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

Russian cruiser Moskva. Wikimedia Commons/Mil.ru

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

Regarding ALCM, Turkey’s stand-off munition (SOM), the B-1 model, is said to have a greater range than 180 kilometers (100 nautical miles) and comes equipped with an imaging infrared (IIR), automatic target recognition-capable seeker that enables it to hit moving surface targets. This missile has already been integrated into the Turkish Air Force’s F-4E 2020 Terminator aircraft and F-16 Block 40 aircraft. Also under development are an extended-range variant and a stealthier model specifically designed to fit into the internal bays of F-35s.

These innovations, while impressive, are not enough. Turkey needs to discover the tactical potential of long-range cruise missile technology and translate it into a realistic and cost-effective naval strategy. In this respect, it must invest in and develop coastal missiles with ranges of up to 300 kilometers (about 160 nautical miles), along with the required mobile launchers and target acquisition and tracking systems. In contrast to long-range air and missile defense technologies, Turkey seems to possess the needed technical capability to quickly develop and mass-produce high-precision ASCMs.

Given its geographic position—dominating choke points between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and long coastlines bordering narrow and semi-closed seas—land-based mobile weapons and sensor systems will be a great boost to the Turkish Navy. Establishing a long- and short-range integrated AAW shield is equally important. With such a collection of toys, Turkey could deny its littorals to any adversary and threaten and harass them in the Aegean Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the southern half of the Black Sea.

A2/AD: The last viable option to fall back on in a chaotic world

Irrespective of Russia’s intentions (or recent signs of a Russian–Turkish rapprochement in Syria), Ankara has other good reasons to invest in A2/AD capabilities.

For one, at a time when Turkey faces rapid technological advances and an uncertain strategic environment, it should opt for a cautious and defensive naval posture. The deep uncertainty that the incoming U.S. administration creates over the future of NATO and the new security situation in Turkey's neighborhood necessitates the creation of an A2/AD bubble sooner rather than later. An A2/AD bubble would allow Turkey to deny the surrounding seas and skies to countries that may act against its national interests.

A robust A2/AD system would also allow Turkey to respond to Donald Trump's criticism during the presidential campaign that NATO allies have to do their part, chip in and not free-ride on U.S. security guarantees and boost their capabilities by increasing their defense budget. Thus, Turkey, with help from its NATO allies, should strive to create its own A2/AD shield and bolster its own defense and that of the West.

To be sure, there is no point in overlooking Turkey’s weakening relations with its NATO partners in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 2016. While both Western criticism of Turkey’s deteriorating democratic standards and Turkish criticism of lack of U.S. and European support for Ankara’s security problems emanating from Iraq and Syria are valid, these concerns should be balanced in relation to greater Western and Turkish strategic interests in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus and the Middle East. In other words, policymakers in Ankara, Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals should ask themselves whether they could afford to “lose” each other at a time when the global scene gets increasingly chaotic and dangerous.

And if Ankara’s relations the West do break down, the A2/AD bubble will be an even more critical asset. For instance, should Turkey’s dormant disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus resurface, the Hellenic Navy would likely enjoy backing from its sister EU navies. In that case, the Turkish Navy's “power projection” platforms would be of very little use. A land-based defensive A2/AD bubble, on the other hand, would give Turkey a much-needed deterrent shield and keep its sea lanes open, something that expensive, easy-to-kill offensive “power projection” platforms may not achieve.

That means withdrawing from prestigious—but strategically dubious—projects (especially the $2 billion LHD idea) and investing in A2/AD solutions. In an era where even the mighty nuclear aircraft carriers and carrier battle groups are considered increasingly obsolete in “power projection” roles in the littorals and events in its neighborhood are susceptible to radical change, Turkey would be well advised to revise its naval priorities and focus first and foremost on building effective A2/AD zones in its neighboring seas instead of building expensive offensive capabilities with doubtful effectiveness. As Sun Tzu once said, “the skillful warriors first make themselves invincible and await the enemy’s moment of vulnerability.”

Bleda Kurtdarcan is a lecturer at Galatasaray University School of Law in Istanbul, where he teaches public international law. He obtained his Ph.D. from Galatasaray University in 2014 and his LLM from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2005. He specializes in law of armed conflict, law of the sea, maritime security and the privatization of military services. He is the co-author of the book titled (in Turkish) Wars and Weapons of the Future: An Appraisal of Autonomous Weapon Systems, Lasers, and Computer Network Attacks Under the Law of Armed Conflict.

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