BACKGROUND: In March 2012, then Commander of the Turkish Navy, Admiral Murat Bilgel outlined Turkey’s strategic objective “to operate not only in the littorals but also on the high seas,” with “high seas” referring to the eastern Mediterranean. Bilgel identified the Turkish Navy’s intermediate goals for the coming decade as “enhancing sea denial, forward presence, and limited power projection capacity.” Turkey’s new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) will cost between one half to one billion dollars and will provide Ankara with its desired forward presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which Greece, Cyprus, and Israel cannot afford to ignore.
The new Turkish LHD, to be built by the Turkish shipyard SEDEF and Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, will be a variant of Navantia’s Juan Carlos I class L-61 ship used by the Spanish Navy. After Spain, Turkey will be only the second country to possess a Juan Carlos I class vessel. The Australian Navy’s two Navantia-built ships, the HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, once commissioned, will constitute the Australian fleet’s largest vessels. Similarly, Anakara’s new LHD will dwarf the Turkish fleet’s largest ships. While ships in Turkish Navy’s Gabya class have a 4,100 ton displacement, Turkey’s new Juan Carlos I class LHD will have a displacement of 27,079 tons.
Providing the Turkish Navy with blue-water capabilities, Ankara’s new LHD is game-changer in the eastern Mediterranean. The main mission profile of the Juan Carlos I class LHD is power projection to any theater of operation. As an amphibious assault ship, it can transport a battalion-sized unit of 1,000 troops along with 150 vehicles, including battle tanks, for a marine landing. Even more significantly, the Juan Carlos I class LHD is an aircraft carrier substitute. The ship has already replaced Spain’s aircraft carrier the Principe de Asturias. In Spanish, the LHD ship is referred to by the abbreviation BPE, standing for “Buque de Proyeccion Estrategica”, Strategic Power Projection Ship, more accurately reflecting its purpose. As an aircraft carrier, Turkey’s LHD will feature a flight deck with a 12° ski-jump enabling it to host both V/STOL (Vertical and/or Short Take-Off and Landing) and STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) fighter aircraft. While six fighter aircraft can be parked on its flight deck, the ship also has a hangar bay that can house twelve additional fighter aircraft.
As Turkey's first aircraft carrier, the LHD will be capable of sailing non-stop for thirty days with a range of 1,700 nautical miles (3,148km). In combination with Turkey’s existing naval assets, the LHD will provide Ankara with the ability to project significant force in the areas of Cyprus and Israel’s offshore natural gas facilities, giving Turkey, in the short term, a greater measure of sea control in the region.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s LHD acquisition constitutes part of Ankara’s US$3 billion “National Warship” Project, known by its Turkish abbreviation MİLGEM, whose goal is to expand Turkey’s capability to deploy combat forces far from its coasts. In September 2013, shortly after assuming his post as Turkey’s new naval commander, Admiral Bülent Bostanoğlu asserted in a national speech related to the MİLGEM project that Turkey’s maritime threat perception is “energy-based” and identified defending Turkey’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean as the navy’s “highest priority.”
In this context, Turkey’s LHD procurement will impact Israel’s decision-making process about how to export off-shore natural gas from its Tamar and Leviathan fields. Israel’s Tamar field is already in commercial production and in December 2013 additional reserves of up to 20 billion cubic meters were discovered. Israel’s Leviathan field is estimated to contain 510 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The developers of the Israeli gas fields, the American firm Noble Energy and their Israeli partners Avner and Delek, signed a June 2013 MOU with Cyprus to build a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Vasilikos on the southern Cypriot coast. Because Cyprus’s Aphrodite gas field, also developed by Noble and Delek, is too small to attract sufficient investment to finance a gas liquefaction plant, cash-strapped Cyprus needs the volume of Israeli gas exports for a viable LNG terminal. The arrangement also raises the possibility of a European market export route via Greece that would bypass Turkey.
The evolution of this possible export arrangement is the product of the trilateral cooperation in energy development and defense among Israel, Cyprus, and Greece that arose in the context of the deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey from 2008 to 2012. In 2010, Turkey’s National Security Policy Document commonly known as "The Red Book,” began to list Israel as a threat to regional security, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously promised that the "Eastern Mediterranean will see Turkish battleships frequently."
A more cost-effective export route for Israeli natural gas would be via a subsea pipeline from the Leviathan field to Turkey. According to estimates from JP Morgan, the pipeline would yield a higher and faster return on investment than the construction of the planned LNG plant in Cyprus. The Turkish firm Zorlu Energy and, more recently, Turcas Petrol have been pursuing the pipeline option with Israel. However, Ankara’s LHD acquisition in the context of the antagonistic posture toward Israel by Prime Minister Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and other high ranking Turkish ministers, creates a heightened threat perception in Israel in which Jerusalem cannot afford to jeopardize its strategic relations with Nicosia and, by extension, Athens.
Moreover, the proposed Leviathan-Turkey pipeline would transverse Cyprus’s continental shelf requiring permission from Nicosia. Without a significant breakthrough for a political settlement on Northern Cyprus, Ankara’s LHD acquisition similarly heightens Nicosia’s threat perception, altering the strategic calculus for both Nicosia and Athens.
Ankara has laid down a strategic marker with its enhanced naval capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean. If Turkey does not follow with diplomatic overtures to secure a comprehensive energy export agreement with Israel, Cyprus, and Greece that meets Turkey’s interests, Ankara will have wasted a valuable opportunity. Instead, Ankara will have initiated a naval arms race in which it ultimately cannot prevail, since Turkey lacks the economic resources to win. Israel does not need to match Turkey’s procurement program to effectively counter a Turkish bid for greater sea control in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel can respond with the less costly augmentation of its anti-access and area denial capabilities. Both countries’ best interests are served by not becoming trapped in this kind of naval competition.
CONCLUSIONS: Even though Turkey’s new carrier and other naval assets have yet to be commissioned, their procurement has already altered the strategic balance in the eastern Mediterranean and the terms which Turkey will be able to demand from its neighbors. Greece, Cyprus, and Israel will each need to recalibrate its strategic calculus. Unless these three can come to a regional agreement that incentivizes Turkey as a distribution hub for the sale of eastern Mediterranean natural gas, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel will need to consider enhanced collective security arrangements to ensure their maritime interests.
A subsea pipeline from Israel’s Leviathan gas field to Turkey – one that also compensates Cyprus with revenue sharing and excess gas for the development of its LNG terminal – offers economic incentives to all the principal actors to reach a comprehensive arrangement for the security of the eastern Mediterranean.
For its part, Turkey will need to restore full and friendly relations with Israel while engaging Cyprus on a political settlement. Such a shift in Turkish diplomacy would transform Turkey’s naval buildup into an incentive for regional cooperation. Without such a shift, however, Turkey will be committing itself to a long-term, naval escalation in the eastern Mediterranean which its economy cannot sustain.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Shalem College, Jerusalem, and at the Asia Unit, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr. Tanchum also teaches in Tel Aviv University’s Department of East Asian Studies.