Monday, 31 March 2014

The importance of the eastern Mediterranean for the EU

The end of the Cold War started a two decade long trend in Europe, namely the reduction of military hardware in the member states of the EU. As of current the powers the EU has to its disposal are in order of importance: economic power, political power and military power. One of the catchphrases in geopolitics has been that the EU is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm. Indeed, after two decades of downsizing its military forces the EU has barely any military power available and what it does have available is almost never used as all 28 member states of the EU need to agree on a joint military mission.

The lack of military hardware brings with it security risks and these are now best seen in the eastern Mediterranean where several existing and potential conflicts pose challenges to the EU to maintain its influence as a global player, or at least being able to exercise influence in its own backyard. The conflicts mentioned just above are:

-          The Arab Israeli conflict
-          The Syrian war and Russia’s involvement.
-          Cyprus and EU tensions with Turkey over a solution
-          The instability of Lebanon
-          A potential conflict between Israel en Turkey over ownership of undersea gas fields
-          The presence of terrorist groups in the Sinai and earlier attempts to attack ships in the Suez       Canal

Even if the EU has no stomach for military interventions and existing conflicts it must at least be capable of protecting its economic interests. This means that the EU must be involved in the protection of the Suez Canal as it is the gateway of European trade with Asia. So far the Suez Canal appears to be safe but a failed attempt by a terrorist group operating in the Sinai to sink ships in the canal shows Europe’s trade routes are already under attack. The failed attack consisted of the firing of RPGs at a merchant ship. The ship barely suffered any damage but one cannot exclude a new attempt that might succeed, through the use of more appropriate tactics and could potentially block the Canal for several weeks.

Looking at the position of the maritime forces of the EU we see an unequal spreading within the Mediterranean. There is only the Greek navy in the eastern part to protect the EU’s interests. Greece however still suffers hard from its economic crisis and budget cuts have caused a reduction in military activities such as training and operations. In the western part however we see a very strong concentration of naval forces with the EU member states of Spain, France and Italy.  However, these navies operate in a secure and stable theater and apart from countering illegal immigration and smuggling there are few tasks that they can perform.

There is a need to re-balance the EU’s naval assets in the Mediterranean by shifting naval forces from the western part to the eastern part.  There are several ways to accomplish this. One way would be the creation of a EU naval task force in the Eastern Mediterranean. The organization of this task force would be modeled after the EU Atalanta mission set up to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The benefit of this system is that every EU member with a navy can contribute ships to this task force. However the downside would be that this task force would be composed of ships that are ill fitted to counter a particular situation.

Another way that this could be politically possible for the EU is by creating a joint command, one could even call it a headquarter for a Mediterranean fleet, that has direct control over the navies of Spain, France, Italy and Greece, or at least parts thereof. This joint command would then be capable of creating tailor made task forces composed of the ships needed and available from the above mentioned navies. These tailor made task forces could then be used to patrol or even intervene in the eastern Mediterranean.

One last remark would be the use of the Turkish Navy. Turkey has for long time sought membership of the EU and is a member of the NATO alliance together with several other EU members. Turkey is building a large navy so if it were to become an EU member the EU could use the Turkish navy to increase its presence in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Such a scenario is however wishful thinking. Opposition from Greece and Cyprus prevents the EU to accept Turkey as a member, and within Turkey, the desire to join the EU has greatly diminished, especially following the financial crisis in the EU. The closest level of ties between the EU and Turkey that could be foreseen  is an advanced economic trade regulation between Turkey and the EU but this falls short compared to full EU membership.

To summarize we can conclude that the eastern Mediterranean has the potential to become a very unstable theater that will demand the attention of the EU as this area is vital for its economic trade routes with Asia. The EU cannot afford to leave this area devoid of military presence. Doing so would leave the EU without the necessary hard power to back up its foreign policy in this region. In the current situation however the EU is facing an unequal balance of its naval assets in this region with only the Greek navy to show the flag. The creation of a joint command structure for the Mediterranean would provide the legal and political framework to shift naval assets from the western to the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Iran buidling an aircraft carrier

Iran managed to shock the world last weekend by announcing that they are building a replica of a US Navy aircraft carrier. The ship in question is a large barge remodeled to look like a Nimitz class aircraft carrier complete with hull number and mock up aircrafts. Several speculations about why Iran is building a replica of about 2/3th the size of a real Nimitz class carrier are being spread.

Iran's mock up carrier

Everybody agrees that this is not a functional model. First, Iran lacks the technology to build real aircraft carriers. Its air fleet of F-14 Tomcat planes can be deployed off an aircraft carrier but Iran lacks trained pilots or even reliable planes as economic sanctions against the regime makes it very difficult for Iran to keep its F-14 flying. And since this is a model built on a barge it lacks the propulsion system to propel this model at a great speed.

