The Turkish Navy is set to conduct massive drills called “Mavi Vatan” – "the Blue Homeland" -- between Feb. 27 and March 8. For the first time in the republic’s history, Turkey’s military will test its warfighting capabilities in the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, and Mediterranean at the same time. The Blue Homeland is not merely an exercise codename, it is also a geopolitical concept that manifests Ankara’s political-military agenda in the coming decade.
- A new geopolitical concept in the making
The Blue Homeland is centered on a trilateral basis. Firstly, the concept has a pronounced power projection aspect. Coupled with Turkey’s burgeoning forward-basing posture across the horn of Africa and the Gulf, Turkey aims at pursuing its national interests in an enhanced zone d’influence. Secondly, this understanding adopts a more active role for the Turkish Navy in energy geopolitics competition, coercive efforts, and naval diplomacy. Thirdly and finally, the sustainability of the concept depends on maintaining the uptrend in Turkey’s indigenous defense industry.
Naval power remains at the epicenter of the Blue Homeland. The Turkish Navy is transforming into a blue-water asset with growing power projection capabilities. Without a doubt, the amphibious assault ship project (the TCG Anadolu based on the Spanish Juan Carlos I class LHD), along with Ankara’s plans to operate the vessel as a mini-aircraft carrier with a ski-jump ramp modification, marks the most critical leap in this respect. Notably, for some time, the Turkish administration has been hinting at the prospects of procuring short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft -- the F-35B -- to form a naval aviation air wing in addition to the F-35A acquisition for the air force.
The core strategic advantage of operating such a flagship remains the marge de manoeuvre she would provide. Wherever Turkey would opt for deploying the TCG Anadolu, be it the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, the vessel would bring about a broad array of options and a robust political signaling capacity. Besides, she would make an important naval diplomacy asset too.
Of course, the bold decision to operate the forthcoming amphibious assault ship as a mini-aircraft carrier comes at a price. For one, Ankara will have to ensure a sustainable rotation capability through at least two vessels of kind and will have to establish a naval air wing -- at present, the F-35B seems to be the only game in the town. Any power projection ship of this class would demand a state-of-the-art logistical infrastructure. Besides, an aircraft carrier, be it a modified amphibious assault ship or a Ford-class supercarrier of the US Navy, has to be accompanied by a carrier strike group. Finally, having an asset like the TCG Anadolu would urge Turkish defense planners to speed up their anti-air warfare frigate development efforts.
Apart from the mini-aircraft carrier project, the Turkish Navy keeps receiving high-end platforms. The indigenous Ada-class, MILGEM-project corvettes are capable surface combatants that show the Turkish defense industry’s current state. The fourth ship of the class, the TCG Kinaliada, was launched in 2017. The Navy will start acquiring Reis-class (Type 214) submarines which will give a true boost to the arsenal. The indigenously developed “Atmaca” anti-ship missiles will soon equip principal surface vessels -- the serial production contract was signed in Nov. 2018. The missile has a 200-km range and utilizes advanced guidance systems. In Feb. 2019, Turkey launched the TCG Ufuk. The vessel is believed to be an advanced signals intelligence and electronic warfare asset. In his speech during the launch ceremony, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan portrayed her as the “eyes and ears of Turkey in the seas”.
The Turkish Navy has benefited from Turkey’s ‘drone breakthrough’, and recently became an operator of indigenous unmanned systems, ANKA and Bayraktar TB-2. Especially, the Bayraktar TB-2 armed drone showed an impressive performance during Operation Olive Branch, and offers one of the most reliable solutions in its class.
Turkey’s battle-hardened amphibious units also deserve attention. Several times, Turkish military planners have deployed these units in active conflict zones to keep them at high combat-readiness. The Navy’s special operations teams (SAS and SAT commandos) fought hard in Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Open-source pieces of evidence suggest that detachments from the Amphibious Marine Brigade’s battalions also took part in the cross-border efforts in Syria.
Overall, Turkey is heavily investing in its naval capabilities not only for defending the territorial waters, but also for protecting the country’s sea lines of communication (SloC) and building power projection capacity. Therefore, the Blue Homeland exercises offer a good opportunity to monitor the Turkish Navy’s improving outlook, as well as its joint operations capacity with other branches.
- Turkey’s military power and regional strategic affairs
Looking back into the past decades, it is not the first time that Ankara highlights its military toolbox when dealing with regional strategic affairs. In the late 1990s, for example, Turkey’s primary guidance in its regional defense and security policy had been a “two and a half wars” kind of understanding and the military strategic concept of “active deterrence”. In this framework, Ankara pursued a diligent capability development effort to be able to fight two multi-front, inter-state armed conflicts while being able to simultaneously carry on large-scale counterterrorism operations at home and beyond borders. The underlying threat perceptions were the Hafez al-Assad regime’s use of PKK terrorism as a proxy war instrument, as well as the tensions with Greece in the Aegean Sea. Probably the most visible and successful outcome of the Turkish strategic concept at the time was the 1998 coercive campaign on Damascus to deter the Syrian Baath regime from systematic terrorism sponsoring.
As of the late 2010s, the Blue Homeland concept enjoys clear advantages. Above all, it is backed by a resolutely developing defense industry. Furthermore, the incorporation of unmanned systems into the Turkish military’s concept of operations (CONOPS), especially in a combat-proven fashion, remains a critical breakthrough and a force multiplier in joint operations. Finally, having a capable, power projecting navy would not only boost warfighting capacity. Navies, unlike other traditional branches of armed forces, are truly effective diplomatic assets in times of peace. All in all, it seems that Turkish political-military decision-makers will utilize their naval options more intensively in the coming years.
By Can Kasapoğlu
- The writer is a defense analyst at the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM), an Istanbul-based think-tank.