While the Chinese A2/AD “bubble” in the South China Sea gives headaches to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, further to the north, the newest Russian “bubble” is about to go online against Japan in the disputed Kuril Islands . Meanwhile, on the other end of Eurasia, in Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, another A2/AD zone challenges NATO’s position in Eastern Europe.
Now, two more Russian “bubbles” in the Black Sea and Syria are threatening Turkey and NATO’s southeastern flank.
Russia’s Black Sea and Syria “bubbles” matter to Turkey for several reasons. They spell an end to the relative naval superiority that Ankara had established in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean after the Cold War. It also means that Turkey has to redirect resources away from its ambitious buildup of force-projection platforms toward developing strategies and weapons to counter the Russian A2/AD bubbles. While Russian–Turkish relations appear better in recent months, the future is uncertain. If a crisis erupts similar to the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F-16, Ankara would face fearful odds against Moscow .
The Bear builds a new lair in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean
In May 2014, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced a $2.43 billion naval buildup program. The plan included the deployment of new land-based air defense systems by 2020 in addition to new surface combatants and submarines to bolster Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
As Moscow implemented the sea component of its new Black Sea strategy, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced in March 2015 that Russia had positioned Bastion mobile coastal defense missile systems (SSC-5 in NATO nomenclature) in Crimea. On August 12, RT reported that the most advanced anti-air defense missile system in Russia’s inventory, the S-400 “Triumph,” had been deployed to the peninsula to augment the formidable air defense capabilities of S-300v4 (SA-23 Gladiator) batteries and PANTSIR S-1 gun-missile systems. The ongoing refurbishment of Soviet-era bunkers and reanimation of early-warning radar stations, in conjunction with the deployment of high-tech electronic-warfare equipment, has transformed Crimea into the epicenter of a nearly impenetrable A2/AD zone in the Black Sea.
The land-based anti-air warfare (AAW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and early warning capabilities that are integral components of this A2/AD strategy provides Russia’s small Black Sea fleet with impressive long-range defensive and offensive means. In September, Russian chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov stood on solid ground when he claimed that his country had regained supremacy in the Black Sea , which was lost to Turkey in the late 1990s. In a bid to underline the effectiveness of the sea denial strategy now in place, Gerasimov said that Russia’s “Black Sea Fleet should be able—and it has already demonstrated this capability—to destroy a potential enemy’s amphibious force on the way, starting from the ports of embarkation.” He added that “the Black Sea Fleet has all essential means of reconnaissance capable of identifying targets as far as 500 kilometers away and means of attack.”
About 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the south, off the coast of the Syrian port city of Tartus, the scene is virtually the same. The Kuznetsov carrier battle group, notwithstanding its impressive AAW and ASuW capabilities, is placed under the aegis of an impressive array of land-based, long-range Bastion anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, as well as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).
Land dominating the sea, defense overcoming offense
The Russians are building land-based A2/AD systems to support their naval fleets for a good reason. Just like the Chinese, Russian strategic planners drew the right conclusions after the Gulf War by adopting A2/AD principles, which bar enemy forces from entering, operating in, or remaining in the region of conflict.
This naval strategy is characterized by missile warfare and coastal defense systems that carry the strengths of a naval fleet without its vulnerabilities, thus playing a prominent role in littoral operations. Indeed, in a tactical engagement in the littorals, numerous land-based ASCM and SAM systems can either reinforce the fleet’s firepower in a cost-effective way or batter the adversary fleet and give the coastal state’s fleet the opportunity to engage the enemy on more favorable terms.
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.