Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” Strategy and Rising Insecurity in the Eastern Mediterranean

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Capt. Andrew Norris, J.D., USCG (ret.) and Alexander Norris


For the past several years, Turkey has leveraged its regional economic, political, and military superiority to aggressively assert a claim over contested, potentially oil-rich regions of the Eastern Mediterranean. This hegemonic strategy, domestically referred to as “Mavi Vatan,” or “blue homeland,” has most recently manifested itself in Turkey’s deployment of the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to disputed waters south and west of Cyprus. Despite widespread and growing international criticism of this doctrine and its associated activities, Turkey has so far remained steadfast in its resolve, as exemplified by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent pronouncement that “[w]e are proud to wave our glorious Turkish banner in all our seas. . . I submit that we are ready to protect every swath of our 462 thousand square meter blue homeland with great determination and undertake every possible duty that may come.” The impacts of Turkey’s “blue homeland” doctrine and associated activities to regional security deserve closer scrutiny, as well as the likelihood of Turkey’s current policies allowing it to achieve its strategic “Mavi Vatan” goals.

Mavi Vatan and Associated Maritime Activities

Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” strategy is conceived as a means of ending Turkey’s near-complete dependence on foreign energy sources and converting Turkey into a net energy exporter. In 2019, Turkey spent $41.7 billion on imported oil – around 5.5 percent of its GDP – while relying on Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan for a large majority of its energy needs. President Erdoğan emphasized the need to decrease Turkish oil dependence during Ankara’s announcement in August of the discovery of a significant oil field in the Black Sea: “As a country that depended on outside gas for years, we look to the future with more security now … There will be no stopping until we become a net exporter in energy.” Also, according to Turkey’s State-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO), “[o]ur aim in [our offshore exploration] activities is to discover hydrocarbons in our blue homeland and to contribute to reducing our country’s dependence on foreign energy.”

Erdoğan’s declaration marks the logical continuity of a policy that has defined Turkey’s relationship with the Eastern Mediterranean for the past five years. Since 2017, Turkey has acquired a fleet of three drillships and two seismic survey ships that place it in the uppermost echelon of oil-exporting states in the world, rivalling some of the largest private companies in the world in exploration and exploitation capabilities. Turkey’s most recent acquisition, a sixth-generation offshore drilling rig purchased from a Norwegian oil company for $37.5 million, reflects Turkey’s investment in, and optimistic outlook for, the prospect of seabed hydrocarbon extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to acquiring the means for accessing seabed hydrocarbons, Turkey has engaged in increasingly provocative exploratory activities in potentially lucrative oil fields of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Fatih and the Yavuz, two of Turkey’s drillships, have been deployed in disputed waters to the east and south of the island of Cyprus over the past several years, drawing widespread condemnation from regional states and the European Union. Most recently, Turkey sent the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to contested waters west and south of Cyprus, which has resulted in international condemnation and France’s deployment of a frigate and several fighter jets to the region in support of Greece and Cyprus. Grandstanding and posturing by both sides resulted in a recent collision between a Greek and Turkish naval vessel, demonstrating the inherent risk of intentional or inadvertent escalation of tensions resulting from Turkey’s activities and the associated responses by rival claimants.

Turkey’s drilling vessel Fatih sails through Bosphorus as she leaves for the Black Sea in Istanbul, Turkey, May 29, 2020. (Photo via Reuters/Umit Bektas)

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has entered into a series of agreements that ostensibly sanction its exploratory activities. In 2011, Turkey entered into an agreement with the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) that purports to delimit the continental shelf boundary between Cyprus and Turkey. As a follow-on to that agreement, TPAO signed oil services and production share agreements with the TRNC covering one onshore and seven offshore fields in disputed Cypriot waters. In 2019, Turkey signed a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord that purports to assign to the two nations maritime zones in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus, which drew criticism from both the European Union and the United States. Since then, Turkey has designated seven license areas in waters covered by the agreement for oil exploration and drilling.

Contemporaneously, Turkey has heightened its military presence in the region through overt demonstrations of its naval and aerial capabilities. Exercise Sea Wolf, held in 2019 to demonstrate the “Turkish Armed Forces’ resolution and capability in protecting the country’s security as well as its rights and interests in the seas,” incorporated over 25,000 personnel and 100 vessels in the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Black Sea. Most recently, Turkey announced the commencement of live-fire naval drills in the Mediterranean as a direct response to Greece’s ratification of a maritime accord with Egypt.

Amidst these developments, Turkey maintains a claim to legitimacy in its quest for hydrocarbon resources. “We don’t have our eye on someone else’s territory, sovereignty and interests,” Erdoğan recently announced, “but we will make no concessions on that which is ours … We are determined to do whatever is necessary.”

 Aug 10, 2020 – Turkey’s research vessel, Oruc Reis, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels as it transits the Mediterranean. (Photo via Turkish Defense Ministry)

Legally Problematic and Provocative “Mavi Vatan”

Turkey has advanced two legal justifications for its exploratory activities in the Eastern Mediterranean: that it is doing so pursuant to license granted to it by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), and that its explorations are occurring in waters in which Turkey has sovereign rights, including exclusive ownership of all hydrocarbon resources and the exclusive rights to exploit any such resources. Both of these arguments are legally problematic.

In 1960, Cyprus, formerly a British colony, attained independence through the Zürich and London Agreements between the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey. In 1974, in response to sectarian violence between the majority Greek and the minority Turkish populace, and to thwart the threatened unification of the island with Greece, Turkey invaded Cyprus and initiated an occupation of the northern 40 percent of the island that continues today. In 1983, the Turkish-occupied zone declared itself an independent State, the TRNC. However, only Turkey alone recognizes the TRNC’s claim of statehood. The United Nations does not recognize the TRNC, considering it instead as a “legally invalid” secessionist entity of the Republic of Cyprus (UNSCR 541 (1983); UNSCR 550 (1984)). The latter resolution calls on all States to “respect the sovereignty, independence, [and] territorial integrity …. of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC)” as the sole legitimate government of the island.

