The Coming Naval Arms Race in the Eastern Mediterranean

Main Image Credit A Greek Papanikolis submarine pictured during NATO's Dynamic Manta 2017 anti-submarine warfare exercise in March 2017. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

The clouds of conflict are gathering over the Eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of significant gas reserves and subsequent efforts to delimitate exclusive economic zones (EEZs) have raised tensions between regional countries. And now, Greece and Turkey – historical geopolitical rivals – are locked in an intense naval arms race.

Gas Development as a Factor of Interstate Enmity

The Eastern Mediterranean is the new natural gas frontier. Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus have the potential to become important gas producers. The Leviathan field with estimated reserves of 22 trillion cubic feet (tcf) is located 80 miles off the Israeli coast, while the giant Zohr field with estimated reserves of 30 tcf is approximately 120 miles north of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. In recent years, gas reserves have also been found off the southern coast of Cyprus; the Aphrodite field contains 5 tcf of recoverable natural gas.

Against this background, Greece’s location makes it a natural hub between the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean and gas-consuming Europe. Indeed, Athens has negotiated the construction of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (EAP) with Nicosia and Jerusalem, which would connect Israeli and Cypriot gas fields to Europe via Crete and mainland Greece. The EAP is not just another geopolitical pipe dream: the three countries signed an agreement on the project in January 2020, although the final route is still under consideration. Energy interests have brought Greece closer than ever to Israel and Egypt. In September 2020, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was established in Cairo to foster gas development and transportation in the region.

After the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, it became clear that energy could contribute significantly to the redistribution of power between states. Countries that achieve energy self-sufficiency can improve their position in the international system. Because of their energy wealth, some small states like Norway and Qatar exercise levels of influence that are disproportionate to their population size.

The sale of gas could bring influence, but it could also upset the regional balance of power. While Egypt and Israel have enjoyed peaceful relations for many years, Greece and Turkey have bitterly disagreed over a number of issues. The list includes the limits of Greece’s territorial waters and EEZ, the extent of Greece’s airspace, the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, and various issues involving religious minorities. To make matters worse, the 2019 Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement established EEZs that ignored Greek sovereign rights in the area. In response, Athens and Cairo signed their own maritime boundary delimitation agreement to undermine the validity of the Turkish-Libyan deal.

Moreover, the Turkish leadership still perceives relations with Nicosia as a zero-sum game, where what is good for Cyprus is bad for Turkey and vice versa. Indeed, the Cypriot government’s determination to exploit its offshore gas deposits has created an ‘energy security dilemma’ for Ankara. Turkish drilling ships have repeatedly entered the Cypriot EEZ, accompanied by frigates, to conduct drilling activities; yet, Nicosia has already licensed parts of its EEZ to foreign energy companies. Not surprisingly, the quest for energy resources has driven military modernisation programmes.

Building Blue Water Navies

Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Greece have all modernised their navies since the first gas fields were discovered in the early 2010s. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt has sought a new regional role as a leading Arab country. In 2016, the Egyptian Navy obtained two French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Four years later, Cairo acquired two FREMM multipurpose frigates from Italy. Likewise, Israel has attempted to increase its naval footprint in the region. The Israeli Navy has purchased six Dolphin-class diesel electric submarines and four Sa’ar 6-class missile ships from Germany. Such improved naval capabilities serve largely defensive purposes, including the protection of offshore energy installations and the monitoring of EEZs.

This is not necessarily the case with Turkey. Ankara has launched an ambitious programme to build a blue water navy for projecting power far from home. Modelled after the Spanish multipurpose amphibious assault ship-aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I, the newly built amphibious assault ship Anadolu could conduct long-distance combat operations. The Turkish Navy has also designed and built four Istanbul-class frigates with multi-role combat capabilities. Ankara has assertively promoted the doctrine of the ‘Bluewater Homeland’ (Mavi Vatan), claiming a sea area of 135,000 square miles between Crete and Cyprus. The Turkish Navy has already conducted operations off the coast of Libya to support the troops of the Libyan Government of National Accord.

On the other hand, Greece is a maritime state which has the largest commercial fleet in the world. The Hellenic Navy is a green-water navy which has considerable firepower but can operate safely only in the Aegean Sea. It lacks the means to project power in the deep waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it is a matter of weeks before the Greek government announces its decision on which country will win a €5 billion contract to build four new multi-role frigates. The Greek Ministry of Defence has shortlisted six offers from the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and France. These warships will be delivered to the Hellenic Navy after 2025 and are likely to be equipped with advanced anti-air missiles. Athens hopes to use these ships to increase its naval presence in the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Submarine Race

The Hellenic Navy has a clear advantage over Turkey’s navy in submarine warfare. Together with Israel, Greece has the most advanced conventional submarines in the Eastern Mediterranean. Due to their air-independent propulsion system, the four Type 214 Papanikolis-class submarines are an essential part of Greek deterrent capabilities. During the military standoff with Turkey last summer, Greek submarines remained undetected and provided a considerable military advantage undersea.

However, things will soon change. The Turkish Navy has just acquired the first of six new German-built Type 214 submarines. Ankara wants the new submarines in order to offset Greek superiority, and to shift the naval balance in its favour. There are even reports that Turkish submarines may be equipped with the medium-range IDAS missile, which could attack anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters.

Currently, the Greek navy has 11 Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks, which carry three ΜΚ-46 torpedoes and one Penguin anti-ship missile. In 2019, the Greek navy ordered seven MH-60 Romeo helicopters, which are often referred to as one of the ‘best ASW helicopters in the world’. If everything goes as planned, the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean may witness a cat-and-mouse game between state-of-the-art Turkish submarines and Greek helicopters.

Greek officials have repeatedly discussed the sale of the six submarines to Turkey with the German government. Athens is unlikely to be able to stop the sale, although it has managed to find new allies. The German Green party has officially requested that the German government stops the sale. If the Greens join the next coalition government in autumn 2021, Athens may realise its hopes of delaying or stopping the sale. Although several Western countries including the US and Canada have imposed – officially or unofficially – an arms embargo against Turkey, the German government is determined to deliver the submarines. It claims that this is solely a matter of honouring a contract signed in 2009. In other words, Germany cannot afford to look unreliable as a supplier. However, it seems that geopolitical considerations also play a role. Berlin wants Turkey to remain a strong military power in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to counterbalance increasing Russian naval activities.

Prospects for the Future

Since April 2021, Greece and Turkey have engaged in a political dialogue to solve some of their problems. Yet, this pre-negotiation process of exploratory talks does not look very promising at the moment. Turkey has issued new demands that the Greek government cannot accept. Ankara has demanded, for example, the demilitarisation of certain Eastern Aegean islands, even though Greece is a fellow NATO member state and has no territorial claims against Turkey. The likely failure of the talks could lead to more tensions. Competing energy interests, combined with new naval capabilities, could create an environment that makes conflict inevitable.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Emmanuel Karagiannis

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