Turkey’s now delayed TF 100 frigates, slated to carry the ESSM system, would be the only Turkish vessels with a comparable SAM capability. Within the same 2016 timeframe, Russia will also add six newly improved Kilo class diesel-electric submarines to its Black Sea Fleet ahead of Turkey’s deployment of an equivalent number of Ada class anti-submarine corvettes. These two Russian procurement programs alone will quickly tilt the balance of naval forces in Russia’s favor, giving Russia a significant strategic advantage for a window of four to eight years depending on the pace Turkey’s resumed production schedule.
In addition, Russia is in the process of acquiring two French-made Mistral class amphibious assault ships to be named the Vladivostok and Sevastapol, the latter being the namesake of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea. The amphibious assault ships are helicopter carriers that can accommodate sixteen attack helicopters as well as 13 battle tanks and 450 combat soldiers. A Mistral class helicopter carrier in the Black Sea Fleet would provide Russia with unprecedented power projection capability in its greater Black Sea region. Russia’s recent announcement that it has no plans to deploy either of the helicopter carriers in the Black Sea may simply constitute a temporary measure by Moscow to assuage French sensibilities in order to ensure that France does not rescind the sale as a result of Moscow's annexation of Crimea. Turkey cannot discount the likely possibility that the Sevastapol will serve at the Black Sea Fleet base after which it was named. Russia's reassertion of naval power in the Black Sea has already been accompanied by Moscow's first action to change the status quo in relation to Black Sea energy exploitation.
With the formal annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea Oil and Gas company, ChronomorNaftohaz, was made into a whole-owned subsidiary of the Russian state-controlled joint-stock company Gazprom. Between the acquisition of ChronomorNaftohaz itself and Gazprom’s now exclusive license for all offshore energy development in Crimea’s continental shelf, the Russian energy giant has acquired an estimated US$50 billion in capital assets.
Turkey's national oil and gas company TPAO has itself spent US$2.5 billion on offshore energy exploration in Turkey's continental shelf. Current estimates predict Turkey's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Black Sea contains ten billion barrels of crude oil and two trillion cubic meters of natural gas. However as ultra deep-water wells are drilled in the region, more hydrocarbon resources may be discovered. Even if Russia, whose continental shelf now projects from Crimea and therefore closer to Turkey, does not attempt to dispute the demarcation of Turkey's EEZ, Turkey's drilling platforms can no longer be defended as easily from Russian warships.
Of greater concern for Ankara is the more likely possibility that Russia may use Turkey's window of vulnerability to alter the status quo in relation to the transport of natural gas through Russia's 'South Stream' gas pipeline. The Russia-to-Bulgaria pipeline had been routed through Turkey's territorial waters to avoid the Ukraine's EEZ. Russia's annexation of Crimea renders this longer and more expensive route unnecessary and may lead Moscow to abrogate this very lucrative agreement for Turkey. Moreover, Moscow may seek to affect the development of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline intended to transport Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. To prevent the breaking of its stranglehold over gas exports to Europe, Russia may resume its simmering conflict with Georgia or even expand the use of military pressure to Azerbaijan. Ankara would have fewer options to block such an exercise of Russian power, as Turkey is now in a weaker relative position than during the time of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
CONCLUSIONS: The politically motivated stoppage of the MİLGEM’s production schedule has created a window of vulnerability in Turkey’s Black Sea naval defenses in the face of rapidly rising Russian naval power. The delayed production of the Ada class anti-submarine corvettes will put Turkey at a disadvantage relative to Russia’s imminent deployment of a new fleet of Black Sea submarines. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will also possess six Admiral Grigorovich frigates capable of countering supersonic anti-ship missiles while Turkey will lack the comparable capability because of the setback to MİLGEM’s four TF 100 frigates. Until Turkey can build and deploy these naval assets, Ankara’s deterrent capability has eroded and Russia will dominate the Black Sea. Exercising sea control, Moscow can more easily deploy its newly acquired Mistral class helicopter carrier to stage amphibious assault operations against other Black Sea littoral states including Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Having taken control of Ukraine’s offshore oil and natural gas operations, Moscow will likely attempt to alter regional energy transport arrangements in Russia’s favor while Rusia still enjoys naval dominance. With Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Russia no longer needs to route its ‘South Stream’ gas pipeline through Turkish waters to avoid Ukraine’s EEZ. Moscow may attempt to cancel its agreement with Ankara and reroute the pipeline through Crimea’s continental shelf, resulting in a considerable revenue loss for Turkey.
Until Ankara can rectify the gap in naval capabilities created by MİLGEM’s delays, Turkey will not be able to defend its national interests adequately as Russia attempts to reestablish its sphere of influence in the greater Black Sea region.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Shalem College, Jerusalem, and at the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Departments of Middle Eastern History and East Asian Studies, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: kremlin.ru)