As a non-state, the TRNC is not competent to declare maritime zones, negotiate international agreements, or purport to grant concessions or any rights in Cypriot waters. Turkey’s reliance on maritime boundary agreements negotiated with the so-called TRNC, and on “grants” or “concessions” by the “TRNC” in maritime zones it invalidly claims, is done not only in defiance of the United Nations Security Council and the global community, but is rightly viewed by the Republic of Cyprus as an assault on its sovereignty. This view is supported and reflected in a joint statement by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France, and the UAE in May 2020 that, among other things, “denounced the ongoing Turkish illegal activities in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone and its territorial waters, as they represent a clear violation of international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is the sixth attempt by Turkey in less than a year to illegally conduct drilling operations in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

Map of the division of Cyprus (BBC graphic)

Outside “TRNC” waters, Turkey has attempted to justify its exploratory activities by claiming that they are conducted in waters in which Turkey has “ipso facto and ab initio legal and sovereign rights,” which translates into an assertion that the exploration is being conducted on Turkey’s continental shelf. According to Article 77 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state like Turkey (but unlike the TRNC) possesses “exclusive sovereign right for the purpose of exploring and exploiting” the natural resources of its continental shelf, including the “mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil.”1 Though Turkey is not a state party to UNCLOS, Article 77’s provisions reflect customary international law, and thus both empower but also constrain Turkey’s (and other states’) continental shelf entitlements. Absent unusual subsurface conditions, the maximum breadth of a state’s continental shelf is 200 nautical miles (nm) from its baselines, typically the low-water line of its coast.

When, as is the case here, the continental shelf entitlements of opposite (e.g. Cyprus and Egypt) or adjacent (e.g. Greece and Turkey) states overlap, customary international law (as reflected in UNCLOS Articles 74 and 83) requires states to agree on a boundary delimitation based on international law to reach an “equitable” solution. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and Cyprus agreed on a maritime boundary delimitation (which Turkey does not recognize) in 2003. As already discussed, Turkey and Libya agreed on a maritime boundary in 2019 (which Greece and Cyprus have protested), and Greece and Egypt delimited their maritime boundary in August 2020 (which Turkey has protested). It is important to note that according to Article 34 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, these bilateral treaties create neither obligations nor rights for a third state without its consent. In other words, these negotiated boundary (and associated resource) delimitations only purport to create rights and obligations for the states that agreed to them.

Whether done through a negotiated agreement or through resort to a judicial or arbitral tribunal, the process for determining an “equitable” maritime boundary that has crystallized under both UNCLOS and customary international law begins with the drawing of a provisional equidistance line (the line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the respective states’ baselines). This equidistance line, also referred to as a median line, should be adjusted as equity demands to take into account special or relevant circumstances, such as a marked disproportionality between the length of the parties’ relevant coasts and the maritime areas that appertain to them. All of the maritime boundary delimitation agreements referenced above, plus others that have been negotiated in the region (Cyprus-Lebanon and Cyprus-Israel), have accepted equidistance as the underlying legal doctrine for determining “equity.” Equidistance also seems to be the underlying principle in Turkey’s unilateral declaration of a maritime boundary between itself and Egypt, which Cyprus has protested, and in Cyprus’s unilateral declaration of a continental shelf boundary between it and Turkey, depicted below.

May 4, 2019 submission to the U.N. by the Republic of Cyprus on its declared outer limits of its EEZ/continental shelf vis-à-vis Turkey (UN graphic)

As for Greece and Turkey, Greece in 1976 petitioned the International Court of Justice to delimit its respective continental shelves and Turkey’s. Turkey disputed the court’s jurisdiction, and in a 1978 ruling, the court agreed with Turkey and dismissed the case. The two states have not reached a maritime boundary delimitation agreement since.

The depiction below is of existing claims in the Eastern Mediterranean to the south and west of Cyprus based either on agreement or on unilateral declaration, or of the maritime boundaries that would exist through strict application of the equidistance principle in cases where no specific claims have been made. Superimposed on this depiction is the area of exploration of the Oruç Reis. As can be seen, Turkey’s claim to undisputed “ipso facto and ab initio legal and sovereign rights” in the area being explored is not correct as both Cyprus and Greece have legitimate reasons to claim most or all of the waters and their related resources being surveyed by the Oruç Reis. In fact, as discussed below and in this recent post on the blog of the European Journal of International Law , due to the concavity formed by the coasts of the Dodecanese Islands, Turkey, and Cyprus, Turkey’s maritime entitlement in the waters at issue, without an equitable adjustment, could be as small as the two inverted triangles on either side of Kastellorizo Island (see depiction below). Egypt has also protested Turkey’s most recent exploration activities, claiming that they encroach on areas of Egypt’s continental shelf. All three nations justifiably feel that Turkey is violating international law by its exploratory activities in their waters, which are preliminary activities to Turkey’s ultimate design to, in their view, steal their hydrocarbon resources.

Map of overlapping claims in the Eastern Mediterranean (BBC graphic)


Turkey’s exploratory activities in support of Mavi Vatan have occurred in disputed waters – waters in which regional states, often with a long history of antagonistic relations with Turkey, have provisional maritime entitlements superior to those of Turkey. These aggrieved neighbors, and their friends and allies, have strenuously objected through words and deeds to Turkey’s provocative actions. All of this has significantly increased regional insecurity.

The international reaction, both extant and future, presents Turkey with a stark choice and a difficult calculus – is it more likely to get what it wants through continued confrontation and belligerence, or through accommodation? To date, the former course has provoked, among other consequences, the antagonism of powerful regional states like Egypt and Israel; strong condemnations from the EU and the deployment of military hardware to the region from aggrieved EU/NATO nations; the EU’s reduction of its financial aid package to Turkey for 2020 by €145.8 million; U.S. sympathy for the plight of Cyprus in the form of the partial lifting of the 10-year embargo on the sale of military equipment to the island; the warming of the U.S.’s complicated relations with Greece; and Turkey’s exclusion from emerging collaborative enterprises such as the EastMed Gas Forum, comprised of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine.

