[ANALYSIS] NATO needs Turkey’s submarine force to balance Russia in the Black Sea

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Fatih Yurtsever*

NATO and the United States are currently facing a crisis with Russia over Ukraine. Russia is demanding that Ukraine and Georgia not be admitted to NATO and wants written guarantees regarding the alliance’s eastward expansion. Following Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, it has invigorated its regional and global position; such demands made of NATO, which security experts closely monitor, are not surprising. Putin formulates new Russian security policies by exploiting the gaps and new opportunities generated by the great power struggle between China and the United States. At the same time, in June 2022 NATO member states will adopt the strategic concept document to guide NATO’s future activities

NATO is well aware that Russia poses a threat to the alliance’s security. However, certain EU member states, such as Germany and Italy, which have close economic ties with Russia, and Russia’s monopoly of the European gas market, make it difficult for NATO to take appropriate measures against Russia. Russia’s military and naval expansion in the Black Sea endangers not only NATO, but also the other littoral states, Turkey in particular. In this case, what should NATO and Turkey do in the Black Sea to deter Russia?

Russian Black Sea Fleet getting larger with surface ships and submarines

Russia strengthened the Black Sea Fleet at the Sevastopol Naval Base after the annexation of Crimea to maintain a strategic balance against NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the wider Black Sea region. The number of warships at the naval base increased from 34 to 49, while submarines rose in number from one to seven. The fleet consists of six new submarines, three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates and four corvettes armed with Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles.

Another milestone for Russian naval power

It is considered an essential capability of naval power to attack strategic targets located far inland from a great distance at sea. Until 2015 only the United States and the United Kingdom were believed to have this capability because they had Tomahawk cruise missiles. On Oct. 7, 2015 the Russian Gepard-class frigate Dagestan and three small Buyan-class corvettes operating in the Caspian Sea launched 26 Kalibr cruise missiles. The nine-meter cruise missiles flew over Iranian and Iraqi territory before striking 11 targets in Syria, killing a mix of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters and Free Syrian Army rebels.

Another primary military concern related to the annexation of Crimea is the fact that Russian over-the-horizon sensor systems can cover almost the entire Black Sea. When Russian surface-to-air missiles began flooding Crimea in 2014 and 2015, air defense radars such as long-range early warning, target detection and target engagement radars proliferated. Additionally, Moscow relocated the Monolit-B radar system, an active and passive search and targeting radar covering almost the entire Black Sea, from its Sevastopol location. It has a passive detection range of approximately 450 kilometers and provides the Russian military with a comprehensive, real-time picture of foreign surface ships operating in the Black Sea.

In addition, a larger number of fixed-wing aircraft are stationed at Belbek Airport near Sevastopol and elsewhere in Crimea. Moreover, Moscow maintains the coastal defense Bastion P, armed with the P-800 Oniks cruise missile, with a range of up to 300 kilometers. Russia’s military expansion in the Black Sea has shifted regional naval dominance toward Moscow. However, Russia’s seizure and remilitarization of Crimea has again placed Moscow in a security dilemma vis-à-vis the NATO member states in the Black Sea.

NATO needs Turkish Reis-class submarines

During the Cold War, NATO’s operational plans relied on Turkish submarines to neutralize Soviet naval and amphibious power in the Black Sea. Many years later, NATO again needs an affordable submarine force to confine Russian naval power in the Black Sea. The physical conditions of naval warfare give submarines inherent advantages, making combat against this invisible element extremely difficult. Although countries are trying to develop new tactics by supporting their navies with sophisticated solutions and technological advances, submarines still have a significant advantage over surface units.

Submarines are generally classified according to their main propulsion systems and strategic missiles. Diesel-electric submarines, also known as classic submarines, have been used by many countries for decades. Despite the advantage of silence underwater, these submarines must routinely return to periscope depth and snorkel to recharge their batteries periodically. This process reduces the tactical elasticity of diesel submarines and makes them vulnerable to detection and engagement.

Air independent propulsion (AIP) submarines are now considered one parameter that changes the balance. These vessels are silent and can remain submerged for extended periods. AIP submarines are superior to diesel submarines. The most important reason for this superiority is that diesel-powered submarines must return to periscope depth and snorkel at least every 24 hours, while AIP submarines can remain submerged for weeks.

The Turkish Navy will have AIP-capable submarines with the Reis-class submarine project. The first Reis-class submarine, Piri Reis, was launched at Gölcük Naval Shipyard on March 23, 2021. The Turkish Navy will have six of these submarines expected to enter service between 2022 and 2027. The Reis-class submarine project is of critical importance to the Turkish Navy. These submarines will increase the strength of the submarine fleet in the Black Sea through their AIP capability. The Turkish Navy has a 12-strong submarine fleet consisting of four Ay-class submarines (Type 209/1200), four Preveze-class submarines (Type 209T/1400) and four Gür-class submarines (Type 209T2/1400), all conventionally powered (diesel-electric) attack submarines. By 2027, Turkey will operate six Reis-class AIP submarines.

Due to Turkey’s procurement of S-400 air defense missiles from Russia in 2019, Turkey, NATO and the United States have some issues; yet Turkey is still a critical member of NATO. Turkey has developed an indigenous Atmaca guided missile, and the Gezgin cruise missile has increased the firepower of the Turkish Naval Forces.

When all Reis-class submarines join the Navy, the Turkish Naval Forces will have silent submarines that are difficult to detect and can remain submerged for three weeks. When these submarines are armed with Gezgin and Atmaca cruise missiles, the naval forces will gain the ability to covertly attack well into the mainland from far out at sea. It is not easy for surface ships to detect submarines with AIP. Such submarines limit the navigational freedom of surface warships.

To limit the use of Russian naval power in the Black Sea against NATO, Turkey can reduce the operational effectiveness of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea by deploying Reis-class submarines armed with Gezgin and Atmaca cruise missiles.

Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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