Greece’s defense pact with France did not surprise Turkish commentators. Observers in Turkey expected Athens to seek new frigates from either France or the United States. The official announcement of the agreement between Paris and Athens did not substantially change the consensus among prominent opinion leaders. They converge that the agreement is an additional confirmation that Greece, with the support of France and the United States, is forming a conflict zone with Turkey. The desire of this front does not prevent Turkey from securing its fundamental national interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. However, Mete Yarar, a prominent security commentator, assured viewers that the deal would not change the balance.
The purchase of French FDI frigates, he argued, certainly strengthens Greece’s ability to locate and target Turkish aircraft. Turkish warships, however, are equipped with Atmaca anti-ship missiles, against which the frigates will be helpless. The impact of the agreement, in his estimation, is minimal due to the expanding arsenal of the Turkish Navy.
Leaving aside, for a moment, if this assessment has value, it is certainly worthwhile to ask the question whether the (Greek-French) agreement changes the balance of power between the Greek and Turkish Navies. Making such an assessment, however, is a move full of uncertainty. As things stand today, the French Naval Group is not going to deliver the ships until 2025. The frigate itself has not yet been tested at sea, a fact that may be delayed. The training of Greek personnel on board depends on the delivery of the first FDI to the French Navy and which will not be integrated into the French fleet before 2023 as soon as possible. Other issues may also intervene, including changes in French foreign policy following next year’s presidential election. At this point it is hypothetical to talk about the real contribution of ships to the Greek navy.
The renewal of the Turkish Navy, on the other hand, has been going well for years. Over the past decade, the Turkish fleet has welcomed four multi-role logs into regular service. An advanced type of these vessels, the “Istanbul”, as well as the “Anadolu”, the country’s first aircraft carrier, are planned to enter service within the next two years. In addition to these proposals, there are plans for new home-made radar and weapons systems to be installed on ships. On paper, logic would say that the Greek Navy is the weakest opponent. However, there are reasons to be skeptical of Turkish progress.
Any assessment of the Turkish Navy, however, should be contrasted with the actual environmental information prevailing in the country’s media. It is particularly difficult, if not impossible, to find expressions of analytical doubt or criticism in the news about the country’s defense industry. The boat “Anadolu” e.g. was originally conceived of a platform that would use the use of previous F-35 fighter jets. When Washington canceled Turkey’s F-35 deal, Turkish defense industry leaders remained extremely optimistic, insisting that either drones or a domestic fighter jet would take their place. It is unclear how feasible these options are. Designs for these aircraft remain at the design level and delivery schedules are, at the very least, speculative. However, analysts on television and in the print media are still talking about the future of “Anadolu” with confidence and faith. This critical lack of uncertainty raises the question of how successful or effective Turkey’s synchronization program has been.
Other factors must also be taken into account. Certainly, the Turkish army maintains, comparatively, more aircraft, ships and men. But it is a completely different story how much confidence one can have in the readiness of these forces. Since the 2016 coup attempt, there have been reports of a lack of support staff within the army. The morale of the Armed Forces also raises questions. Combined with the higher ranks and compulsory demobilizations, officers are still being prosecuted on suspicion of being Gulenists. Despite their domestic construction, the newest Turkish warships still carry American-made technology and are therefore subject to possible sanctions under US law. Last but not least, the Turkish Navy must also deal with the fact that it has ships close to retirement age. The operational future of the eight old Perry-class frigates, each about 40 years old, is uncertain.
These, as well as other factors, are issues that may minimize the strength of the Turkish Navy. However, these issues are unlikely to prevent an escalation of tensions in the near or distant future. Greece’s diplomatic power, compared to the relative isolation of Turkey, continues to be the most effective ship in the Greek arsenal.
* Mr. Ryan Gingras is a professor in the Department of Homeland Security at the United States Naval Graduate School.