How much Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon production or extraction has Turkey engaged in to counterbalance these consequences? None. Nor is it likely to ever get to the production stage in any disputed waters at issue, because the international community is unlikely to permit such a blatant assault on international law, international comity, and the rights and entitlements of weaker states. Finally, as mentioned before, the current escalatory environment brings with it a very real risk of armed conflict, either deliberate or inadvertent, which will benefit no one. For these reasons, continued confrontation and belligerence, though it might play well to a certain domestic audience, does not seem like an attractive or fruitful course.

How about accommodation? All parties with potential entitlements in the disputed waters at issue have expressed a willingness to negotiate, though Turkey’s offer only extends to relevant coastal states “that it recognizes and with which it has diplomatic relations,” which precludes negotiations with the ROC. But Turkey may not have any choice if it wants to depart from the pathway of confrontation and belligerence. None of the concessions purportedly granted to the TPAO by the “TRNC” are likely to ever lead to productive wells and fields, for the reasons discussed above, unless there is an accommodation with Cyprus (specifically, the ROC). To the west of the island, the only way the green line on the east side of the larger inverted triangle representing Turkey’s maritime entitlement in the illustration above can get equitably adjusted to ease the “cutoff effect” of the concave coastlines is through negotiation with Cyprus. Absent such negotiation, Cyprus has no enticement to agree to an adjustment of that line, and the international community will support Cyprus’s position as the legally correct one under the customary international law of the sea.

Ironically, as negotiations with Cyprus necessarily involve recognition of the Republic of Cyprus, these seemingly intractable maritime disputes may prove to be the catalyst for the long-sought but ever-elusive “grand bargain” involving Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. In return for some maritime concessions plus a seat at the table at the EastMed Gas Forum or similar energy extraction or distribution consortia, perhaps Turkey could be enticed both to resolve the “Cyprus problem” and to reach equitable maritime boundary delimitations with Greece. Such a hope could very well prove to be chimeric; numerous prior attempts at reconciliation have begun with giddy expectations but ended in impasse and frustration. But for Turkey to realize its “blue homeland” aspirations, there really appears to be no attractive alternative. The recent discovery by Turkey of significant hydrocarbon deposits in its Black Sea waters, alluded to earlier, may provide Turkey with some space to back off of some of its bellicose and uncompromising pronouncements regarding accommodation in the Eastern Mediterranean as a policy option. 


Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean is beset with difficulties. Neither geography nor the law are kind to Turkey, leaving it, in the absence of equitable boundary adjustments, with limited waters in which it can legitimately claim sovereign rights over the related hydrocarbon resources. Its efforts to belligerently assert rights in contravention of the law and in defiance of the international community have only succeeded in portraying Turkey as an international pariah, elicited a chorus of condemnation, and solidified support, both verbal and material, for rival claimants. It has also left Turkey on the outside looking in with respect to developing regional cooperative energy ventures. Though militarily powerful, Turkey is not sufficiently strong to impose its will through the threat or use of force. This is especially true since there is a strong likelihood – or at least a sufficient likelihood so that Turkey can’t lightly ignore it – that powerful regional or EU nations may go to the assistance of Greece or Cyprus in response to Turkey’s use or threatened use of armed force.

Turkey’s options in pursuit of its “Mavi Vatan” strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean appear to be to remain belligerent and defiant, which will get it nothing but further isolation and ostracism, or to pursue a compromise, which would get it some, but not all, of what it would like. As a further complication, Turkey’s stance toward the ROC would have to change in order to pursue the compromise option, which, in addition to the maritime boundary compromise itself, would be a bitter domestic pill for the Erdoğan government to swallow. However, the recent discovery of what has been billed as significant Black Sea hydrocarbon reserves may allay what might otherwise be viewed as a retreat in the Eastern Mediterranean; and beyond its political usefulness, may prove to be a viable alternative, in whole or in part, to the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of pursuing “Mavi Vatan.”  

Andrew Norris is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and holds a Juris Doctorate. His last assignment in the Coast Guard was as the Robert J. Papp, Jr. Professor of Maritime Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He currently works as a maritime legal and regulatory consultant. He may be reached at anorris@tradewindmartimeservices.com.

Alexander Norris is a third-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania currently pursuing a double-major in international relations and diplomatic history, with minors in both Middle Eastern Studies and Hispanic Studies. He published an article titled, “One Island, Two Cypruses: A Realist Examination of Turkey’s Recent Actions in the Eastern Mediterranean,” in the Spring 2020 SIR Journal of International Relations, and is an editor for the University of Pennsylvania’s premier journal on Middle Eastern affairs. He may be reached at alnorris@sas.upenn.edu.

1. Per UNCLOS Article 56, a State possesses the exact same entitlements in its declared Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as it does in its continental shelf. Also, like the continental shelf, the maximum EEZ breadth is 200 nautical miles from its baseline. The terms “EEZ” and “continental shelf” can thus be used interchangeably to describe the source of a State’s entitlement to sovereign rights over subsurface hydrocarbon resources.

Featured Image: The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis is escorted into Greek waters midway between Crete and Cyprus by five Turkish Navy vessels on Monday, August 10, 2020. (Photo via Turkish Defense Ministry)

Sweden and the Blue Society: New Challenges for a Small Navy

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Lars Wedin

The Royal Swedish Academy of War Science is presently undertaking a study of strategic and operational requirements for the Swedish Armed Forces in the 2030 timeframe. Its naval section has recently published its findings in a book, Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030 (Our Navy for a Secure Sweden and a Strong Europe. Naval Strategy 2030).1 This article discusses some of our findings.

