On September 27 the Turkish navy launched the corvette TCG Heybeliada, the first modern warship to be designed, built, and equipped primarily from local resources.
The TCG Heybeliada is the first in what will eventually be a series of 12 multi-purpose littoral combat warships built under the Milli Gemi (National Ship or MILGEM) program. The Heybeliada has an overall length of 99 meters (325 feet), a maximum beam of 14.4 meters (47 feet), and a displacement of 2,000 metric tons (2,200 tons). In addition to weapons systems, the Heybeliada will have a hangar and platform for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Sea Hawk helicopters and/or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The vessel has been designed to operate with a crew of 93, including aviation personnel. It is expected to have range of 3,500 nautical miles and a top speed of over 29 knots.
The Turkish navy has traditionally either bought its vessels secondhand, particularly from the United States, or had them built by foreign shipyards. The MILGEM project has its origins in a 1996 plan to have German MEKO A-100 corvettes built in Turkish shipyards. The Turkish navy subsequently shelved the idea and decided to try to build the country’s first entirely indigenous modern warship using Turkish shipyards, universities, and companies. Work on the plans began on March 12, 2004. The keel of the TCG Heybeliada was laid on July 26, 2005. The electronics systems and other equipment are still to be added; and it is expected to begin sea trials on October 25, 2010, and officially enter service in 2011. Nearly 40 Turkish companies have been involved in the project. Total local input is estimated at around 80 percent (Turkish Defense Industry Under-Secretariat website, www.ssm.gov.tr).
Once it is fully operational, the Heybeliada is expected to be mainly used for patrolling and observation, search and rescue operations, anti-submarine warfare, the monitoring and prevention of maritime terrorist activities, and coastguard duties (Turkish Navy website, www.dzkk.tsk.mil.tr).
The other 11 vessels in the MILGEM program are all due to be completed by 2028. Seven will be corvettes in the same “ADA Class” as the Heybeliada. Four will be classified as frigates of what will be known as the “F-100 Class.” The vessels in the F-100 Class will be slightly larger than the ADA Class corvettes and will be equipped with additional systems, such as the Mk-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) for Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs). The F-100s will also serve as a testing platform for a planned new class of indigenous anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) frigates, known as the TF-2000 program.
The MILGEM program is part of a broader strategy of trying to develop the local defense industry in order to enable the Turkish Armed Forces to meet as high a proportion as possible of their needs from inside the country. In the past, Turkey has frequently faced problems in supplying its defense requirements from other countries. In 1974 the United States imposed an arms embargo on Turkey following its invasion of Cyprus. More recently, several European countries have either blacklisted Turkey or attempted to impose restrictions on the sale of weapons and equipment, particularly during the 1990s when the war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was at its height. Another reason for the decision to try to develop the local defense industry has been the hope that it will reduce costs. In practice, however, the scale and depth of foreign companies’ expertise still frequently means that it is more expensive to produce inside Turkey. The Turkish authorities are also aware that the country is unlikely ever to possess the breadth of technical expertise or an indigenous defense industry large enough to be entirely self-sufficient. But there is little doubt that in addition to practical considerations, one of the motivations for the development of an indigenous defense industry is simply national pride.
The ceremony for the official launch of the TCG Heybeliada at a naval shipyard at Pendik in Istanbul was attended by both the high command of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) and leading representatives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As has become customary at ceremonies and functions organized by the rigorously secularist TGS, and unlike the military commanders, the AKP representatives had not been invited to bring their wives, many of whom wear Islamic headscarves. As a result, the honor of smashing the traditional bottle of champagne against the Heybeliada’s bow fell not to the wife of the aggressively teetotal Erdogan but to the spouse of the official next in line in the protocol hierarchy, General Ilker Basbug, the chief of the TGS (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, September 28).
Nevertheless, Erdogan did take the opportunity to deliver a speech. “We have set as our primary target meeting the requirements of the Turkish Armed Forces from national industry and thus minimizing their dependence on other countries,” declared Erdogan. “Developments taking place on the seas around Turkey’s borders clearly demonstrate the importance of naval power” (Anadolu Ajansi, September 27).
The date for the launch of the Heybeliada had been deliberately chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Ottoman victory over an alliance of Christian forces at the battle of Battle of Preveza on September 27, 1538, which cemented the Ottoman Empire’s position as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean.
In his speech to the assembled dignitaries, a beaming Admiral Metin Atac, the commander of the Turkish navy, also attempted to thread the pedigree of the MILGEM project through a more recent triumph.
“The crazy sailor grandchildren of the Crazy Turks have succeeded in building this ship,” trumpeted Atac in an unmistakable reference to the best-selling novel, Those Crazy Turks, a stirring tale of ultranationalist narcissism set in the 1919 to 1922 Turkish War of Independence against the Greeks (Turgut Ozakman, Su Cilgin Turkler, Istanbul, Bilgi Yayinevi, 2005).
It is currently unclear whether Turkey will also attempt to use its growing indigenous defense industry for strategic leverage, for instance, by strengthening its relations with other countries; but there have already been unconfirmed reports that Pakistan is interested in MILGEM warships, starting by buying one directly from Turkey and then building at least three more in Karachi (Turkish Radio and Television, February 20, 2007).