While the spotlight has recently focused on Turkey’s army and air force as a result of their recent operations against militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the Turkish navy has been quietly conducting exercises with allies from distant corners of the globe.
Beginning on March 7 and lasting for nine days, the NATO “Mavi Balina–2008” (“Blue Whale”) 2008 naval exercise involves naval units from Pakistan and Standing NATO Response Force (NRF) Maritime Group 2 (SNMG) member Turkey, which contributed TCG Gediz, along with vessels from Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, and the United States (Geo TV, March 11).
The participants visited Turkey’s Aksaz Aegean port March 7-9, where they began coordinated anti-submarine-warfare maneuvers (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, March 7).
The exercise is scheduled to conclude at Turkey’s southern Mediterranean Antalya port on March 17 (Haber, March 5).
The exercise marks the first time that Pakistani warships have participated in a NATO operation. Islamabad has sent the destroyer PNS Tariq and combat support ship PNS Moawin, under command of Pakistan Naval Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Noman Bashir (Associated Press of Pakistan, March 12).
While the presence of a Pakistani naval contingent is a first for NATO, Turkish-Pakistani naval ties stretch back nearly a decade. In March 1999 a Turkish warship, TNS Orcureis, visited the Arabian Sea to participate in joint naval exercises with the Pakistani Navy. The TNS Orcureis remained in Pakistan’s waters March 21-27 for joint exercises with three Pakistani warships.
Turkey’s unique peninsular geography has given its navy greater responsibilities than any other navy of comparable size, and its responsibilities have only increased since 9/11. Turkey is dependent on the sea for its welfare and security, as approximately 90% of Turkey’s trade relies on maritime commerce. Turkey’s 5,177 miles of coastline is three times greater than the country’s 1,598 miles of land frontiers and include borders along the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas and innumerable islands.
The Turkish Navy’s 55,000 personnel include 31,000 conscripts, 3,000 Marines, and 900 Naval Aviation troops. There are also 70,000 reserves. The Turkish Navy currently operates 15 submarines, 24 frigates, and 27 fast-attack missile craft; the service also has a naval wing. Turkey also operates a Coast Guard Command; the youngest of Turkey’s military forces, the 1,700-strong Coast Guard, was formed in July 1982.
Epitomizing Turkey’s broader naval commitments, Turkish marine companies were deployed to Afghanistan in April 2007 and Kosovo in May 2007. During the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia Turkey contributed a frigate to the NATO maritime forces enforcing the sea blockade in the Adriatic.
If Turkey’s Cold War role was to be NATO’s eastern maritime bastion, since the 1991 collapse of communism that role has evolved to deterring terrorism and protecting seaborne energy shipments. Both concerns are centered on the 17-mile long Bosporus, which bisects Istanbul, and is only half a mile wide at its narrowest point. Along with the southern 38 mile-long Dardanelles, the Turkish Straits now carry 50,000 vessels annually, including 5,500 oil tankers, making the passage the world’s second-busiest maritime strait and the only channel transiting a major city.
Turkey, through its sovereign control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles waterways between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, occupies a unique maritime strategic position. Turkey’s sovereignty is guaranteed under the 1936 Montreux Convention. Accordingly, Turkey is in a position to control the maritime destinies of Black Sea riparian states, including Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, southern Russia, and Georgia. Using the Volga-Don Canal, Caspian Turkmen, Iranian, Azerbaijani, and Kazakh merchants also have access to the Black Sea and via the Turkish Straits, the Mediterranean.
Turkey’s response to these immense maritime responsibilities has been to broaden its international contacts via multinational exercises. Since 1998 Turkey, Israel, and the United States have conducted “Reliant Mermaid” exercises, while to the north, since 2001 Turkey has been a founding member and leader of the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (BLACKSEAFOR). Bulgaria and Romania, now also NATO members, participate in the Group, along with Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. In a reminder that Turkish strategic interests do not always parallel those of Washington, in 2005 Turkey, with Russian support, rejected a U.S. request for BLACKSEAFOR observer status.
Proving that military forces need not always lead to heightened conflict, on September 18, 2006, the first joint exercise between the Greek and Turkish navies occurred when both forces conducted a passing exercise at the request of the Turkish Navy, with the Turkish TNS Barbaros frigate steaming past the Greek Navy’s HNS Themistocles.
The implicit message of the Turkish Navy in its multifaceted commitments seems to be, “We will be a loyal ally and a good neighbor while fulfilling our greatest responsibility, protecting the Republic as we strive to carry out Ataturk’s dictum, ‘peace at home, peace in the world’.”