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Report & Analysis

Naval Balance of Power in the Eastern Mediterranean

by Arda MEVLÜTOĞLU - Defence Analyst

Issue 95

Recent energy discoveries caused substantial changes in the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. This new situation in the region, also known as the Levant, has increased the competition between Turkey, Greece, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and the Greek Cypriot Administration in Southern Cyprus (GCASC). Providing the security of both energy supply and the integration of newly discovered sources into national economies have been primary targets of these countries’ national security agendas. The importance of navies in this new regional competition has been increased.

Turkey and Greece both being NATO allies as well as Egypt and Israel can be assessed as dominant naval powers of the region, to be followed by the GCASC and Lebanon with modestly equipped forces. The Syrian Civil War and its devastating effects on the Syrian armed forces as well as the whole country further complicates the security equation of the region. 

Background

Throughout history the Eastern Mediterranean has always been a scene for regional wars, competition and conflict because of its geography, natural resources, demographic structure, and historic and religious importance.  One of the major developments that shaped the Eastern Mediterranean’s geostrategic importance was the opening of Suez Canal. This passage presented faster and cheaper transit between European, Asian and African markets, bypassing the route around the Cape of Good Hope. Today more than 220,000 ships use the Suez annually. This number represents around one third of world sea trade.

The latest addition to its importance has been new hydrocarbon resource discoveries since the early 2000’s. According to research by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Levant region of the Eastern Mediterranean, which includes Syrian coasts holds a reserve of 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. 

These resources have been subject to new debates and competition among the littoral states, mainly for securing their exploitation and entry into local as well as global markets. As a result, the region has become a “hot spot”, with increasing tensions over definition and security of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) and research parcels. The region is composed of 13 so-called research parcels which were unilaterally announced by southern Cyprus. Parcels 1, 2 and 3 are located in the north; parcels 4,5,6,7,8,9 and 13 are in the middle whereas parcels 10, 11 and 12 are located in the south.

In addition to the new energy-geopolitics of the region, the implications of the Libyan Syria Civil War brought forward new challenges to littoral states. Increased activity of terrorist organization and non-state actors; flow of refugees mainly from Syria and Libya to Europe and the risk of the ignition of a regional conflict, brought forward new security challenges to littoral states. 

These factors resulted in more emphasis on modernization and procurement programs for naval and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) systems. There is an increasing trend towards submarines, corvettes and offshore patrol vessels (OPV) as well as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Naval Modernization Programs of Littoral States

The below table shows the current combatant ship fleets of the Eastern Mediterranean navies:

 

Israel

Israel’s Navy, which has the lowest share of the budget in the armed forces, has implemented a gradual modernization program with the effect of energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation in the Gaza Strip and the Arab Spring process. Within this scope, electronic warfare and weapon systems of the existing surface platforms have been modernized and UAS and submarine platforms have been procured. Especially with the addition of new submarines, Israel aims to acquire long range precision strike and power projection capabilities; representing a leap for a small size brown water navy.

The Israeli Navy has three main bases, which are in Ashdod, Eilat and Haifa. The main combatant ships are three Saar 5 class corvettes and eight Saar 4.5 class assault boats. In addition, there are around 30 assault boats and patrol boats. The main strategic element of the navy is the German Type 800 Dolphin class diesel electric submarines. In addition, advanced Dolphin II class submarines, which were ordered in 2006, have recently entered service. These boats are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP) which enables them to stay submerged for much longer periods. 

The Saar 5 class has a Phalanx close in weapon system (CIWS), Barak 8 air defence and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The ship also has 324mm torpedoes for underwater targets. Tests with the C-Dome, the ship-based model of the Iron Dome missile defence system, were completed in 2017. The ELM-2258 Advanced Lightweight Phased Array (ALPHA) radar system of the Saar 5 is capable of 3D scanning up to 120km range. The ship is equipped with Elisra NS-9003/9005 electronic intelligence systems and a hull mounted sonar. The hangar of the ship is suitable for the deployment of the AS565 Panther 5-ton class anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter.

