Russia, Turkey and the Black Sea A2/AD Arms Race

Russian cruiser Moskva. Wikimedia Commons/

Will Turkey build its A2/AD capabilities to counter Russia’s growing A2/AD assets in the Black Sea and Syria?

To translate all these facts into a working naval strategy, prominent strategists such as Wayne Hughes and James Holmes argue that an A2/AD strategy implemented through “a fortress fleet” and reinforced with minelayers, submarines, land-based air support, and coupled with land-based ASCMs, SAMs and electronic-warfare systems, represents the most cost-effective and hardest-to-counter method of controlling littorals and nearby seas.

Recent events have proven the merits of A2/AD. In October 2016, a series of ASM attacks against several U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels demonstrated that defending surface combatants—even against outdated missiles—is a very expensive task. The Yemen incident proved that attacked ships could egress without a scratch, but the economic cost of mounting an effective defense could be unbearable for many navies. The stakes are so high that no one can risk cutting corners.

The theory and practice of modern naval warfare shows that a fleet’s capability to control the sea, project force and strike land targets is severely hampered in littoral regions because it requires a large and expensive concentration of force—especially shipborne defensive AAW weaponry. This problem is all the more pressing for a fleet such as that of Turkey, which has home ports and littorals within range of Russia’s new A2/AD zones.

Beyond naval and military affairs, Russian “bubbles” also pose a threat to Turkish trade routes. For a country whose economic well-being depends on foreign trade, Russia’s A2/AD zone in Syria, if left unchecked, could pose a near-existential threat in the future.

Why Turkey should change its naval priorities

Against this Russian challenge, Turkey’s naval strategy is premised on presumptions from an era when its navy held relative supremacy in quantitative and qualitative terms in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish naval strategy currently aims to defend the homeland and neutralize threats against its rights and interests in peripheral seas. Accordingly, the Turkish Navy’s primary mission is to establish sea control (although Ankara does not indicate whether that control would be absolute or limited). Secondary and tertiary missions are force projection and striking land from the sea, respectively. Sea denial takes only fourth place.

This perspective has shaped the Turkish Navy’s modernization projects. At present, Turkey’s shopping list envisions an impressive force structure influenced by a Mahanian vision of naval strategy that is geared toward sea control and force projection: the planned development and building of I-class stealth frigates (basically enlarged Ada-class corvettes) armed with sixteen anti-ship missiles (ASM) each, TF-2000 AAW frigates, two planned landing helicopter docks (LHD) based on Spain’s Juan Carlos I class amphibious assault ships (each worth $1 billion and planned to host F-35Bs) and fast combat-support ships.

Turkey, however, must face the grim reality. In the Black Sea, the ongoing and planned deployment of modern, stealthy surface combatants like the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, modified Buyan M-class corvettes, and the commissioning of the sixth and last Varshavyanka-class (Improved Kilo) diesel electric submarines have tipped the scales in Russia’s favor. Furthermore, while becoming increasingly unpredictable as well as aggressive, Moscow is close to establishing two very powerful A2/AD zones flanking Turkey from the north and south, severely restricting the country’s ability to maneuver at sea and in the air. As such, the Turkish side should reformulate its naval strategy by establishing its own A2/AD capabilities to assert and exercise sea control.

Today, establishing sea control is an expensive and cumbersome undertaking for a navy, especially in narrow and semi-closed seas and littoral regions surrounding Turkey. Unless a sudden breakthrough creating a singularity in anti-missile technologies comes about (such as efficient direct-energy weapons), land-based A2/AD strategies, with their potential for launching saturation attacks, will prevail over ship-based defense.

The good news is that Turkey has made some progress with weapon systems that could be used to establish an A2/AD zone. For some time, Turkey’s defense industries have been working on developing indigenous ASM and ALCM technologies. Under the first category, the ATMACA (“Hawk”) project, in progress since 2009, aims to develop an indigenous ASM with capabilities and range similar to the Harpoon Block II, which is slated for replacement from the Turkish Navy’s surface and submarine platforms.