Classic naval strategists – Mahan, Corbett, and Castex – basically saw naval strategy as consisting of three major alternative offensive strategies: attack on land from the sea, blockade, and commerce raiding, as well as the corresponding defensive strategies. Sea control (command of the sea is an older term) and its opposite, sea denial are key. French Admiral Raoul Castex summed it up nicely: “Depending on whether one has command of the sea or not, one may or may not:

  • be in an offensive mode, intercept the communications at sea of the enemy and attack his territory from the sea;
  • be in a defensive mode, guarantee one’s own communications and prevent the enemy from attacking one’s territory from the sea.”2

Today, the spectrum of maritime warfare is much broader and fluid. Some parts of this spectrum, such as nuclear deterrence, are only relevant to the navies of larger powers, but many are highly relevant also to coastal navies.

Geographically, Sweden is a maritime country dependent on sea lines of communications (SLOCs) for its international trade but also, increasingly, for domestic transportation. Its biggest port is Gothenburg, but there are important ports along all its 2,700 kilometers of coastline. The sea around Sweden is divided into three operational areas by the straits of Öresund and the Åland archipelago. Strategically, Sweden borders the Arctic in the north, Russia in the east, the EU in the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The country is not a member of NATO but enjoys a close partnership with the alliance. It is a member of the EU, and has close military relationships with other Nordic countries, especially Finland. The Swedish navy is modern and capable, but much too small for the tasks expected of it.

via Britannica.com

The Blue Society

The future of humankind lies at sea, which is demonstrated by the 70-80-90-99 rule: the sea covers 70 percent of the surface of the globe, 80 percent of its population lives near the sea, 90 percent of goods are transported on ships, and 99 percent of world’s digital information is carried by submarine cables.3 Two thirds of the world’s wealth is also produced at, or in, the sea. One could talk about a littorialization of the world’s population and thus of its economy.4 In sum these trends form what one could call a blue society – a society turned toward and dependent on the sea, its possibilities, and challenges.

Several important factors drive this development. It is well-known that the globe’s major reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the sea; there are tens of thousands of platforms of different kinds and more than 100,000 people serve on them. Climate change drives the construction of an ever-increasing number of wind farms and other forms of at-sea power generation. Climate change also drives moving traffic of goods from roads to ships (and railways). Mineral resources at sea are increasingly important as well as resources for the biochemical and pharmacological industry. Fishing – catch of wild fish as well as fish farms – is of vital importance for a large part of the world’s population. Shipping and related activities are vital for the economy. Just in the EU, some 574,000 people work in ports, a sector worth a collective €89 billion.5, 6

To conclude, the old adage of Corbett that “Command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes” is no longer sufficient. The sea itself is now intrinsically important. He is still correct, however, when he stated that naval warfare is not about “the conquest of territory.”7

Littoralization in Scandinavia

Two extreme cases of littoralization are the interlinked mega-regions known as Western Scandinavia and Greater Copenhagen. The former includes southwestern Sweden and southern Norway while the latter covers the Danish and Swedish parts of the Öresund. 30 percent of Norway’s and 33 percent of Sweden’s populations live in Western Scandinavia which is responsible for the major part of Norway’s and half of Sweden’s GDP.8 A driving factor is the area’s largest ports, Gothenburg and Helsingborg, which link the region with the global market. Greater Copenhagen is, from an economic point of view, an integrated area on each side of one of the world’s most busy waterways, where around five million people live.

Even minor disturbances may create great economic danger to the countries in the region. Hybrid warfare could be a very effective mode of attack due to the dependence on vital infrastructure. For instance, just a suspicion of mines in the waterways would cause disruption; such a suspicion is relatively easy to spread through a disinformation campaign. Their actual use would cause great harm. Due to the archipelago covering the port of Gothenburg, preventive mine-hunting would require significant resources.

The defense of such a littoral area with its thousands of islands, broad countryside, as well as modern cities, as well as extensive transport networks would be very complex. One might add the great sensitiveness of modern ports as well as infrastructure in general to attacks in cyberspace.

Infrastructure – Changing the Geography of the Littoral 

Trends in building new infrastructure on the sea – the construction of wind farms and diverse platforms for oil and gas including the deployment of Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) and Floating (production) Storage and Offload (F(P)SO) – change the operational seascape.9 These facilities are a sort of hybrid infrastructure, where they retain the permanence of land-based facilities but are located out at sea. In the Swedish context, only wind farms are relevant.

Windfarms may cover large areas and they produce noise that may conceal the presence of submarines. It is believed that a wind turbine has a radar cross section of around 10,000 meters squared. The movements of the blades affect a doppler radar, which is in current use in modern aircraft. Wind farms, covering large areas, constitute a new tactical environment. Submarines, especially midget submarines, and fast attack craft (FAC) may conceal themselves in such areas and would be very difficult to detect. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran used its oil platforms as bases for their fast attack craft – the famous Boghammar.10 Sweden also has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Wind farms at sea are bound to play an important part in this program.11 Consequently, such wind farms become strategically important and, hence, a target for warfare.

Another aspect of infrastructure is constituted of cables. Cables may be damaged accidentally or intentionally, but their information could also be intercepted by specialized submarines. It is believed that the Russians are very capable in this area. Stopping information through cable-cutting is a measure already used  since the Spanish–American War of 1898. Electrical power is also transmitted through cables on the seabed. The strategically important Swedish island of Gotland is highly dependent on electricity from the mainland. Sweden is also connected to the EU internal energy market through a network of such cables.13, 14

A final type of growing infrastructure is the bridges that connect Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. They are of clear strategic importance but vulnerable. They also constitute physical obstacles – modern aircraft carriers may not enter the Baltic Sea because the bridges are too low. The Great Belt and the Öresund have, historically, had great strategic importance. They still have as they link, or separate, the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic area.

In sum, infrastructure at sea is strategically important, but vulnerable. A complete command of the sea would constitute an efficient defense but such a command is likely impossible. Consequently, this is an area in need of tactical development.