The main surface element of the Israeli navy is the Saar 5 class corvettes purchased from the USA. Designed by the Israeli navy and built by Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), the ships have a displacement of 1,275tons and a length of 85m. The three ships that were commissioned between 1994 and 1995 were named Eilat, Lahav and Hanit, respectively. The Saar 5, which has between 65 and 75 crews, are corvettes in terms of tonnage, size and duty, but they are as well-equipped as a medium-sized frigate in terms of weaponry and electronic systems.

The newest surface ships of the Israeli Navy will be Saar 6, whose contract was signed with German ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in 2015. Four of these ships, which will replace the Saar 5s and are a derivative of TKMS’s MEKO 100 corvette design, will be commissioned. The steel cutting for the first ship was completed in February 2018 at the TKMS shipyard in Kiel. The construction of boats and superstructures of the ships will be done in Germany; weapons and electronic equipment will be integrated in Israel, Haifa Shipyard. The four ships are scheduled to enter service between 2020 and 2022. The Saar 6 class weighs about 2,000t according to open source information. The crews of the ships around 70 and they span 90m in length and a width of 13m.

The main weapon of the ships is the 76mm gun. Air defence is comprised of Barak 8 and C-Dome systems. The Saar 6 carries 16 anti-ship missiles and 324mm light torpedoes. In addition, two 30mm remote controlled guns will be used for self-defence. The hangar is suitable for 10-class SeaHawk ASW helicopters, eight of which were ordered in 2016. The main sensor of the ship is the ELM-2248 MF-STAR 3D radar system. There is no clear and reliable information in open sources about the other electronic warfare and target detection systems to be installed.

The order for Dolphin class submarines, which are designed by the German Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW), was given in the early 1990s. Half of the cost of the first of the three submarines, and the remaining two, were covered by the German government under the compensation of the Nazi genocide in World War II. The submarines Dolphin, Leviathan and Tekuma entered service between 1999 and 2000.

With a displacement of approximately 1,900t, the Dolphin class is 57m long and features a conventional diesel electric drive system. The submarines, which have 35 crews, have six 533mm and four 650mm diameter torpedo tubes. Of these tubes, the 650mm ones caused intense controversy. It was claimed that these tubes, which are wider than the standard torpedo diameter used by the submarines, were added to the submarines for firing the nuclear warheaded Popeye Turbo cruise missiles. It is widely accepted that Israel does not deny nor accept that it has nuclear weapons as a state policy. Therefore, it is possible that Dolphin submarines will be able to fire nuclear-headed cruise missiles. These 650mm tubes are also used for the infiltration and sabotage operations of marine commandos, which are used for the launching of underwater vehicles and laying of marine mines.

To reinforce the submarine fleet, a new procurement program and consequently negotiations with Germany were initiated in the early 2000s, resulted in with the contract being signed in 2005. The German government covers a third of the cost of the program. 

Known as Dolphin II, the most important feature of these submarines is that they have an AIP drive system. The AIP provides a large force multiplier effect for conventional (non-nuclear propelled) submarines, allowing it to be submerged for long periods of time without the need to surface for charging fuel cells.

The first submarine of the Dolphin II class, Tanin was launched in 2014 with the second boat, Rahav in 2016. The order for the third submarine was given in 2011. There is no reliable information available in open sources on the weapons and electronic systems of these submarines.

On the other hand, it was reported in 2017 that Germany and Israel reached an agreement to renew the first three Dolphins; with the German government reportedly covering about half of the cost of three new, so-called Dolphin III class submarines.

A particular focus of the Israeli Navy is the supply of UAS for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. In this context, Heron Eitan, a longer-range derivative of the Heron UAV system produced by the IAI is being developed and Heron and Orbiter type UAVs are also in service. It is known that these UAS are equipped with sensor systems for marine surveillance and target acquisition. G550 CAEW airborne early warning (AEW&C) aircraft in the Israeli Air Force service also regularly support naval operations.

 

Egypt

Egypt’s armed forces have been equipped mostly by US-made systems since the end of the 1970s, and the navy had a relatively lower share of the budget compared to other services. This has changed since 1997 and an ambitious modernization program was initiated.

