Just What the Middle East Needs: Turkey’s Getting an Aircraft Carrier

Ankara is about to greatly expand its military reach—and up the ante in the region’s dangerous arms race.

ISTANBUL — Turkey is getting ready to widen the reach of its military considerably by building a multipurpose aircraft carrier with “trans-continental” capabilities.

The 225-meter ship dubbed the Anadolu (or Anatolia), set to enter service in 2021, is designed to take fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, tanks, troops, and landing vessels to areas around the Mediterranean and as far as the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, officials say. While some analysts say Turkey needs a carrier like this, some regard the project as an expensive expression of prestige and grandeur that far exceeds the country’s limits.

The move is a sign of NATO member Turkey’s determination to become a leading power in the Middle East and beyond, an ambition that has been ruffling feathers. In a region shaken by the Syrian war, a heated row between Turkey and naval superpower Russia over the downing of a fighter jet and an increased naval presence by rival Iran to the southeast have heightened tensions even more.

Behlul Ozkan, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said the program to build the Anadolu was in line with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s idea of Turkey’s role in the world. “He really thinks Turkey can be an oceanic power,” Ozkan told The Daily Beast, adding that Davutoglu’s vision might be “beyond Turkey’s capabilities.” For example, the government has also set a goal for Turkey to become one of the world’s 10 biggest economies by 2023, a target that many think is hopelessly optimistic.

Ankara’s naval plans could raise the stakes in its troubled neighborhood, where Turkey has been at odds with countries like Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. That’s in addition to the conflict on Cyprus and unresolved territorial disputes in the waters of the Aegean with neighbor and NATO partner Greece.

Turkey already has a highly modern military, with more than 600,000 soldiers who form the second-largest force in NATO, with the U.S. as the biggest partner.

As a flagship of the Turkish navy, the 28,000-ton Anadolu, with a capacity of as many as 1,400 crew and troops, would be a demonstration “of the strength reached by our country’s defense industry,” Orkun Kalkavan, a manager at the Sedef Wharf in Istanbul, where the vessel is being built, told the Milliyet daily this week. The contract to build the ship was signed last year, with the Spanish company Navantia as a technological partner. Kalkavan said the Anadolu, expected to cost more than $1 billion, would be equipped for “trans-continental tasks.”

Analysts describe the carrier as a landing platform dock, or an LPD, which is a warship used to carry troops to flashpoints and send them ashore with the help of on-board landing vessels, or a landing helicopter dock (LHD). The vessel will come with its own small fleet of F-35 fighter jets and helicopters, a hospital with at least 30 beds, and room for landing boats and other smaller crafts as well as for 13 battle tanks.

Devrim Yaylali, an expert on the Turkish navy who writes a blog on naval matters, said planning for the ship started as far back as 2006. “Large amphibious ships are the only real multipurpose ships any navy can possess and are the naval equivalent of Swiss Army knives,” Yaylali emailed in response to questions by The Daily Beast. Ships like the Anadolu could be used for force projection—“the most obvious use.” The ship could be deployed as a “mother ship for small boat operations and helicopters,” he added.

With these new features, Turkey’s military power would grow dramatically. But the Anadolu could also help deliver humanitarian aid during a crisis or after a disaster and could be used for the “evacuation of combatants and non-combatants,” Yaylali wrote, adding that the “Turkish navy really needs these capabilities.”

He pointed to an incident in 2011, when Turkey evacuated more than 23,000 civilians from Libya and needed many commercial planes to do it. With a ship like the Anadolu, the operation would have been much quicker and easier, he wrote.

The combination of military and civilian uses could pay off for Ankara in the future, other analysts agree.

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“Capabilities offered by the LPD will make it an important instrument of foreign policy that will accentuate Turkey’s soft power beyond its military prowess,” Metin Gurcan, an independent security analyst and columnist for Al-Monitor, told The Daily Beast.

Marmara’s Ozkan said one other possible use for the Anadolu could lie in deployments in crisis spots around the Middle East where Turkey’s partners in Europe and the U.S. were reluctant to intervene themselves because of anti-Western sentiments.

“Maybe the ship could be deployed in NATO operations there because action by Turkey as a Muslim country would be easier to justify,” he said. Given the instability around the region, Ozkan said he expects U.S. support for the project. “The Muslim world is in flames,” he said. “You never know what is going to happen.”