Technology – A Force Multiplier

Naval officers tend to equate military capacity with the number of keels or missile tubes available. These metrics are important of course, but technology creates new possibilities. A primary observation is that distances, expressed as range, depend on technology: “The physical arena is as big as before when considered in linear dimensions, in kilometers. However, when expressed in passage time, it is much reduced.”15 Until now, range has been dependent on a ship’s organic sensors and weapons. Now, the use of drones changes this.

Drones will have an increasing role to play in surveillance, as decoys, and as weapon platforms over, on, and under the surface. Drones for undersea, surface and air use will be networked together. The future naval force will probably have a number of such drones for communications, targeting purposes, and as weapon delivery platforms. With the development of standard interfaces, drones will be able to communicate among themselves. This also means that one ship may use another’s drone. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make it possible for drones to cooperate actively and independently to a great extent.

For the Swedish Navy, there are a number of possible tactical uses. A critical one is the surveillance of the undersea domain in ports and important parts of archipelagos in search of mines and minisubs. Another is increasing the sensor range for ships on surveillance missions. Sweden could perceive cargo ships loaded with military units that “suddenly” steer toward Swedish ports as an important threat.16 AI will help in detecting such moves early on.

Swedish corvettes will (finally) be equipped with medium-range anti-air missiles. This will give these ships quite a new role as part of the Swedish air defense, which has mainly depended on the Air Force. Sweden has bought the Patriot system, but the number of systems and missiles is not known and probably small. The contribution of the Navy, with its staying power at sea, could be significant. New ships may be constructed with built-in sensors in the hull, in engines, and weapon systems. This may make planned maintenance less important as the sensors will be able to report continuously on the condition of the material. The aspect of cybersecurity will, obviously, be very important in this context. These are just some examples of what new technology may have to offer a small navy.

Naval Diplomacy

Aircraft carriers are sometimes called “100,000 tons of diplomacy.” But even smaller navies and ships can be applied toward naval diplomacy. The general objective is to shape the strategic environment to one’s advantage, to reassure friends, and earn the respect of potential enemies. Naval presence is the basic action in the context of naval diplomacy; without presence, there is no diplomatic effect. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another, and may be engaged in simultaneously. Naval presence may produce a number of strategic effects (interdiction, coercion, creation of friendship and confidence) depending on the actions of the deployed naval force. But the result also depends on posture and credibility. This can be illustrated by the following formula: Diplomatic result = (action plus posture) times credibility. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another. Naval diplomacy also influences one’s own perceptions of others, and can help mitigate the assumptions that come with mirror imaging.

Even a small navy like the Swedish Navy can engage in a range of naval diplomatic activities. To be present at sea with capable naval ships with well-trained crews is a priority in peacetime. It is also necessary in order to keep track of developments in the busy seas surrounding Sweden. Exercises with friends (the U.S., NATO, Finland, and others) create the necessary interoperability and mutual trust needed in crisis and war. It also has a deterring effect showing that they are able to fight together even though Sweden is not a formal member of NATO. Naval visits are a classic and effective way of creating mutual friendships.

More controversial would be efforts to approach the Russian Navy. Russian presence in the Baltic and adjacent seas is a fact and perfectly legal according to the UNCLOS.18 All states in the area share an interest in the keeping of good order and safety at sea. The problem with Russia is, of course, its rather aggressive posture and its actions against Ukraine. However, simple exercises at sea could be a way of creating some degree of mutual trust. As the sea is free, such endeavors would be less controversial than activities on land.


A small navy like the Swedish Navy does not seek to be able to project power on a global scale – not even on a regional one. It cannot protect SLOCs in contested areas far away. But it can, and must, promote and defend its interests at sea in its own area of interest. It can also be a small but important player in larger contexts as shown, for instance, by the Swedish participation in Operation Atalanta off the coast of Somalia.19

In fact, even small navies will see enlarged requirements as a result of the increased importance of the sea in the context of the blue society – a society dependent on the sea and its use. This will include traditional missions like defense of territory against amphibious operations and protection of shipping. But it will also include new missions in the context of the increased importance of infrastructure at sea. Technology will create new possibilities also relevant for small navies, such as through drones, AI, and new missiles.

Representatives of major navies often tend to see smaller navies – without the whole panoply of naval might – as less relevant. But a small navy may be as relevant as a large one in the context of its own strategic environment, and where larger allies may depend on their success.

Lars Wedin is a retired Captain R Sw N. He is the editor of Tidskrift i Sjöväsendet which, since 1835, is the journal of the Royal Society of Naval Sciences founded in 1771. He is also a member of the Royal Academy of War Sciences.


  1. Odd Werin, Lars Wedin: Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030, Kungl. Krigsvetenskapsakademien, Stockholm, 2020.
  2. Raoul Castex: Théories stratégiques, Institut de Stratégie Comparée et Economica, Paris 1997, vol V, p. 87.
  3. Slightly adapted from Remarks by the Honorable Ray Mabus Secretary of the Navy 27th Annual Emerging Issues Forum: Investing in Generation Z Raleigh, NC Tuesday, 7 February 2012. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/secnav/Mabus/Speech/emergingissuesfinal.pdf
  4. République Française : Stratégie nationale de sûreté des espaces maritimes, Paris, 2015. p. 5.
  5. Before Brexit and the Coronavirus Pandemic
  6. The EU blue economy report 2019, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg 2019.
  7. Julian S Corbett: Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Conway Maritime Press, London 1972 [1911], p. 90
  8. OECD: OECD Territorial Reviews: The Megaregion of Western Scandinavia, OECD Publishing, Paris 2018, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/urban-rural-and-regional-development/oecd-territorial-reviews-the-megaregion-of-western-scandinavia_9789264290679-en#page15. www.greatercph.com/about
  9. See Lars Wedin: Maritime Strategies for the 21st Century. The Contribution of Admiral Castex, Paris, Nuvis, 2016, p. 164 – 165.
  10. http://www.navalhistory.org/2013/04/18/operation-praying-mantis-18-april-1988. Accessed March 10, 2014.
  11. https://www.regeringen.se/debattartiklar/2017/12/vi-vill-gynna-vindkraften-till-havs/
  12. See https://www.submarinecablemap.com/
  13. Lars Wedin: “L’île De Gotland. Clé De La Mer Baltique, Stratégique 2019/1-2 (N° 121-122), p. 103-115.
  14. Hållbar och säker elförsörjning, Svenska kraftnät, 2020, https://www.svk.se/sakerhet-och-hallbarhet/hallbarhet/hallbar-och-saker-elforsorjning.
  15. Castex: Théories stratégiques, vol III, p. 153.
  16. The realism of this perception is open to some doubt but it is regarded as a fact in Swedish defense policy circles.
  17. Martin Motte: “Splendor Rei Navalis”, Stratégique, no. 118, 2018, p. 81
  18. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
  19. See Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller (eds): Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security. Balancing Traditional Roles and Emergent Threats in the 21st Century, Routledge, 2019.