The main combatants of the Egyptian Navy are four FFG-7 class frigates transferred from the United States in 1981. In addition to these ships, there are two older US-made FF-1052 Knox, two Chinese-made Jianghu I and two Spanish-made Descubierta-class frigates. More than 50 assault boats, made by Russia (former USSR), the UK, China and France are also in service.

After the military coup in July 2013, Egypt has been carrying out a very intensive armament and modernization activity. Numerous major purchase agreements have been signed in the last five years, especially with France and Russia. The most remarkable of these was undoubtedly two Mistral-class docked landing ships (LHD) from Russia.

The two Mistral class ships originally ordered by Russia in 2011, were planned to be put into service under the names Vladivostok and Sevastopol in 2015. However, the contract was terminated in August 2015 due to the sanctions imposed on Russia after the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, sales negotiations started with Egypt and ended in September, and in 2016 the ships entered service in the Egyptian Navy under the names of Anwar al-Sadat and Cemal Abdel Naser. Egypt is also negotiating the purchase of Kamov Ka-52K attack helicopters with Russia for use on these ships.

In 2014, with a contract of 1 billion Euros signed with the French military shipbuilding company, formerly named DCNS and the new name Naval Group. The contract covers four Gowind 2500 class corvettes. Equipped with the new generation MM40 Exocet Block 3, the first of the Gowind 2500s was built in France and the remaining three will be built at Alexandria Shipyard with technology transfer. El Fateh, the first ship in the scope of the project, numbered 971, was laid down in September 2015. Launched in September 2016, the ship went into service in September 2017.

The order for Gowind corvettes in 2014 was followed by an agreement for the purchase of a FREMM class frigate the following year. This package, which included the purchase of 24 Rafale fighter jets for the Air Force, was not an ordinary defence purchase, as the ship was a frigate named Normandie and was built for the French Navy. After the dismantling and modification of some weapons, communications and electronic warfare systems designed according to the needs of France, the ship entered service in the Egyptian Navy in June 2015 under the name Tahya Misr.

In addition to the Gowind class, Egypt acquired four Ambassador Mk3 class corvettes from the US. The first two of these vessels were put into service in 2013 and the remaining two in 2015.

Egypt’s submarine capability for a long time was limited to four Type 033G Romeo-class diesel electric submarines that were purchased from China and modernized in the 1980s, but with extremely low war preparation levels. In order to renew this fleet, two Type 209/1400 class modern diesel electric submarines were ordered from Germany in 2011. This was followed by an additional order for two more submarines in 2014. The first submarine S41 was launched in December 2015 and launched in December 2016. The second submarine S42 was delivered last August. Egypt also ordered 20 UGM-86L Sub Harpoon submarine missile launch missiles for use in these submarines.

 

Greece

Since the late 1990s, Greece has implemented a comprehensive and ambitious modernization program for its armed forces, giving priority to the air and naval forces. In this context, large-scale procurement and improvement projects have been initiated, especially with Germany and France. However, the severe economic crisis that has affected the country since 2009 has had a devastating impact on the armed forces’ preparation and modernization activities as well as on all the mechanisms of the state. The European Union sanctions and aid conditions have resulted in the dissolution or freezing of several procurement programs.

In the Greek Navy inventory, there are currently three Glavkos class Type 209/1100 models, all made in Germany; four type 209/1200 Poseidon class and four type 214 class Papanikolis class submarine. The surface fleet includes nine Dutch-made Kortenaers and four German-made MEKO 200HN class frigates and more than 40 assault boats and outpost boats of various types and tonnages. Naval aviation consists of 11 US-made Sikorsky S-70B Aegean Hawk helicopters and 8 Italian-made AB-212ASW helicopters. Greece recently ordered 7 MH-60R SeaHawk helicopters and an upgrade program for 4 P-3B Orion ASW aircraft is underway.

Within the scope of the modernization of the submarine fleet, two separate contracts were signed with the German HDW. The first of these projects, the Papanikolis program, covered new generation of Type 214 submarines with AIP. The second one, Neptune II, covered the upgrade of existing Type 209 submarines with AIP and modern command and control systems.

