Hot Issue: The Rise of Turkey: The Mediterranean’s New Regional Naval Power

Turkey's prototype MILGEM corvette TCG Heybeliada (Source Janes)

Turkey’s Navy in Throes of Massive Expansion 

The Mediterranean, history’s first naval battleground, is seeing the rise of a new regional naval power – Turkey. In a demonstration of its new abilities, the Türk Deniz Kuvvetleri (Turkish Navy) began its Invitex-Dogu Akdeniz-2013 naval exercise on November 4, and was scheduled to run for ten days (Haberler, November 3). For the exercise the Turkish Navy fielded three frigates, two corvettes, four fast attack boats, three submarines, two oilers, two patrol boats, a landing ship and tugboat, one maritime patrol aircraft, five helicopters, one amphibious team and a Naval WMD Destruction Team. The Turkish Coast Guard contributed three craft and the Turkish Air Force is deploying contingents. The sole NATO ally participating ships were the DDG-55 USS Stout destroyer, Germany’s F-219 FGS Sachsen and Spain’s ESPS Alvaro De Bazan frigates. 

Even as Turkish naval capabilities and responsibilities expand, a dark cloud hangs over the Turkish Navy’s officer corps in the form of the interrelated “Operation Sledgehammer,” “Ergenekon Organization” and “28 February Investigation” inquiries and trials. Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz informed a parliamentary inquiry in February that 404 military personnel, including 64 generals and admirals and 273 officers face trial and that 207 people, including 58 generals and admirals and 140 officers, are in custody (al-Monitor, February 2013). What long-term effect this will have on morale, operational readiness and procurement efforts remains to be seen. 

Factors Driving Turkey’s Naval Expansion 

The Turkish Navy is in the throes of its most massive expansion since its founding in 1920. Three forces are driving this growth: ongoing unrest in Turkey’s traditional areas of naval operations, NATO’s new “Smart Defense” strategy and Turkey’s soaring economy, which is generating more money to upgrade the defense forces. 

Five years ago in the Black Sea region, tensions between Georgia and the Russian Federation erupted into a five-day war, highlighting Ankara’s concerns about Turkey’s sovereignty over the Turkish Straits. In the Mediterranean, the Turkish navy evacuated 1,200 civilians from Beirut in 2006 amid rising chaos, while the Arab Spring has destabilized the Maghreb and plunged Syria into civil war. A further complicating factor for Turkey’s Mediterranean policies is the emergence of competing maritime claims for subsea natural gas and oil reserves. 

As for Turkey’s dynamic economy, the World Bank noted: “With a gross domestic product (GDP) of $786 billion, Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world. In less than a decade, per capita income in the country has nearly tripled and now exceeds $10,000.” [1] 

Turkey’s Evolving Naval Strategy 

A further stimulus to Turkey’s evolving military doctrines is NATO’s Smart Defense concept, elaborated at NATO’s summit last year in Chicago. Lieutenant General Gian Marco Chiarini of NATO described Smart Defense as “a new way of thinking about generating the modern defense capabilities the alliance needs for the coming decade and beyond. It is a renewed culture of cooperation that encourages Allies to cooperate in developing, acquiring and maintaining military capabilities to undertake the Alliance’s essential core tasks agreed in the new NATO strategic concept. That means pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities and coordinating efforts better.” [2] As for the Turkish Navy, the concept provides a powerful stimulus to Turkey to draw on the advanced capabilities of its alliance partners to upgrade its maritime capabilities through technology transfer and joint ventures. 

In March 2012, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings journal asked naval commanders worldwide: what the strategic objectives are for their naval forces over the next five, ten and twenty years respectively in an era of austere defense budgets and rapidly increasing technologies. The Turkish Navy’s then-commander Admiral Emin Murat Bilgel (retired in August) replied: 

The complex nature of the security environment continuously expands the mission of navies, requiring interagency cooperation in humanitarian operations, maritime law enforcement, diplomacy and aligning priorities with regional and alliance partners to assure global maritime security while retaining a strong deterrent fleet to protect national interests. The indigenous shipbuilding and design capacity in domestic naval and private shipyards, research centers and the defense industry further contribute to cost-effective solutions. [3] 

Accordingly, Turkish maritime doctrine is in harmony with NATO policies, and Turkey’s buoyant economy now allows it to construct and procure advanced warships to fulfill national policies. For more than a decade, however, Turkey has expanded its naval collaborative efforts in the Black Sea beyond NATO exercises, having since 2001 participated along with Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia in joint Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (BLACKSERAFOR) exercises, with BLACKSERAFOR-2013 held in April. Highlighting Turkey’s expanded maritime role beyond its traditional littoral waters is the fact that, since 2009, Turkey has contributed warships to NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield to quell piracy off Somalia’s coast, 4,000 miles away. 