Featured Image:  TRONDHEIM FJORD, Norway (Oct. 30, 2018) The Swedish navy corvette HSwMS Nyköping (K34) transits Trondheim Fjord in Norway, Oct. 30, 2018, as part of NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Pedro Miguel Ribeiro Pinhei/Released)

A South Pacific Island-Led Approach to Regional Maritime Security

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Michael van Ginkel

Archaeological records of South Pacific islands point to almost 5,000 years of occupation. Across Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, the archipelagic geography forced inhabitants to develop a heavy reliance on marine resources and maritime trade. In 2010, the fishing and tourism sectors alone amounted to around 10 percent of the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of the Pacific Island Countries and Territories, or roughly $3.3 billion. During the 2014 workshop entitled “Regional Security Architecture in Oceania held in Vanuatu,” participants highlighted the important links between economic prosperity and human security in the maritime domain.

To address the non-traditional threats undermining maritime-based economies, island nations and regional multilateral frameworks have implemented programs around maritime capacity-building, information-sharing, and security assistance operations. These initiatives provide opportunities for further development by local leaders, and for foreign entities to contribute resources, assets, and training toward South Pacific maritime security with efficiency and efficacy. By aligning future efforts with the most pressing needs of existing maritime institutions and initiatives, stakeholders can effectively address the threats to the South Pacific livelihood posed by non-traditional security challenges in the maritime domain.

Overcoming Limited Maritime Law Enforcement Capacities 

A paucity of maritime law enforcement assets has hindered attempts to adequately monitor coastal waters, enforce licensing and regulations around fishing and aquaculture, and intercept smuggling and trafficking. Palau, for instance, only has one 30-meter offshore patrol vessel to patrol an exclusive economic zone of around 629,000 km2. The small island nations likewise suffer from deficiencies in supporting infrastructure, including drydocks and human resources, that could reinforce maritime law enforcement operations against illicit activities like drug smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregistered (IUU) fishing.

As a result of this gap in enforcement capacity, IUU fishing has proven particularly costly to South Pacific island nations in terms of environmental impact, catch-rates, and national GDPs. In some instances, however, local institutions have used technological approaches to monitoring for IUU fishing to compensate for low numbers of patrol vessels. In Tonga, the Pacific Island Forum Fishery Agency, the inter-governmental agency responsible for compiling and disseminating South Pacific fisheries data, manages the island’s vessel monitoring system. The data facilities the ability of Tonga’s law enforcement agencies, including the Police Ministry, Customs Office, Transportation Ministry, and Tongan Defense Services, to enforce legislation around fisheries. In general, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) has arisen as a unifying organization for formulating and implementing maritime initiatives in the South Pacific, including in fisheries, development, and tourism. By continuing to spearhead initiatives in conjunction with South Pacific island governments, the organization can work to enhance local maritime security.

Foreign entities can maximize their impact by contributing to existing security arrangements after a careful assessment of maritime threats and law enforcement capacities. For example, to offset the insufficient number of Tonga law enforcement vessels available for patrol, the United States signed an agreement where Tonga officers can board U.S. Coast Guard vessels operating in Tonga waters. The rider agreement integrates well with existing security arrangements without placing additional strain on local law enforcement assets.

To increase the number of vessels able to identify and intercept illicit maritime actors, the parties could expand the agreement to include U.S. naval vessels, such as the agreement the U.S. signed with Fiji. Similarly, multilateral air patrol agreements could improve maritime domain awareness moving forward. The lack of aircraft available for patrols has created gaps in maritime surveillance that infrequent fly-overs, such as those conducted by New Zealand, France, the United States, and Australia over Tonga, via bilateral air patrol agreements cannot sufficiently address at their current levels.

Major cultural areas of Oceania: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia (Wikimedia Commons)

Enhancing Information Sharing 

In addition to patrol assets, information sharing mechanisms form an essential component of maritime security by allowing agencies, governments, and multilateral organizations to synthesize and assess security threats based on a holistic view of the maritime domain. Analysts can use the information collected from maritime patrols, human intelligence, and a variety of geospatial data-acquisition technologies to prioritize where to direct limited maritime assets. Information centers already exist within the South Pacific for gathering and disseminating data on maritime issue areas. The Transnational Crime Coordination Center, for instance, collects datasets on 13 South Pacific islands through the use of 19 Transnational Crime Units. The center uses the datasets to inform South Pacific island leaders on emerging threats, such as an increase in sex offenders traveling by sea to South Pacific islands for child sex exploitation. The region would, however, benefit from improving information-sharing networks on the national level, where lack of transparency hinders cooperation.

To improve the accuracy of information available at the regional level and in support of ongoing information sharing by island nations and local multilateral organizations, external stakeholders have proposed the creation of information fusion centers. Both Australia and the United States have mentioned the possibility of leading initiatives to create information fusion centers within the South Pacific region. While the involvement of both nations would be advantageous, increased coordination is necessary to avoid creating disparate systems. Australia’s previous contributions to maritime security in the South Pacific through initiatives like the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which have consistently provided law enforcement vessels and conducted aerial surveillance patrols for a dozen islands in the region, may make the country the more natural choice for leadership of future efforts in this area.