Papanikolis was launched in 2004, its commissioning was significantly delayed due to the refusal of the Greek side on the grounds that the technical requirements were not met. The Neptune II project was terminated after the completion of the modernization of the first submarine Okeanos. 

 

Cyprus Greek Administration

The Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (GCASC) does not have an independent naval force. Within the Greek National Guard Army (CNG), there is a Naval Forces Command as a coast guard. The duties of the unit in question include the fight against terrorism and smuggling, the preservation of the coastline of the GCASC, search and rescue.

The current inventory of the CNG maritime unit consists of six different types and sizes of patrol boats. The biggest one is the French-made Patra-class Salamis boat with a displacement of 98 tons. The most modern boats are the Dilos-class Kyrenia boat, donated by the Greek Navy in 2000 and two Vittoria-class boats purchased from Italy in 2004. One Britten Norman BN-2B-21 is used for Maritime Defender aircraft, marine outpost and search and rescue operations. The marine unit has one base in Limassol, Mari and Zigi; There is also a search and rescue coordination center in Larnaca.

Following the hydrocarbon discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, an agreement was signed in December 2010 by Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and the Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianu to determine the borders of Israel and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The agreement covers the cooperation of the parties in the sharing and common use of the discovered resources.

Shortly after signing the agreement, Israel proposed a comprehensive modernization package to the Greek Cypriot Administration to strengthen the CNG naval unit. The proposal included the sale of a Shaldag-type patrol boat and a helicopter. Even though the implementation of this proposal has suffered due to the economic crisis of the GCASC, the administration has continued to seek alternatives to renew its maritime power. In 2013, negotiations were held with France for the supply of two Gowind class corvettes. Due to the high cost of these modern vessels, negotiations did not reach the stage of contract signing. The option of joint supply and operation of the Gowinds with Greece in need of a similar class of ships was also considered.

 

Syria

The Syrian Navy, which had already received the lowest share of budget for modernization by 2011, and most of its vessels had been discarded, was almost completely inactive due to the violent civil war that has been going on for the last three years. Prior to the start of the civil war, the former Soviet-made Petya class light frigate and about 15 Osa-class assault boats were known to be in the inventory.  The Syrian regime had invested mainly in coastal defence anti-ship missiles.

 

Lebanon

The Lebanese Navy, which did not have a significant modernization budget or program until the mid-2000s, and a low number of boats in the inventory, had a low level of preparedness for warfare. Lebanon, which currently has around 40 large and small coastal outposts, was considering purchasing Combattante FS56 class assault boats from France within the scope of the USD3 billion military aid package announced by Saudi Arabia in August 2014. However, due to Saudi Arabia withdrawing financial support from Lebanon, the plan was shelved.

 

Turkey

Turkey has shown remarkable progress in developing the local defence industry and naval programs have high priority in the realization of these ambitions. In the center of Turkey’s defence industry renaissance and navy modernization, is the MILGEM program.

Under the MILGEM program, four corvettes were built and commissioned. The lead ship, F511 Heybeliada was commissioned in 2011, followed by F512 Büyükkada in 2013, Burgazada in 2018 and Kinaliada in 2019. Kinaliada is also the first Turkish warship to be equipped with indigenously developed anti-ship missile Atmaca.

An enlarged version of the MILGEM, the Istif class frigate project is also underway. The lead ship of the class, Istanbul is under construction at Istanbul Naval Shipyard. A total of 4 Istif class are expected to be commissioned.

One of the most complex projects of the Turkish defence industry is the design and construction of aerial anti air warfare destroyers under the TF2000 program. Designed around CAFRAD multi-mission radar and ADVENT combat management system, these ships are expected to displace around 6,500t and will form the backbone of Turkey’s strategic air defence.

The construction of the TCG Anadolu LHD ship is also underway and is expected to be commissioned in 2021. Based on Spanish Navantia design, this ship is capable of operating F-35B STOVL fighter aircraft.

