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[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan seeks political support from the UK with Type 23 frigates

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Before every election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to benefit from people’s nationalist sentiments to increase his political support while portraying countries in Europe as “foreign powers seeking to damage Turkey.” To the contrary, he is trying to improve relations with important countries so that Turkey is not completely excluded from the community of democratic nations. Sweden, which allowed the burning of a copy of the Quran in Stockholm by Swedish-Danish politician Rasmus Paludan from the far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, justifying it under freedom of expression, will be one of the “foreign powers” that Erdoğan will use for his propaganda in the upcoming elections. So if Sweden will be the “bad guy” for Erdoğan, will the UK be the “good guy”? How will Erdoğan win the support of the UK, and what do Type 23 frigates have to do with this support?

In the runup to the May 14, 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, President Erdoğan has sought to improve Turkey’s political and military relations with the United Kingdom, while Turkey’s relations with the United States and NATO are strained. According to the Middle East Eye (MEE), Turkey is exploring a massive UK arms deal involving aircraft, frigates and tank engines. Turkey sometimes uses military procurements as a means of improving damaged relations with some countries, as it did with France by procuring the old-fashioned Avizo corvettes for the Turkish Navy in 2001. The Erdoğan government plans to expand relations with the UK by procuring Eurofighter aircraft for the Turkish Air Force and Type 23 (Duke-class) frigates for the Turkish Navy, which the Royal Navy is considering retiring. But isn’t it contradictory to talk about having a booming indigenous naval industry on the one hand and trying to buy aging frigates from the UK on the other?

Turkish media outlets claimed last week that the Turkish Ministry of Defense is in talks with the British about buying Type 23 frigates. The news originally surfaced on a Turkish defense media site called MarineDeal News, which claimed that the Turkish defense ministry had signed a deal with Britain to buy two older Type 23 frigates. The news shocked many observers of the Navy. This is noteworthy because Turkey’s shipbuilding sector is thriving, and there are successful ongoing projects for naval vessels domestically.

Turkish defense sources say the pros and cons of such a purchase are still being discussed and that no agreement has yet been reached between the two governments. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also confirmed this, stating that they have not yet reached an agreement with the UK and are still examining their needs and options.

In addition MEE reported that a possible agreement to procure Type 23 frigates would be part of a broader cooperation agreement between Turkey and the UK. Turkish Defense Minister Akar visited London on Jan. 15, 2022, meeting with his British counterpart, Ben Wallace. According to information received by MEE from their sources, during their meeting Akar and Wallace explored the possibility of Ankara purchasing Eurofighter jets, C-130J transport planes and Type 23 frigates as well as engines for Turkey’s outdated M60 battle tanks. The price tag for a single Type 23 frigate would be between 25 and 30 million pounds. The estimated value of such a deal is well over $10 billion.

With Turkey soon to retire its G-class (Perry) frigates, which are almost 40 years old, MEE further stressed that its sources indicated that Turkey needs frigates with air defense capabilities.

Despite their age, the G-class frigates (a variant of Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates modernized by Turkey) have been modernized to extend their usable life. For example, the combat information centers have been equipped with Havelsan’s GENESIS combat management system. Other modifications include new sensors and updated weapons, such as adding Mk 41 VLS and replacing their outdated SPS-49 air radar with Smart-S Mk2. The Turkish Navy has invested a large amount of money in these ships, and it appears they have no plans to retire them while they are still in service. While the G-class frigates are typically considered AAW (Anti Air Warfare) ships, the primary mission of the Type 23 frigates is ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare). Four Turkish G-class frigates are equipped with more advanced Sea Sparrow missiles, which have a much longer range than the Type 23 surface-to-air missiles (50 kilometers).

The backbone of the Turkish Navy consists of ships built in the United States (G-class) and Germany (MEKO), and Turkey’s homegrown corvettes and frigates (MILGEMs), hence the navy does not have any vessels built in the UK. So the British logistical infrastructure is unfamiliar with the American one. Even while 25–30 million pounds is a reasonable price for a frigate, unexpectedly high maintenance costs for these older vessels cannot be ruled out. When the Type 23s experience a problem with any system, and the time it takes to fix the problem could be far longer than projected, this will become a serious problem. Keeping these ships operational won’t be easy.

The Turkish Navy currently has enough frigates and corvettes for ASW operations and does not need an additional ASW frigate. In summary, the Turkish Navy does not need the Type 23 frigates that the Royal Navy is considering retiring in terms of military requirements and operational needs. However, the Erdoğan government needs the political support of the UK before the elections. While the Erdoğan government plans to increase popular support by provoking hostility against the West through Sweden, it plans to obtain the support of the UK in order to not be excluded from the community of democratic countries. Therefore, the Erdoğan government wants to improve relations by buying large quantities of weapons from the UK before the elections.

* 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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