So if it is not a functioning ship, why does Iran build it? The main theory is that it is propaganda and that it can be used for two reasons. First to show the Iranian people that Iran can build big warships and second to use it as a movie set.

Iran constantly claims that it can build big warships although this is a lie for anybody with some knowledge about warships. Iran claims that it can build destroyers while in reality their biggest ships only rank as corvettes. So the only ones they are fooling are the Iranian population.

The use as a movie set makes sense. Building an aircraft carrier and then blowing it up in front of the camera’s makes for very good propaganda and will sure be effective to send a clear message, namely that Iran is determined to fight and sink US aircraft carriers.

But somehow many people tend to forget a third reason behind this project: training. Iran’s leaders are constantly threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz in response to US sanctions. They also know that the US Navy will use its full might to open the Strait of Hormuz. Iran therefor must come up with the necessary tactics to defeat the US Navy to keep the Strait of Hormuz closed. In the end, that means tactics to defeat carrier battle groups.  A mock up aircraft carrier would make training more realistic, especially when the mock up is defended by corvettes to simulate the deployment of a carrier battle group. Iran’s navy would gain a lot of experience by making trainings as realistic as possible. In the end, a mock up carrier could enhance Iran’s tactics and make it a more formidable foe in the maritime theater.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Russia’s hostile takeover of the Ukrainian navy

In the past days we saw a fast chain of events that altered the balance of power within the Black Sea. In the earlier days of the Russian invasion of the Crimea we saw efforts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) to preserve the Ukrainian navy. The BSF even went so far as to sink the old anti-submarine vessel Ochakov to block Donuzlav Lake on the 7th of March. About 7 Ukrainian warships were trapped in Donuzlav Lake as the sunken ship blocked the only channel out of the lake.

At that point nobody was really sure what game the Russians were playing. It was obvious that they were trying to neutralize the Ukrainian navy but nobody could really tell whether the trapped Ukrainian ships were to be used as a bargain chip for negotiations or to be taken over by the Russians. The past days we witnessed the answer as Russia seized several ships of the Ukrainian navy and put them into their service.

Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships in Sevastopol on Thursday. The ships concerned are the corvettes Ternopil, Lutsk and Khmelnitsky . Afterwards things happened fast. Several other ships were reported to be seized while others spontaneous defected to the Russian side and joined the Black Sea Fleet.

The submarine Zaporizhzhia also defected to the Russian navy on Saturday on March 22. The Zaporizhzhia is the only submarine in the Ukrainian navy. She is an Foxtrot class submarine, build in 1970 and transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian navy in 1997.

Latest news reports on Sunday speak of 54 out of 67 ships of the Ukrainian navy have joined the Black Sea Fleet, including the flagship of the Ukrainian navy, the Slavutich. Most of the ships are support ships but the Russians have by now already taken over 3 Grisha class corvettes, 1 Foxtrot class submarine and 1 Matka class missile boat.

The strategic implications are enormous. By taking over the ships Russia manages to neutralize the Ukrainian navy as an effective fighting force. Although most ships are in a worse shape than the ships of the Black Sea Fleet, the input of Ukrainian ships have strengthened the Black Sea Fleet. With the transfer of Ukrainian ships, the Black Sea Fleet, already the most powerful navy in the Black Sea, made sure that it remains the dominant force in this area. Russia also made sure that Ukraine will not deliver any significant increase of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea if Ukraine should join NATO in the future.

Also important to note is that Russia changed its tactics. In august 2008 Russian forces pillaged the Georgian naval base at the port of Poti on 12 august 2008. They also sank every warship in the port to prevent their use against Russia in a possible new conflict. Already suffering from a bad western image, the destruction of the Ukrainian ships wasn’t in the Kremlin’s best options. Instead it choose the lesser of two evils and the Russians took over as much ships as possible to prevent the Ukrainian navy to mount an effective threat in the future.

At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea allowed the Russians to get control over the Sevmorverf shipyard. The shipyard is engaged in the repair, modernization and re-equipment of Russian and Ukrainian Naval ships and submarines.  The shipyard also operates 3 dry docks:


Dock #1
290.0 meters (951.4 ft)
36.0 meters (118.1 ft)
11.0 meters (36.1 ft)

Dock #2
173.4 meters (569 ft)
25.8 meters (85 ft)
9.1 meters (30 ft)

Dock #3
152.0 meters (498.7 ft)
25.8 meters (85 ft)
8.1 meters (27 ft)

Having control over the Sevmorverf shipyard allows the Russians to start building and repairing ships of the Black Sea Fleet completely on their own. This would be a further increase in the autonomy of the Black Sea Fleet and allows it to operate independent of Russia’s other fleets and shipyards. In the aftermath of the Russian takeover of the Crimea it is the Black Sea Fleet that emerges as the biggest winner of this conflict.