Turkey has one of the largest submarine fleets in the Mediterranean with 8 Type 209/1400 and four Type 209/1200 class submarines. A total of 6 AIP equipped Type 214TN submarines are being built at Golcuk Naval Shipyard. Turkish industry is also developing an indigenous heavyweight torpedo designated Akya.

The main surface combatants of the Turkish Navy are eight German-designed MEKO 200TN and eight US-designed FFG-7 class frigates. FFG-7 class frigates were modernized with indigenously developed GENESIS command and control system. Four of them also have been equipped with advanced air defence systems such as Mk41 vertical launching systems and SMART-S radars. Six former French Navy Aviso class corvettes and around 60 assault boats and patrol boats are also in the inventory.

Naval aviation consists of 25 US-made Sikorsky S-70B SeaHawk and 17 Italian-made AB-212SW helicopters and six CN-235MPA ASW aircraft. Delivery of 8 ATR-72MPA aircraft is expected to be realized shortly. The naval air arm has recently received an ISR capability boost with the introduction of indigenously developed Anka and Bayraktar TB UAS.

 

Conclusion

The geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean, which was reshaped with the discovery of energy resources, revealed the necessity of establishing the national defence mechanisms of the littoral states according to this new environment. In this direction, the countries of the region carry out comprehensive naval modernization and procurement programs within the framework of their economic opportunities and infrastructure. 

When the naval procurement and modernization projects of the countries in the region are analyzed, it is observed that there are some common tendencies and preferences. These trends can be sorted as follows:

Corvettes and OPV’s are ships that serve in coastal waters and undertake missions such as flags, crisis intervention, deterrence, terrorism and fighting asymmetrical threats, especially during periods of peace or operations other than war (OOTW).

Firstly, operation and maintenance costs of these ships are lower because they are not as large or as complex equipped as frigates. This factor is important especially in times of peace or tension. On the other hand, because they are larger in terms of tonnage than assault boats and fast attack craft, they can operate in relatively deep waters and in harsh marine conditions, or they can be used as a “floating police station” by carrying naval commandos, special forces, rescued hostages or seized terrorist / pirates.

The energy reserves and maritime trade lines in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially around the island of Cyprus, provide an ideal operational environment for such ships, given the hydrographic and oceanographic characteristics of the region. As a matter of fact, almost all countries of the region have investments in these types of ships. Of these, especially Turkey’s MILGEM corvettes-built project with Egypt and Israeli corvette procurement programs are remarkable.

Submarines, due to their strategic power projection and intelligence collection capabilities, have become the main procurement priority of many navies around the world. With the electro-optical and electronic intelligence systems they carry, submarines are used as strategic intelligence and clandestine operation units that are at the forefront of peace and crisis periods. Therefore, they are highly effective platforms in terms of safeguarding marine interests, ensuring security and monitoring the activities of other states in the region. Turkey is the country with the largest submarine fleet in the region, followed by Israel, Greece and Egypt. Despite the severe economic crisis that it has undergone, Greece’s efforts to complete its submarine procurement program are indicative of the decisive role of these platforms in the region.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and all C4ISR Systems in general are used to provide situational awareness through strategic, tactical or operative environmental conditions, and monitoring of friendly and hostile elements. By combining and evaluating the data collected by sensor systems of different qualities, a common picture is created. The fact that this picture is real-time, accurate and reliable enables decision-makers to develop sound strategies and policies and to respond quickly and effectively to possible crises. Among these systems, long range and high altitude unmanned aerial vehicles are particularly useful as they can stay in the open air for long periods of time. Israel, one of the countries in the region, stands out with its technology and products in this field. Israel, in such a national defence industry is followed by Turkey who began producing systems. Greece and Egypt are also known to be interested in such systems.

As a result, it is necessary to emphasize that the development of national energy strategies and the implementation of appropriate policies are possible only with the maintenance of an effective maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean, where regional discoveries are intensified with energy discoveries. Successful development of energy and national security policies, which cannot be evaluated separately, is possible by dominating the picture on a global, regional and local scale and establishing and maintaining an independent national defence mechanism