M?LGEM – The Driving Force Behind Turkish Warship Construction 

Underlying Turkey’s naval expansion is the country’s Milli Gemior (National Ship – M?LGEM) project, launched in 1996 under the Savunma Sanayii Müste?arl??? (SSM – Under Secretariat for Defense Industries). In 2005 the keel was laid in Istanbul’s Tuzla Gemi Tersanesi shipyard for the Turkish Navy’s first indigenously designed and built corvette, the M?LGEM class TCG Heybeliada (F-511). 

The M?LGEM project was originally designed to construct Mehrzweck-Kombination (MEKO) A-100 corvettes in conjunction with Blohm + Voss, a Hamburg-based German shipbuilding company that specializes in building high-technology warships and submarines. Under the contract, four German-designed Yavuz class MEKO 200 TN-I frigates were built: TCG Yavuz (F-240); TCG Turgutreis (F-241); TCG Fatih (F-242) and TCG Y?ld?r?m (F-243), launched in 1985-1987 at Blohm + Voss, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) and Turkey’s Gölcük Donanma Tersanesi naval shipyard. The MEKO A-100 corvettes displace 2,500 tons, have a maximum speed of 30 knots, a range of 3,500 miles at 16 knots and are capable of operating a helicopter. 

These were followed by four Barbaros-class anti surface warfare (ASuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) frigates. Two warships were built by the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg and the remaining two were constructed at the Gölcük naval shipyard with German assistance. The Turkish navy now deploys the TCG Barbaros (F-244), TCG Oruçreis (F-245), TCG Salihreis (F-246) and TCG Kemalreis (F-247). Based on the Blohm + Voss MEKO 200 TN-II design, the Barbaros class frigate is larger than its predecessor, the Yavuz MEKO 200 TN-I class frigate. 

Buoyed by the experience gained in the joint venture, the Turkish Navy cancelled its partnership with Blohm + Voss in the early 2000s and decided to use Turkish resources to design, develop and construct a completely indigenous corvette. On March 12, 2004 the M?LGEM Project Office at Istanbul’s Tuzla Gemi Tersanesi shipyard Command was established to oversee the design, development and construction of the warship. Besides the M?LGEM class TCG Heybeliada (F-511) corvette, built at an estimated cost of $260 million, the M?LGEM Project saw the construction of the second M?LGEM class corvette, TCG Büyükada, commissioned in the Turkish Navy on September 28. The Turkish Navy eventually plans to build 12 patrol and anti-submarine warfare ships in all (Hürriyet, November 10, 2010.) 

The significance of the M?LGEM program was underlined by the facts that the hulls are based on indigenous Turkish designs; as specified by SSM, “local content” is well over 50 percent, and local companies have been chosen by SSM as main and sub-contractors. 

Turkish SSM Undersecretary Murad Bayar explained the philosophy behind the M?LGEM program, remarking: 

After joining NATO, we initially relied on second-hand ships from the U.S. and Europe. Later, we began production in-country at our naval shipyard facilities, using licensed designs, largely German in origin, and complete materiel packages including the steel, onboard equipment, command systems and weapons. Of course, while these programs limited the extent of our contribution in design and materials, they provided good experience for our naval shipyards. We’ve been able to build support ships, corvettes, even frigates under this model (TR Defence, April 23, 2010).

The M?LGEM program has expanded beyond M?LGEM class corvettes; on April 9, 2010 the keel was laid of the Turkish Navy’s first New Type Patrol Boat (NTPB), P-1200 TCG Tuzla, under the M?LGEM program. The M?LGEM initiative represents an important change for Turkey’s civilian market-oriented shipbuilding industry that had previously not worked on military shipbuilding. 


Turkey is also seeking to upgrade its submarine fleet, again with German assistance. On July 1, 2011 German maritime builder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems announced “The €2 billion ($2.71 billion) order for six U214 submarine material packages placed with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems by the Republic of Turkey has entered into force with receipt of the advance payment. As a longstanding partner and supplier to the Turkish Navy, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems can now begin executing the order.” [4] The two sides had been discussing loan conditions for the previous six months and finally reached an agreement in late June, 2011. The boats will be built by HDW, a ThyssenKrupp subsidiary. In 2008, Turkey selected HDW over France’s DCNS S.A. and Spain’s Navantia offering of their Scorpene class submarines when Turkish officials said the German offer was worth $3.39 billion. Price renegotiations subsequently led to a final agreement on a price reduction of over $680 million bringing down the final cost to around $2.71 billion (Hürriyet, July 1, 2011). 

