ANKARA – Despite progress in its MILGEM ship construction effort and other landmark programs, the Turkish Navy, with more than half of its admirals in prison, faces new security challenges in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts wonder if the situation could disrupt the service’s operational effectiveness.
Twenty-five of the Navy’s 48 active-duty admirals are in jail pending trial on charges connected with a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderate Islamist government. The admirals are widely known to be staunchly secular. Nearly 20 retired admirals and several more junior Navy officers also are accused and in detention.
“The admirals in jail could well make the entire Navy command of a moderately sized country,” a defense analyst here said. “It is out of the question that this situation should not create any operational weaknesses.”
A top military official did not echo that pessimism, but admitted that the arrests are bad for top management of the Navy.
“In comparison, the Navy is in a more vulnerable situation than the Air Force, where base commanders are in charge of daily operations,” he said.
Twelve of the Air Force’s 69 active-duty generals are in jail pending trial for their alleged part in the coup d’état. The percentage of arrested generals in the Army is the lowest, 14 percent.
Meanwhile, tensions with Israel, Cyprus and Greece are increasing. Turkey’s former alliance with Israel has deteriorated over the past three years, finally reaching its nadir after Turkey in August froze diplomatic ties and scrapped all military deals with Israel. In September, Erdogan pledged to increase the Turkish naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Turkish frigates also are to challenge a joint Israeli-Cypriot natural gas drilling campaign off southern Cyprus, which Ankara claims is a violation of international law, although the U.S., European Union and Russia back the effort.
In September, Turkey sent a seismic research ship to the same region accompanied by battleships and fighter jets. Washington has since then advised restraint on both sides, fearing military conflict among its allies.
“The new tensions in the eastern Mediterranean has added new roles and responsibilities on the Turkish Navy’s shoulders at a time when the Navy command may not be fully prepared to tackle these challenges,” the defense analyst here said. “But the United States, a close ally of all countries involved, is following the developments very carefully, and the risk of a physical confrontation still is very low.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s vessel acquisition plans, mostly through local production, remain on track.
The corvette Heybeliada, the first major warship built in Turkey, entered service Sept. 27. A second Turkish-built corvette, the Buyukada, was launched.They are the first two ships of the $3 billion MILGEM, or National Ship, program, which calls for the design, development, outfitting, integration and construction in Turkey of eight patrol and anti-submarine warships, with an option for four more.
These corvettes are capable of performing reconnaissance and surveillance; target detection, recognition and identification; early warning; base and coastal defense; anti-submarine, surface and anti-air warfare; amphibious operations; and patrols, according to Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM), the country’s procurement agency.
The MILGEM program, which began in 2004, aims to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign shipmakers for ship design, construction and systems integration; and to boost the construction and integration of naval shipyards and private shipyards.
MILGEM’s prototype, the Heybeliada, was built by the Istanbul Naval Shipyard of the Turkish Naval Forces Command. The SSM, the government’s arms procurement office, procured supplementary design and construction services, systems and materials.
One MILGEM corvette can carry a 10-ton helicopter. The Heybeliada is a 99-meter monohull vessel that displaces 2,300 metric tons.
In another naval modernization effort, German shipyard Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) is co-manufacturing with Turkey six modern U 214-type diesel submarines for the Navy. Turkey earlier built 14 U 209-type submarines, which Indonesia now wants to buy, with HDW.
By BURAK EGE BEKDIL and UMIT ENGINSOY
Published: 17 October 2011