Building Security Assistance Capabilities: Acknowledging the Nexus Between Land and Sea 

The porous nature of the divide between land and sea, especially in the island nations of the South Pacific, means that governments need to coordinate security operations across both domains. As underscored in the Stable Seas report, Violence at Sea: How Insurgents, Terrorists, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain, an overemphasis on one domain can result in increased activity in the neglected domain as illicit actors attempt to exploit areas with lower levels of security. Conflict-consolidation, post-conflict development, and transnational criminal operations, especially in recent conflict areas like the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, and Fiji, warrant stronger security assistance capabilities within the South Pacific. A maritime security emphasis during these operations makes inciting and sustaining armed conflict difficult. The interception of two large shipments of small arms to Fiji prior to the coups illustrates how non-state actors can utilize the maritime domain to support terrestrial agendas.

Inter-governmental organizations within the region have taken steps to allow for South Pacific island-led peacekeeping initiatives. In 2000, the PIF released the Biketawa Declaration, which outlines the procedure for collective actions at the behest of a member state or when a crisis necessitates intervention. The document created a legal basis for the deployment of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, which included 14 PIF member states, and lasted from 2013 to 2017. Limited resources and infrastructure within PIF, however, means the organization would face logistical difficulties without the explicit support of larger member states like New Zealand and Australia. Increased funding for the organization could result in greater autonomy in decision-making by smaller member states, giving them the opportunity to exploit their nuanced understanding of the political and cultural milieu, and emphasize the importance of human security in the maritime domain.

Foreign entities could also support locally-led peacekeeping efforts by helping create and then lend expertise to a Pacific Islands Peace Operations Training Centre (PI-POTC). Similar to the Australian Defense Force Peace Operations Training Center, the center would create an opportunity for an exchange of information and training with national and international institutions to develop capacities in line with international standards. The center’s pacific island leadership would allow peacekeeping training to continue reflecting the region’s political, cultural, and security dynamics and emphasize the important role of maritime security to the South Pacific islands.

How Can Aid Programs Increase Coordination?

The multitude of foreign entities and programs providing funding, training, assets, and issue-specific expertise through maritime security capacity-building programs can create duplication of efforts and inefficiencies in implementation. Contention has arisen, for example, over discrepancies in aid provisions made by China in comparison to western states. China provides support without requiring any prerequisites for aid provision. Western nations, however, tend to require that host-countries first meet political, social, and security conditions before providing aid in order to encourage responsible aid allocation and implementation. The differences in viewpoint have been exacerbated by recent geopolitical tensions in regard to China’s growing sphere of influence in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The $90 million wharf funded by China in Luganville, Vanuatu has parallels to China providing $1.3 billion in funds to build a port in Hambantota, where Sri Lanka’s inability to repay the loans resulted in debt entrapment.

New Zealand’s successful coordination with China on water infrastructure projects in the Cook Islands demonstrate that nations can overcome the geopolitical and institutional differences to find mutually agreeable solutions. While trilateral approaches between western states, China, and South Pacific islands have a future, recent disputes arising from the water infrastructure project in Cook Island show parties still need to improve coordination. The creation of a multilateral forum similar to the UN Development Cooperation Forum could form a neutral setting to facilitate transparency between traditional western donors and emerging donors like China in any future maritime security capacity-building efforts. 


Given the strong influence of the maritime space on the national economies and local communities within the South Pacific, the deleterious effects of non-traditional threats to human security in the maritime domain are of significant concern to the island nations. By further enhancing MDA, maritime law enforcement capacity, and security assistance capabilities, local South Pacific island governments and multilateral organizations can protect their maritime-based economies. To maximize impact, foreign entities should integrate aid programs into existing local maritime initiatives. Closely involving local agencies, national governments, and regional organizations in the development and implementation phase can reduce the potential for redundancies and incompatibilities with existing initiatives.

Michael van Ginkel works at One Earth Foundation’s Stable Seas program where he researches Indo-Pacific maritime security. His research and publication background focuses primarily on conflict resolution and prevention. Michael graduated with distinction from the University of Glasgow where he received his master’s degree in conflict studies.

Featured Image: Members of the Vanuatu Police Force examine a map during a tour of the USNS Sacagawea as a part of Exercise Koa Moana 17, off the coast of Vanuatu, Aug. 19, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by MCIPAC Combat Camera Lance Cpl. Juan C. Bustos)

The Israeli Navy in a Changing Security Environment

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Ehud (Udi) Eiran 

A Small Role to Play

Facing regional animosity since it was created in 1948, Israel evolved into a small regional power in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. It deflected armed opposition to its existence in six major wars (1947-1949, 1956, 1967, 1968-1970, 1973, 1982) and multiple low-intensity armed clashes. Though it does not admit it publicly, it is probably the only nation in the region with nuclear weapons. It is further able to contain recent military challenges posed by the more effective non-state challengers, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Israeli Navy, however, has played a relatively small role in Israel’s strategic posture over the years. Israelis generally did not view the sea as a source of threat, in part, due to the limited naval capabilities of their foes. A military doctrine that called for swift ground force action meant that even conflicts that had a maritime spark led to an Israeli resolution through an attack on the ground rather than the sea. The rise of the air force, especially since it played a crucial role in Israel’s swift victory in the 1967 war, left the navy as a secondary actor. The navy’s victories during the 1973 war, against the backdrop of initial failures on the ground and in the air, was still not enough to resurrect the navy’s status nor dim the public notion that the war as a whole was a national and military trauma. This state of affairs created a vicious circle in which no navy officers were promoted outside of the service. Indeed, 21 out of 22 Israeli Chiefs of Staff rose from the ground forces, and one from the air force.

