As Turkey forcibly pushes ahead with its controversial activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is facing increasing opposition from regional states, many of which have formidable navies.
Turkey’s ongoing drilling for natural gas in the Republic of Cyprus’ economic exclusion zone (EEZ) has sparked widespread opposition in the wider region.
Ankara insists it has the right to drill for gas off Cyprus’ coast, claiming that those waters are within the boundaries of the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Turkey’s drilling in the area is opposed by the United States, the European Union and Eastern Mediterranean states.
Another divisive action Turkey recently took was signing a memorandum of understanding with the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya’s capital Tripoli last November to establish an enormous EEZ between the two countries. The maritime deal directly links Turkey’s Mediterranean shore with Libya’s northeast coast.
In response, Greece and Egypt signed their own maritime border agreement this month.
Turkey is showing no signs of backing down. Last month, it sent warships to escort a drilling ship for energy exploration in the Aegean Sea south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, prompting the Hellenic Navy to go to a state of “heightened readiness” in response.
Such tensions are likely to increase in the coming months, meaning Turkish naval vessels may well face off with those of other Mediterranean nations that staunchly oppose its actions. Many of these navies are quite powerful and could pose a significant obstacle to Turkey’s objectives.
The Turkish Navy, it’s important to note, is very formidable and well capable of projecting power across the Mediterranean. Its domestically-built Ada-class corvettes specialize in anti-submarine and anti-aircraft roles. It also possesses a fleet of eight Gabya-class guided-missile frigates, which are ex-U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates that have been substantially modernized.
Gabya-class warships have already operated off the coast of Libya, using their air defenses to help protect the airspace over GNA-controlled western Libya.
Turkey also possesses a large fleet of German-built diesel-electric Type 209/1200 and Type 209/1400 attack submarines.
The Turkish Navy’s upcoming flagship, the TCG Anadolu, is a landing helicopter dock (LHD) based on the Spanish Navy’s flagship Juan Carlos I. The Anadolu will enable Turkey to deploy helicopters and transport troops and armor to distant battlefields.
The term “blue homeland” has become a common one in Turkish politics. It refers to Turkish claims over those contested swathes of resource-rich Eastern Mediterranean waters.
The eponymous 2019 naval drill was the largest in Turkey’s history and showcased the country’s growing ability to project power increasingly further from its shores. Over 100 ships participated in that drill.
Turkey’s neighbor and fellow NATO member Greece has a sizable navy consisting of both ships and submarines, though not as big nor as powerful as Turkey’s.
The backbone of the Hellenic Navy consists of nine Elli-class frigates that formerly served with the Royal Netherlands Navy. These frigates are armed with RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles as well as RIM-7M Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles.
Greece also possesses a fleet of four Hydra-class frigates built in cooperation with Germany in the 1990s. The frigates were modernized in the late 2000s to fire RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles, which protect ships from incoming aircraft and missiles.
Several locally-built gunboats supplement these frigates along with missile and patrol boats.
The Hellenic Navy also possesses 11 submarines which are also German-built Type 209/1100, Type 209/1200, and Type 214 diesel-electric attack subs.
In May 2020, Greece’s parliament approved several programs to upgrade the Hellenic Navy. These include procuring four new Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopters from the United States and further modernizing systems on the Hydra-class frigates.
The Republic of Cyprus has extremely limited naval capabilities, especially compared to Turkey. Nicosia only has some small patrol boats and anti-ship missiles.
However, Cyprus and France have close military ties and France has conducted joint military drills with Cyprus several times in recent years. Last February, France’s flagship, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, docked at the Cypriot port of Limassol, underscoring the close relations between the two countries. France opposes Turkish drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ as well as the Turkey-Libya maritime deal.
Israel also opposes Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean. In late 2019, Turkish naval forces intercepted and drove back an Israeli research vessel operating near Cyprus. Israel reportedly responded by sending aircraft to circle over a Turkish drilling ship near Cyprus in a clear show of force.
Israel has a small navy – it’s the smallest branch of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) with a mere 10,000 personnel – compared to most Eastern Mediterranean navies. It compensates for its fleet’s relatively small size through its agility and firepower, both of which make it a highly formidable adversary.
Israel operates Sa’ar-class corvettes that are armed with Gabriel and Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles and Barak-8 surface-to-air missiles.
These are complemented by smaller Sa’ar 4.5 and Sa’ar 4-class missile boats and Dvora and Dabur-class patrol boats.
Israel also operates a fleet of diesel-electric Dolphin attack submarines built by Germany. These submersibles operate quietly and are, therefore, difficult to detect. They have an impressive range of over 4,000 miles, meaning they can operate far from Israeli shores.
Aside from being armed with torpedoes, these subs are also capable of firing cruise missiles, likely a naval version of Israel’s Popeye missile, and may have been used in one of Israel’s many undeclared strikes against targets in Syria.
The newer and larger Dolphin II submarines Israel began acquiring from Germany in the 2010s are the most expensive pieces of military hardware in the IDF’s arsenal as well as the largest submarines built in Germany since the Second World War.
Israel’s southern neighbor may well have the navy most capable of challenging Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Under incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt staunchly opposes Turkey’s moves in that sea as well as the wider region.
Under Sisi, Egypt also procured some powerful warships from France. They consist of two Mistral-class landing helicopter docks (LHD), four Gowind-class corvettes, and a FREMM Aquitaine-class multi-purpose frigate.
Egypt also has four former Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates armed with SM-1MR Standard surface-to-air missiles and Harpoon missiles along with two older Knox-class frigates.
These large ships are complemented by a variety of smaller missile boats and eight diesel-electric attack submarines acquired from Germany and China.
These navies, all of which are operated by countries that want to see Turkey’s grand plans in the Eastern Mediterranean circumscribed, might eventually compel Ankara to seriously reconsider its moves in that strategically-important and resource-rich body of water. Follow me on Twitter. Paul Iddon
I am a journalist/columnist who writes about Middle East military and political affairs.