Launched on 27 February, Blue Homeland 2019 was Turkey’s largest naval exercise in the country’s history, testing its ability to wage war simultaneously in the Black Sea, Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.
The exercise was designed to build confidence and stability throughout Turkey and to contribute to NATO’s common objectives and should therefore be analysed in a wider context.
The Turkish naval exercise “Mavi Vatan”, translated “Blue Homeland”, took place from 27 February to 8 March and was an important show of force on 462,000 square kilometres in the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, with 103 military ships and 20,000 soldiers participating. As part of the exercise, the Turkish Navy visited 33 ports in Turkey and another seven abroad in the Black Sea to demonstrate Turkish interest in military cooperation in the region. The exercise had been planned six months in advance according to NATO rules and regulations and was conducted in accordance with international law.
According to Turkish officials, Blue Homeland 2019 was a joint military exercise to test the weapons and military systems of the Turkish naval forces, to increase the level of preparation and to develop interoperability procedures with other military commands. The exercise provided an opportunity to present the new weapons and systems recently added to the Turkish military inventory and manufactured by the domestic defence industry.
As an impressive show of force, which sent a powerful message both internally and externally, a large number of national and international military ships took part in Blue Homeland: 13 frigates, 6 corvettes, 16 assault boats, 7 submarines, 7 mine hunting ships, 17 auxiliary class ships, 14 outpost ships, 22 landing ships and a training ship. The new systems and weapons were tested in various operations, including naval control, submarine defence warfare, mine warfare, electronic warfare, preparatory training, joint training with the Air Force Command, the Turkish Land Weapons Command, and training of all-purpose helicopters by the associated coastal units.
Turkish Defence Industry Results
An important element of the exercise was the use of new military systems and equipment developed by the Turkish defence industry. The Navy used ANKA and BAYRAKTAR Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in marine operations. The incorporation of unmanned systems into the Turkish military’s operational concept, especially in a combat-proven fashion, is a breakthrough and a force multiplier in joint operations. The ANKA-S system is developed for day and night reconnaissance, surveillance, fixed/mobile target detection, detection, identification, tracking and real-time image intelligence tasks also under adverse weather conditions. ANKA-S has a payload of 200 kg and an altitude of 30,000 feet and is capable of 24 hours of flight time.
In addition, the coordinated operation of the Turkish Land Weapons Command provided an opportunity to test the developments of the UMTAS and CIRIT weapon systems.
According to the descriptions of the Turkish MoD, UMTAS is a long-range anti-tank missile system that can be integrated into various platforms such as helicopters, UAVs, light armoured vehicles, fixed ground platforms, short-range aircraft and naval platforms and is effective against all armoured systems. UMTAS is designed as an anti-tank missile system for the National ATAK Helicopter (T-129). The system developed by ROKETSAN enables day and night operation in all weather conditions. With a range of 8 km, UMTAS was developed against armoured targets and can be used either air-to-surface or surface-to-surface using either the infrared seeker and laser seeker options. With both fire-forget and fire-update capability, UMTAS provides the ability to shoot beyond cover, achieve precise hits and effectively evaluate impact, and it is effective against both stationary and mobile targets, with the benefit of target update.
CIRIT is a cost-effective solution against light armoured/non-armoured fixed/mobile targets that can be integrated into various platforms such as helicopters, UAVs, land vehicles, stationary platforms, light attack aircraft and naval platforms; it is designed to close the gap between low-cost/low-precision unguided missiles and expensive anti-tank missiles. Compared to the classic 2.75″ laser-guided missiles, CIRIT, with a range of 8 km, has the longest fuselage in its class thanks to its aerodynamic structure and the composite solid fuel engine. Two alternative warheads with high explosive capacity can be attached to the CIRIT missile, which is capable of destroying mobile and light armoured/unarmoured targets. While the multi-purpose warhead has armour-piercing, burning and anti-personnel effects, the second one has only a fragmentation effect. Series production of the CIRIT rocket began in 2010 and has met great interest in foreign markets.
During “Blue Homeland”, air defence warfare, underwater warfare, submarine warfare, land bombardment, control and direction of air elements, and extraction planning and execution were carried out by using the Ship Integrated Combat Management System (GENESIS) developed by HAVELSAN in cooperation with the Turkish Naval Forces Command.
The Turkish naval corvette TCG BURGAZADA, which was produced within the framework of the Turkish MILGEM project (“Milli Gemi” – “National Ship”), fulfilled its first major task during Blue Homeland. As part of an operation, TCG BURGAZADA carried out warning and destruction shots with ASELSAN weapon systems on a boat identified as a potential threat. In another phase of the manoeuvre, TCG BURGAZADA participated together with the Turkish minesweeper AKCAY in an exercise with the Russian patrol vessel VASILY BYKOV and the sea trawler VALENTIN PIKUL near the port of Novorossiysk. Once again, the exercise was a symbol of Turkish-Russian cooperation in recent years.
During another important part of the exercise, military planners deployed Turkey’s battle-hardened amphibious units to active conflict zones to keep them at high combat-readiness; the Navy’s special operations teams (SAS and SAT commandos) fought hard in Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Open-source pieces of evidence suggest that detachments from the Amphibious Marine Brigade’s battalions also took part in the cross-border efforts in Syria.