The boats will be built at Gölcük Donanma Tersanesi naval shipyard on the Sea of Marmara. The Turkish submarine modernization program represents Turkey’s second-largest defense project, exceeded only by a planned $13 billion deal to buy 100 next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II aircraft. 

The U214 class diesel submarines will be equipped with HDW fuel cells for air independent propulsion. HDW will pre-assemble key structural and mechanical parts in Germany, as well as classified elements such as the fuel cells and propulsion system. All electronic and weapon systems, including sensors, communications and data processing systems, will be designed and produced in Turkey. Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül has reportedly stated that Turkish industrial participation would be worth around 80 percent of the deal’s value (Hürriyet, July 3, 2009). 

Naval Exports 

By tonnage output, Turkey is now fourth in the world shipbuilding league behind China, South Korea and Japan. [5] In many Turkish shipbuilding yards, military and commercial vessels can be built using the same facilities so that government supported military shipbuilding can create and/or retain shipbuilding capacity. Besides boosting the country’s naval assets, this capacity could later be available for commercial activities, so that decisions by government for defense or security reasons could in some cases positively impact the commercial shipbuilding sector. There are now five private commercial shipbuilding yards in Turkey that have been awarded naval contracts. 

This collaboration is to continue and intensify. A SSM press release issued prior to the Shipbuilding, Machinery & Marine Technology Trade Fair held in Istanbul in January 2011 noted: 

The Turkish shipbuilding industry is also helped by massive support from the Turkish Government, which is making a big effort in naval shipbuilding. It has, for example, placed an order for six submarines of a new type from HDW, and this is likewise intended to boost the business of Turkish suppliers. It is also having a number of surface naval ships built at Turkish shipyards. The Undersecretariat for Defense Industries is driving these projects forward, and is now also showing increased commitment to merchant shipbuilding. All of this gives a bright outlook for the shipbuilding market in Turkey. [6] 

This increased naval shipbuilding capacity is causing Turkey to consider naval exports, primarily to Middle East, North African, Central Asian and South Asian countries. M?LGEM corvettes have already received interest, particularly from Canada, as well as from Pakistan, Ukraine and some South American countries. As the ships are priced at $500 million, they are expected to provide 100 percent profit. 

Shifting Naval Objectives 

While in the past the Turkish Navy’s modest assets largely restricted it to littoral waters, the mission definitions for the navy have been growing along with its surface fleet. While Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO, certain developments could cause its naval policies to diverge from those of the alliance. 

Highlighting the unique nature of Turkish naval responsibilities, both Turkey and Greece are members of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), the alliance’s Mediterranean maritime Immediate Reaction Forces, originally formed in 1992 as Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED). Since then, significant subsea natural gas deposits have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, resulting in a plethora of overlapping Cypriot, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Israeli claims. When the subsea natural gas deposits are developed, alliance responsibilities will be further strained while increasing those of regional navies, including Turkey’s, to guard offshore potential energy assets. If subsea issues are not definitively negotiated between Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Cyprus and Turkey’s traditional naval rival Greece, then an expanded Turkish Navy could prove a very useful asset against a Greek Navy in decline because of massive budget cuts even though such unilateral actions would go against SNMG2 principles. Highlighting the ongoing political turmoil emanating from the Arab Spring, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry announced on August 18 that Egypt unilaterally canceled the joint “Sea of Friendship 2011” naval exercise with Turkey, which had been scheduled to run from October 21 to 28. 

Domestic Political Factors Impacting Turkish Naval Expansion   

While the Turkish navy has expanded its capabilities since the M?LGEM program began, it is still hostage to domestic political considerations. In September, a $2.5 billion contract to build six corvettes for the Turkish Navy given to Koç subsidiary RMK Marine unexpectedly canceled after it was awarded in January. The cancellation ostensibly came after a rival firm that had been excluded from the bidding process filed a complaint with a business standards council in the Prime Minister’s office, claiming the tender had been unfair. However, many analysts believe that the real reason the contract was canceled was the Erdo?an government had expressed its displeasure that the Divan Hotel, close to Istanbul’s Gezi Park and owned by Koç Holding, had opened its doors to anti-government demonstrators fleeing tear gas and riot police on June 15 (Haber7, June 16). 

