Planning by NATO states and other allies of NATO — from Australia to Israel — must also take into account the possibility that Turkey could move from being an alliance partner to a state which could take an obfuscating or even adversarial position in the region. Turkey’s increasingly independent actions on regional issues, including potentially worsening relations with Iran, could one day lead to a broader conflict from in the region which could necessitate Western powers seeking a range of alternative options.
These would include finding new paths into the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Black Sea, and possibly finding new ways to address or accommodate Russian strategic access into the region. Moreover, as the region transforms, the prospect of conflict leading to internal instability or even the breakup of Turkey can no longer be ignored.
How the West — and, for that matter, Russia — regroup to accommodate this instability or unreliability at a strategic nexus point will focus heavily on re-thinking access to regional bases in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece, Cyprus, and Israel must factor heavily in this re-thinking.
The Hellenic naval base at Souda Bay, Crete, and the nearby Hellenic Air Force (HAF) base at Chania remain vital components of the Greek, U.S., and NATO defense structure. Also located with the HAF base at Chania is the U.S. Naval Support Activity. Together these “Souda Bay” installations provide NATO forces with access to basing near a volatile region of the world which is crucial to Western security.
The post-Cold War era has demonstrated that, for deterrence to be effective, it is necessary for potential adversaries to believe that military action can be taken against them.
The ability of the West to deter adversaries in Europe and the Middle East has receded in recent decades with the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces. Real and potential enemies of the West understand that NATO military forces, and particularly ground forces which once could have been rapidly employed against them, are now drastically reduced.
With this much meat already off the “Western defense bone”, potential foes could be left with a perception that the U.S. and its allies are no longer as prepared for, or committed to, bold action as much as they once were. The facilities at Souda Bay and the access they provide for the projection of air and naval power into or over the Middle East is a crucial element of Western security, in the same way that the British Sovereign Bases and intelligence facilities in Cyprus are. The availability of Souda Bay is strategic to Western interests, provides the West with access and extended operational reach, and compels potential adversaries to adjust the calculus involved in their decision making.
Given today’s military budgets and the reluctance of cash-strapped western governments to increase them — even in the face of increasing threats — the forces of most NATO nations can be expected to significantly reduced. Indeed, rather than take the decision to compensate for the reduction of U.S. forces in Europe, most non-U.S. NATO allies have reduced rather than expanded their military spending.
Today, the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine may be the most telling case-in-point of how an adversary might take advantage of what it perceives to be a weakening of NATO forces coupled with a weakening of resolve on the part of the U.S. and its NATO allies to defend their interests. As unsettling as the bold actions of Moscow in Eastern Europe may be, the existing threats to Western economic and security interests that originate in North Africa and Middle East are potentially even more threatening than the actions of an increasingly assertive Russia.
Egypt, the indispensable linchpin for security in the region, could quickly become undone by further conflict instigated by a Muslim Brotherhood which is anything but defeated. The fighting in the Summer of 2014 in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, while suddenly abating, could just as suddenly reignite with little provocation by either side. West Bank tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are increasing with the almost total breakdown of talks between the two sides now compounded by the Israeli government’s recent announcement to further expand its West Bank settlements.
The war in Syria is in its third year with no end in sight, with the U.S. and many of its regional allies at serious odds with each other as how to proceed. Vacillation over Syria on the part of the U.S. and its allies has in part helped to create the potentially even more dangerous threat of the so-called Islamic Caliphate, also referred to as ISIL.
And as bad for Western and regional interests as the government of Bashar al-Assad may be, Assad’s administration sometimes looks preferable to alternatives which might include a takeover of Syria by ISIL. Conditions in the region, including a significant number of people seeking refuge from the fighting in Syria, have placed a visibly shaken Jordan under immense pressure to maintain itself as a viable state.
Iraq has, for the moment, been dismembered by ISIL forces which find themselves in control of almost a third of the country. Encouraged and strengthened by its rapid victories during the summer of 2014, ISIL continues to threaten the areas still controlled by the Iraqi government, including Baghdad itself. In the north, ISIL threatens the regional Kurdish government and by its actions has effectively become the catalyst which may have completed what promises to be a final separation of Iraq’s Kurdish region from the Iraqi state. Indeed, the ISIL efforts towards destroying Iraq have only been recently checked by the reluctant intervention of French and U.S. air power, an intervention which would have been much more difficult to effect absent the vital but nevertheless tenuous base support provided by various non-NATO allies in the Middle East.
Today, the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean is a shadow of its former self and no longer boasts the deterring presence of a permanently-deployed aircraft carrier. Indeed, the U.S. naval force in this strategic sea sometimes consists of little more than the fleet’s command ship, the USS Mount Whitney, the vessel that serves as the nucleus around which a fleet can be built.
For its part, the U.S. Navy demonstrated its ability to push forces into the Mediterranean against the government of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011. Later, in 2013, the U.S. Navy augmented Sixth Fleet units in preparation for the subsequently aborted strike against the Assad government in Syria for its alleged — but later disputed — use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The U.S. perspective is that it was only after the U.S. had deployed cruise-missile-carrying warships into the eastern Mediterranean that Syria agreed to a Russian-brokered deal to surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons for destruction. It is the U.S. perspective that this solution to the now-neutralized threat posed by Syrian chemical weapons might not have come about absent a credible U.S. threat to attack. While the U.S. interpretation of events may be open to debate, the potential leverage of a U.S. force presence is indisputable.