The Navy’s manoeuvre and the use of new national military systems and equipment reflect Turkey’s awareness of the benefits and responsibilities arising from its maritime territory and the ability of a strong Navy to enhance military, political and economic success. Unlike other traditional branches of the armed forces, navies are truly effective diplomatic means that can benefit Turkey, especially in the current regional context. In this sense, one of the most impressive messages of Blue Homeland is Turkey’s commitment to using its maritime options more actively in the coming years to achieve its political, economic and military goals and, above all, increase its status in the region.
In view of this, the main elements of the Blue Homeland manoeuvre should be considered in a regional and international context, which analyses the codename of the exercise and its geographical scope, including its economic and political implications.
Not just the Land
The code name of the exercise – “Mavi Vatan” / Blue Homeland – symbolises the future political and military agenda of Turkey in the region. Given the strong emotional meaning of the word “homeland” for the Turkish population, Blue Homeland is intended to remind Turks that their national sovereignty is not limited to the land. Therefore, the very code name is a Turkish declaration that assigns the same importance to ensuring the security of their territorial seas as to the protection of the country and suggests that the Navy is important in protecting national maritime interests and the exclusive economic zone.
The Significance of the Exercise
“Blue Homeland” is a good opportunity for the international community, and regional actors in particular, to assess the improved capabilities of the Turkish Navy and its joint operational capability with other branches. However, the importance of the exercise goes far beyond the military dimension, as Turkey is investing heavily in its naval capabilities, not only to defend territorial waters but also to protect the country’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) and to build power projection capabilities.
Analysts see the Turkish naval exercise as a sign of Ankara’s determination to protect its territorial and gas exploration rights in the Mediterranean and as a sign of the Navy’s recovery from the failed coup d’état in 2016, as well as reflecting three important dimensions of Turkey’s strategy in the region: to pursue national interests in an expanded zone of influence, to play a more active role in competition for geopolitical energy markets including naval diplomacy, and to continue developing the domestic defence industry.
Although the military aspect of the exercise is the most important, the economic dimensions are also relevant. Gas fields were first discovered in the waters off Cyprus in 2011, and the Greek Cypriot government has recently signed drilling contracts with big oil companies in the Eastern Mediterranean. If developed, the undersea reservoirs could fundamentally change energy geopolitics and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia for gas. Turkey’s position in this regard is stronger than ever, as the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, has stated that nothing can be done in the Mediterranean without Turkey. For this reason, Turkey wants a share of the revenues and will use maritime power as an important element in future negotiations.
The Blue Homeland exercise is a reflection of the words of Çavuşoğlu and a strong message that Turkey will not remain passive in matters contrary to its national interests. For these reasons, it can be said that this major naval exercise has military, political and economic reasons.
The Big Picture
One day after the end of the Turkish naval manoeuvre, the Egyptian Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Mohamed Zaki, met his Greek counterpart, Evangelos Apostolakis. The two ministers discussed recent regional developments and their impact on stability and security in the Middle East region, as well as ways to improve military cooperation between the armed forces of both countries. Zaki praised the coordination and consultation between Egypt and Greece on military and security issues. The Greek Minister stressed his country’s desire to strengthen bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the coming years.
At the end of March 2019, the sixth trilateral Cyprus-Greece-Israel Summit was held in Jerusalem with the aim of further developing cooperation on energy sources and security in the Eastern Mediterranean; the US Department of State also participated in the conference. The Summit was attended by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Deputy Secretary for Energy Francis R. Fannon. The agenda included developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and cooperation in the fields of energy, security and defence, the economy and migration.
One month after the Blue Homeland exercise, the Egyptian-Greek Joint Maritime Training “Medusa 8” was launched to promote military cooperation with fraternal and friendly countries with the participation of the Egyptian and Greek Naval and Air Forces and the Egyptian and Greek and Cypriot Special Forces. According to official statements, the training is characterised by the growing military partnership between the Egyptian armed forces and fraternal and friendly countries. It demonstrates the great fighting strength of the participating forces and the high level of training that contributes to meeting the growing challenges in the Mediterranean region.
In view of these developments, which occurred after the Turkish naval exercise, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel, all supported by the US, are not ready to cooperate with Turkey in the Mediterranean. This is completely contrary to Turkey’s position, as reflected by the words of Çavuşoğlu: No deal without Turkey.
Turkey has redefined its position on the regional and international stage, and the Blue Homeland exercise has reflected both Turkey’s commitment and its success to date. However, the regional context is becoming more complex every day as attempts are made to isolate Turkey from any regional agreement in the Mediterranean. Time will tell what Turkey’s next step in this regard will be and how motivated it is to use its vast arsenal in a new diplomatic game.
Andreea Stoian Karadeli is freelance researcher based in Turkey and a PhD Candidate at Mihai Viteazul National Intelligence Academy in Romania. Her interdisciplinary research varies from cultural and intercultural studies to conflict resolution and focuses on national security and terrorism, with expertise in the Middle East.