Why Exactly Does Turkey Need an Aircraft Carrier?

July 9, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: TurkeySaudi ArabiaSyriaWarMilitaryNational Security

Why Exactly Does Turkey Need an Aircraft Carrier?

Does this make sense?

Turkey is embroiled in Syria, at odds with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and beset by internal ferment—including an alleged military coup attempt last year.

So how does the Turkish government plan to solve these problems? With an aircraft carrier!

“We will build our own aircraft carriers,” declared Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Turkish press. Erdogan spoke during the launch of the corvette Kinaliada, Turkey’s newest warship and a symbol of the country’s defense manufacturing capability.

Turkey is already building a carrier—sort of. The Anadolu, which began construction in 2016 and is slated for launch in 2021, is a twenty-eight-thousand-ton amphibious assault vessel. It could also serve as a small aircraft carrier that could carry a few jump jets such as the F-35B.

But Erdogan seemed to be speaking of purpose-built aircraft carriers such as those operated by the United States, Russia, France and soon Britain. “We have to make Turkey one of the leaders in military shipbuilding, and our [own] aircraft carrier is not a distant dream for us anymore.”

Indeed, Turkey’s defense manufacturing capability is the pillar of Erdogan’s dreams of a strong—and militarily autarkic—nation. “Turkey aims to end its dependency on the foreign defense industry by 2023,” said Erdogan, who claimed that Turkey is only one of ten nations in the world capable of designing and manufacturing naval vessels.

Though Turkey is building its own tank and other weapons, the nation’s shipbuilding prowess is the centerpiece of Erdogan’s vision. The Kinaliada was constructed under Turkey’s MILGEM shipbuilding program, which aims to to build ships not just for the Turkish navy, but for export orders as well. Pakistan announced in May that it would order four MILGEM frigates.

“We have completely finished the implementation of 14 naval vessel projects, another 10 [projects] will follow,” Erdogan said. “We will also build our own aircraft carrier. We have firm resolve to do it and do not doubt the [project’s] success.”

Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey’s president would likely not appreciate a simple question: what does Turkey need an aircraft carrier for?

Aircraft carriers are floating airfields that can park themselves for long periods of time in places not conveniently accessible for land-based aircraft. But Turkey’s fleet of land-based F-16s and F-4s would seem sufficient to project airpower over the eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea, in the event of conflict with Syria, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt or Russia.

And pity the poor Turkish carrier captain ordered to sail within range of the Russian or Israeli air forces, or even to sail a large warship into the confined waters of the Aegean. Which suggests that a Turkish carrier would be used for another mission that carriers do well, which is to project influence.

For example, Turkey has sent troops to Qatar in support of Qatar’s conflict with Saudi Arabia. Maybe a Turkish carrier off the Saudi coast would cool the kingdom? Perhaps, assuming the United States didn’t respond forcefully with a really big aircraft carrier against a threat to its Saudi ally.

Also, even if Turkey can build an aircraft carrier, what ships will escort it? Carriers require a screen of expensive consorts, such as guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, to screen them from attack by submarines, aircraft and antiship missiles.

Building a three-thousand-ton corvette isn’t quite the same as building a ten-thousand-ton Aegis cruiser. Nor is paying for a carrier the same as paying for the swarm of escort ships and replenishment vessels needed to protect and sustain it.

Turkey’s carrier could end up being a turkey with a small T.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Juan Carlos I (L-61)​. Wikimedia Commons