And while it is also debatable whether the U.S. strategically “won” or “lost” by not attacking Syrian government positions, and accepting the Russian-brokered deal, the U.S. ability to concentrate potent naval forces in the region is not debatable. An important component of this deployment ability is being able to project forces into the eastern Mediterranean through the availability of bases like Souda Bay, which can support those forces over an extended period of time should their presence be essential to Western interests.
While it is a fact that the U.S. can deploy robust forces into the Mediterranean on relatively short notice, it is also a fact that available forces, including attack carriers, are today in shorter supply than they used to be. The buildup of U.S. naval power in the eastern Mediterranean in 2013 is a case-in-point. No carrier accompanied the deployed missile carrying surface units for either protection of the fleet or for the secondary punch which might have been required if a cruise missile strike proved insufficient to dissuade Assad. This shortfall in resources reinforces the importance of regionally-accessible bases which are so essential for the strategic and operational reach they ensure.
Today, U.S. and NATO forces rely on Mediterranean bases, beginning with Gibraltar and Spain in the western Mediterranean and extend to Italy and finally east to the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) in Cyprus. Gibraltar and the SBAs on Cyprus are “British” rather than “NATO” bases. And while Souda Bay is a “Greek” base there is a NATO docking facility and a colocated U.S. Navy Support Activity, essentially a U.S. Navy mini-base with access to the adjacent HAF airfield at Chania. Greece, like the United Kingdom, is a reliable U.S. and NATO partner which has contributed to and supported U.S. and NATO operations in Europe and the Middle East for decades.
One important lesson the U.S. and NATO have learned in the post-Cold war era is that it is one thing having a base in a volatile region of the world and quite another thing getting “permission” to use it. The oftentimes erratic record of Turkey regarding the restrictions it has placed on the use its bases only reinforces the importance of Souda Bay, an important alternative to the Turkish Air Force (TUAF) base at Incirlik; a base on which the U.S. cannot always rely during an emergency. The facilities at Souda Bay not only provide an airfield but shelter for an entire fleet, including an aircraft carrier, where it can be anchored, provisioned, and protected.
As important as naval facilities in the eastern Mediterranean are, it is apparent that the West must increasingly rely on land bases and particularly air bases for the rapid buildup of military power in the region. For instance, no U.S. attack carrier was deployed for Odyssey Dawn. The nearest U.S. attack carrier was with the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and its aircraft were not used in operations over Libya.
Indeed, the limited U.S. Navy sea-based air punch for Odyssey Dawn was provided by four U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II STOVL combat aircraft embarked on the USS Kearsage, an amphibious assault ship. [The interventions in Libya in 2011 by the coalition were Opération Harmattan by France; Operation Ellamy by the United Kingdom; Operation Mobile for the Canadian participation. Some 19 states took part in the coalition, with a number of states flying European-based combat aircraft, and Italy, for example, flying extensive carrier-based AV-8B Harrier II strikes.]
Land, rather than sea-based, air power was the principle means used by coalition forces during Odyssey Dawn and much of the air power employed originated from aircraft operating out of Italy and Greece. In Greece, coalition aircraft operated from the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) base at Araxos in the western Peloponnesus and from the HAF base at Chania, near Souda Bay. In terms of the Middle East, the facilities at Souda Bay provide the West with a permanently deployed unsinkable “aircraft carrier” in close proximity to multiple trouble zones in the region.
Greece is a reliable NATO country whose orientation will always be Western. Turkey is a state which is drifting away, if not altogether pivoting from its modern secular orientation as it moves further towards a more conservative (and perhaps radical) brand of Islam and away from its Cold War interests as a reliable ally and partner of the West.
Turkey’s shift became dramatically evident in 2003 when just prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq it refused to permit the U.S. Army’s powerful Fourth Infantry Division to deploy against Iraq through Turkey and left it floating in the Mediterranean while the U.S. and its allies were compelled to launch their invasion of Iraq absent the participation of one of the U.S. Army’s most powerful and lethal divisions. Moreover, U.S. operations from the air base at Incirlik were initially restricted at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1991 and much restricted during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Turkey’s pivot away from the West is further confirmed by its worsening relations with the U.S.’ key regional ally, Israel. And while it is fair to say that the U.S. could, as it is currently doing against the forces of the so-called Islamic Caliphate, count on a number of its Middle East friends for base support, it is also fair to say — as in the case of Turkey — that the day may come when access to such bases becomes limited or even nonexistent given some future scenario which conflicts with the interests of those states, none of which, like Greece, are members of NATO.
The TUAF base at Incirlik has been used over the years in such operations as Desert Shield/Storm and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, use has been restricted and often precludes the use of U.S. attack aircraft. No U.S. attack aircraft have flown from TUAF bases against ISIL to date.
Turkey’s pivot away from the West and towards Islam does not bode well for U.S. and Western policies which may require the use of force in the Middle East. Turkey, as events in the recent past have demonstrated, is a NATO member that cannot always be relied upon to permit U.S. or NATO forces to operate from its territory.
Recently, the conduct of U.S. and coalition air operations from bases in friendly countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (although Qatar and the UAE are bitterly divided on many issues at present) has given a tremendous boost to the punishment these forces have been able to inflict on radical forces. Bases and access to them represent the key enablers which facilitate the rapid buildup of U.S. and Western military power in the Middle East and allow the West and its allies to project enormous military power into the region.
Unlike Russia, the U.S. and NATO are blessed with access to linked bases throughout Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Souda Bay and its adjacent facilities clearly represent one of the most strategic assets in the West’s linked base structure. And Souda Bay, unlike other regional bases that the U.S. and its allies are using today or have used in the past, will more likely than not be there for the support of U.S. and NATO operations when other bases are not.
Squadron of 16 US F-16s lands at Incirlik AB, Turkey.