The navy’s marginal role allowed it, perhaps paradoxically, to transform itself rather dramatically a number of times within a few decades. Initially it relied on a small number of frigates and destroyers, mostly older ships that Britain used during the Second World War. Other vessels included torpedo boats and landing crafts. Severely underfunded, the navy also trained, during its first decades, civilian crafts, to serve under its command in case of a war. By the early 1970s, the force transformed itself by focusing on French and Israeli-made fast corvettes. Though inferior to their Egyptian and Syrian foes, these boats performed most effectively during the 1973 war. By the 1980s, Israel had deployed some two dozen of these corvettes.

The late 1960s also saw a transformation in Israel’s small navy SEAL unit (Shayetet 13). Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and one side of the Suez Canal created a longer maritime boundary with its largest foe at the time, Egypt. The protracted war of attrition between the two (1968-1970) created multiple opportunities for the SEALS to hone their capabilities in seaborne ground assaults. In the following decades, the unit emerged as perhaps Israel’s top combat special operations unit.

Israeli Naval Transformation

We are now in the midst of a third Israeli naval transformation, and probably the most dramatic one. For the first time in the navy’s history, it is assuming a role at the heart of at least two core Israeli national interests: dealing with an existential aspect of the challenge posed by Iran, and securing Israel’s energy supplies. For at least two decades, Israel viewed an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon as its primary security threat. Alongside an effort to curtail the Iranian nuclear project, it seems that Israel is preparing a second-strike capability for the day Iran will acquire an atomic weapon. Since 1999, Israel has acquired nine Dolphin and Dakar class conventional submarines, and by 2020 has commissioned six of them. Produced in Germany, it is largely believed that they could carry ballistic missiles with the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon, though Israel never admitted that it has this capability, nor, as noted, that it has any nuclear weapons at all.

INS Dolphin of the Israeli Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

The second task that propelled the navy is the defense of Israel’s maritime energy assets. Starting in the late 1990s, Israel began to discover natural gas fields in its exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea. A 2010 discovery of the massive Leviathan field secured Israel’s energy independence for decades to come. By 2019, some 64 percent of Israeli energy was produced from its seaborne gas. The massive gas depots also allowed for exports to regional actors (Jordan, Egypt ,and possibly the Palestinian Authority), and serve as a basis for an alliance with Cyprus and Greece which includes a plan to lay a pipe that will deliver the gas to Europe.

However, the major fields of Tamar and Leviathan are close to Israel’s maritime boundary with Lebanon, and some other crucial facilities (such as the Tamar gas rig) are near the maritime boundary with Hamas-controlled Gaza. Although many of the assets are outside Israel’s territorial waters (but in its exclusive economic zone) and indeed are partially owned by non-Israeli corporations, the government decided in 2013 that the Israel Defense Force – in effect, the navy – will be made responsible for their protection. The new responsibility led to further naval procurement of four Sa’ar 6 corvettes from Germany.

Natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean (2017 graphic via Al Jazeera)

The significant expansion of the naval force created opportunities for graft. For the first time in Israeli history, a former commander of the navy is likely to be indicted for bribery related to the deals. Other suspects include close associates of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which led to public calls, including by numerous former military leaders, to investigate his role in the navy-related bribery case.

Significant Maritime Developments

Two other developments highlighted the navy’s emerging significance. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least its armed manifestations, was largely relocated from the land-locked West Bank, to the Gaza Strip, on the Mediterranean shore. Since 2007, Israel has been blockading the region, with much of the effort directed at preventing sea access. One recent indication of the centrality of the maritime security arena, was the revelation that Israeli intelligence penetrated Hamas’ maritime unit. In a dramatic escape, a senior officer in the unit defected to Israel in July 2020. Finally, Israel has mounted an effort to block supplies to its non-state foes such as Hamas and Hezbollah. This effort includes interdiction of vessels carrying arms hundreds of miles away from Israeli shores. For example, in 2014, Israeli naval forces boarded the Klos -C, a ship carrying arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza, and brought it to Israel.

Hamas naval commandos after reaching Israel’s Zikim Beach during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 (Photo via Israeli Defense Force Spokesperson’s Unit)

Israel’s Maritime Future

Looking forward, the Israeli Navy is facing a number of challenges. First, if the tensions with Iran, which manifest themselves in occasional air strikes in Syria, will expand, the navy may be called to further develop capabilities to reach Iranian shores. Israel is 1,500 km away from Iran, and the sea is an attractive route to access the Islamic Republic. Israel’s recent normalization of its relationship with the UAE and Bahrain might also make future Israeli naval deployments in the Arabian Gulf easier. There is also talk of a possible Iranian naval station in Syria, which may bring the maritime conflict closer to home.

Second, Israel has been developing a military alliance with Greece and Cyprus. In light of emerging tensions between the two and Turkey, mostly in the maritime domain, Nicosia and Athens might expect Jerusalem to deploy naval assets in a show of support. Israel has never fought alongside an ally, and has been very careful to avoid any military commitment to others, and so a Hellenic expectation could force it to review its policies. Either way, even the shadow of a possible conflict with Turkey is expected to provide further significance to the Israeli Navy.

Finally, the signals of American retreat from the region allow other maritime powers to operate in the Eastern Mediterranean more freely. A Russian naval presence off the shores of Syria, and the occasional visit of Chinese vessels, suggest that the Israeli Navy should get prepared for an environment that has a larger number of, and more powerful, naval platforms. These could constrain the freedom of operation of the Israeli Navy in the future.

Ehud (Udi) Eiran is a Visiting Scholar, Department of Political Science, Stanford University and an Israel Institute lecturer, Department of Political Science, UC-Berkeley. He is a retired Israeli army officer, and a former assistant foreign policy advisor to the prime minister.

Featured Image: An Israeli Navy ship during a major exercise held in the Red Sea off the coast of Eilat, March 2016. (Photo via Israeli Defense Force spokesperson)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.