More troubling for the future of the Turkish Navy are the investigations launched by the Erdo?an administration against the Turkish military, including Operation Sledgehammer, the Ergenekon Organization investigation and the 28 February investigation. According to the Turkish Ministry of Defense, more than 400 officers are currently being investigated or have been detained as part of the cases mentioned above, including 64 generals and admirals. The Turkish Navy has 112 of its officers currently behind bars and of the navy’s 47 admirals, 12 are currently behind bars, including some fleet commanders (Foreign Policy Association, March 27). 

The impact of these investigations on the Turkish naval officer corps is such that in a January 25 TV interview on Kanal 24, Prime Minister Erdo?an said that he was uncomfortable there were not enough commanders to promote in the navy ranks to captain even the existing war ships because of the number of officers under arrest. As of October 2011, 25 out of 48 duty admirals in the Turkish Navy were in jail pending trial on coup charges (Hürriyet, January 28).  

Turkish Navy commander Admiral Nusret Güner, who resigned in December, 2012 in protest against the legal proceedings, noted that the main target of the coup plot cases was the Turkish Navy, commenting; “The target in cases like Ergenekon, Balyoz and Poyrazköy was not the Turkish Armed Forces, but rather the Turkish Navy. The rate of arrested officers is around 10 percent in the land and air forces, while it is 80 percent in the naval forces” (Hürriyet, May 4, 2012). 

Whether similar domestic political disputes will continue to negatively impact Turkey’s naval expansion remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt that the ongoing legal proceedings have severely shaken the morale of the Turkish Navy officer corps. 

The Future 

In less than a decade, the growth of Turkey’s defense industry has been extraordinary, surging from a turnover of roughly $1.8 billion in 2006 to over $4.8 billion in 2012. In addition, the Turkish defense sector exports to almost 60 countries around the world, with a total value of over $1.262 billion in 2012. [7] For the period 2008-2012, turnover increased by an annual average of 10.8 percent, resulting in a total growth of 54.38 percent. 

In July, SSM Undersecretary Bayar announced that a research and development panel comprised of military and civilian members and affiliated with the SSM was awaiting approval from the Turkish Ministry of Defense, which would be responsible for the distribution of roughly $100 million for R&D projects after they are approved by the panel (IHS Jane’s Defense Industry, July 10). Bayar outlined the SSM’s future ambitions in August: 

We publish our strategic plans, and those numbers are included in those plans… we are now in the second plan for 2012-2016… The Turkish defense industry’s capabilities are growing, and that is making Turkish industry a better partner for its counterparts in terms of technology and industrial capabilities… We encourage our European colleagues and allies to go together with Turkish industry and develop competitive defense products, both for us and for others. [8] 

The growing sophistication of Turkey’s military manufacturing base along with its buoyant economy have allowed it to move beyond its traditional suppliers of weaponry and insist that such purchases include more elements of technology transfer, factors that may well have influenced Ankara’s recent decision to purchase China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation’s $3.4 billion FD-2000 long-range air and missile defense system over rival offers from Franco/Italian Eurosam SAMP/T and Raytheon, as the Chinese deal would allow Turkish co-production. Even so, Turkish Air Force head General Ak?n Öztürk hinted at the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference that the purchase decision was not necessarily final, commenting, “This is not the last position of Turkey. It may change” (The Nation, November 17). 

SSM wants Turkey’s defense and aerospace sectors to contribute five percent to the country’s exports by 2025. Given its recent history and the ongoing political instability close to Turkish littoral waters, it seems likely that the SSM will achieve its goal despite the ongoing domestic and regional political turmoil. 

Dr. John C. K. Daly is a Eurasian foreign affairs and defense policy expert for the Jamestown Foundation based in Washington, D.C. 


1. “Turkey Overview,” The World Bank, accessed on November 19, 2013,

2. “NATO Transformation and Future Challenges: Address at the ATA 58th General Assembly,” Italian Atlantic Committee, February 5, 2013,

3. “The Commanders Respond: Turkish Navy – Admiral E. Murat Bilgel,” Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, March 2012, Vol. 138/3/1, p. 309.

4. “Restructuring largely complete/Strategy confirmed by Turkish submarine contract,” ThyssenKrupp, July 1, 2011,

5. OECD Council Working Party on Shipbuilding (WP6), “The Shipbuilding Industry in Turkey,” OECD, September 2011,

6. “SMM Istanbul 2011 has plenty of support from the Turkish Government,” SMM Istanbul, November 10, 2010,

7. See:

8. “Technology investments to boost Turkish defence industry,” Worldfolio, August 2013,