Amphibian landing ships: a versatile tool for smaller navies

The end of the Cold War brought a new era in which small localized conflicts and wars became the new norm. This forced navies to change their organization. Instead of a major battle against the Soviet Navy the need for an expeditionary navy transporting troops and equipment was born. Seas were no longer considered barriers but became highways. From Somalia in 1992 to Mali in 2013, or even the most recent crisis in Crimea, navies were used to transport troops and equipment to intervene in these conflicts. The amphibian landing ships became the new capital ship in most navies.

 US Navy San Antonio class LPD

During the Cold War the capital ships were mainly aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines and missile cruisers. Designed and operated for a major sea battle against the Soviet Navy these ships had to reinvent their role in the post-Soviet era. The amphibian landing ship played a secondary role in the Cold War strategy. Only after the defeat of the Soviet Navy could the sea be used as a highway to land troops on enemy territory and open a new front against the USSR. In the post-Soviet era the sea became a highway rather than a barrier. Amphibian ships could operate freely, transporting troops and equipment to several small conflicts and wars to deliver troops to intervene. A perfect example are the American Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU's)’ Standing by on their landing ships, these units can be directed to several places to create a first and fast response against limited conflicts.

We now see that more and more smaller navies start to operate these versatile ships. Until recently only the larger navies operated amphibian landing ships as Cold War doctrine dictated that these ships needed the necessary protection against an enemy attack. Since most limited conflicts take place in countries without a large navy, or even in land locked countries like Mali (see further). Amphibian ships now usually sail under the protection of a single destroyer or frigate, depending the tactical situation.

Whether there are Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD’s), Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA), Landing Platform Helicopter (LHP) or Landing Platform Docks (LPD’s), all these ships have the same basic design. They have a dock at the stern part from which landing craft can be deployed; large storage decks for tanks, vehicles and trucks and a helicopter platform to operate assault and transport helicopters. These basic features already show how versatile these ships can be.

Amphibian ships have 3 main tasks:
-          Transport of either men and vehicles or supplies either for an amphibian landing or supplying troops already in the country
-          Air support either with helicopters or vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) planes
-          Serve as command or hospital ships and support of humanitarian operations

Each task can be perfectly illustrated by examples of the past.

During 2011, in Ivory coast, French and UN forces were faced by the demands of president Gbagbo for them to to leave the country and stop supporting the newly elected president Ouattara. French forces were separated from the UN forces on the other side of the city Abidjan. The arrival of a French Mistral-class ship reinforced the French peace keeping mission and allowed the French to keep supporting the newly elected president Ouattara. Likewise the French used their amphibian ships to support their operation in Mali. Vehicles and supplies were offloaded in Dakar and Ivory Coast and transported overland to Mali. This maritime transport of heavy equipment like armored fighting vehicles took longer but was less costly than air transport.

Amphibian landing ships can also be used to patrol vast areas of ocean and shore line. The deployment of helicopters give these ships an extended range in which they can patrol and diminish the forces needed to secure a certain area. The Russian version of the Mistral-class ships will be used in this role to patrol in the Pacific and survey fishing and illegal activities in the far east according to earlier Russian statements. The use of helicopters to patrol was also applied during the EU operation ATALANTA to search for pirate vessels operating from Somalia. Algeria also announced that its amphibian landing ship will be used to patrol its coastline for illegal activities like human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Amphibian ships play a very useful role in disaster relief and humanitarian operations. They are capable of reaching places on the coast that would be otherwise inaccessible to other services. The main reason for Turkey buying an amphibian landing ship was to have a ship capable of delivering humanitarian aid along its coastline as Turkey is a country that is frequently struck by earthquakes.

As one can read from just the small grasp of examples mentioned above, amphibian landing ships have a high functionality by performing a wide arrange of tasks. At is this functionality that smaller navies are seeking. Amphibian landing ships allows smaller navies and countries to play an important and versatile role in the maritime theater without having to pay a relatively high cost. It also allows smaller countries to participate in operations that would otherwise be out of their range and become an important ally for larger navies.

Looking into the future it is hard to say if the amphibian landing ship will remain the most important ship in a fleets inventory. Amphibian landing ships have no real offensive warfighting capabilities of their own. Without the protection of frigates or destroyers, they have no role in a high intensity conflict were control of the sea is still in doubt. With the rising tensions concerning China’s military rise and the new naval race in the Southeast Pacific, amphibian landing ships are resorting back to their secondary role there, namely performing amphibious landings against islands and on hostile shores after other capital ships (submarines, aircraft carriers) have secured control of the sea.