NATO Black Sea Flotilla. A reef in the Turkish Straits
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Strategic goals and objectives
Last January, Romania initiated a proposal to create a permanent NATO naval task force in the Black Sea and Bucharest intends to discuss its project during the summit of the Alliance in Warsaw in July. It is noticeably the first concrete Romanian initiative in terms of maritime security in the Black Sea, a naval theater which has been depicted extensively as a Russian-Turkish security condominium since 1991. Romania is a key NATO member in the region, hosting on its soil most of the US ABM facilities currently under deployment, the US Black Sea Rotational Force which is dispatched at the Mihail Kogălniceanu airbase, and provides the US with a naval support facility in Deveselu.
This NATO flotilla would primarily rely on NATO Black Sea members naval capabilities (i.e. Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey), but would not be restricted to them, with prospects to join already offered to Ukraine and Georgia, while some Western navies would be contributing as well (in particular the US, Italian and German). Taking into account that all Black Sea maritime countries have, at best, difficult relations with Russia, Romania’s proposal appears to be an attempt to find a common ground for an enhanced security cooperation on the regional stage against the Russian hegemon.
Obviously, this naval task force would be designed to offset Russia’s military footprint in the Black Sea region, which has dramatically increased following the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing fortification of the peninsula. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has been slated for modernization since late 2000s, with the induction of new surface and submarine platforms, some of which being already dispatched (2 diesel SSK equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles, while 4 additional units should be commissioned by the end of the decade, or even earlier). In the meantime, new ground-based defense systems (including but not restricted to Bastion anti-ship coastal battery and S-400 anti-air system) deployed in Crimea have critically enhanced Russia’s anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Black Sea basin, forming the so-called “bubble” depicted by General Philip Breedlove. The purpose of Romania’s proposal would be therefore primarily aimed at contesting Russia’s naval supremacy in the Black Sea, and would furthermore extend the US European reassurance initiative (ERI) to the Black Sea maritime theater.
By the same token, this project of flotilla would suit Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations to join the Alliance by offering them a new space for a concrete cooperation in a NATO framework, while echoing Washington’s “leading from behind” approach. It is therefore no surprise that both Kiev and Tbilisi have already demonstrated a certain appetite for such an initiative.
Black Sea NATO members’ naval capabilities: it’s all about Turkey
Romania’s initiative must however be assessed in the light of Black Sea NATO members naval capabilities, since they would quantitatively provide the bulk of the sea units.
Since 2004, Black Sea NATO countries have deflated their military expenditures by almost a third in average. While Turkey spent 3,7% of its GDP for defense spending in 2000, Bulgaria spent 2,6% in 2004, and Romania 2% (2004), they respectively allocated 2,1%, 1,4% and 1,4% in 2015. Yet, Bucharest has been committed to a slight increase since 2014, with an additional +0,1% in comparison with 2013 (1,3%).
Romanian and Bulgarian naval capabilities remain very limited, and mainly consist in second and third rank units fitted for littoral protection and coastal patrol. While Romania has 3 frigates and 4 corvettes, Bulgarian navy has 4 frigates (including 3 ex-Belgian navy frigates of Wielingen-class, 2 of which are in active service and 1 used for spare parts) and 3 patrol boats, and naval aviation – essential to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) – is nonexistent (Bulgaria maintains a batch of 3 helicopters, but their serviceability remains under question). Both countries neither have operational submarines, nor can afford to procure SSKs in the short or middle term.
Romania and Bulgaria have however demonstrated their commitment to improve their capabilities: in January 2015, newly elected President Klaus Iohannis pledged that Bucharest would increase its defense spending to 2% GDP by 2017, with the objective to maintain this level of spending until 2027. Bulgaria, for its part, plans to procure 2 corvette-sized combat ships for €419 million. The plan, approved by the country's cabinet in late March, is expected to be put to parliament for approval at the end of May. The 2 units should be commissioned in the navy 5 to 6 years after the inking of the contract. However, such commitments already emerged by the past, but with no concrete results, mainly because of budget constraints. In the light of these elements, one can say that, for the foreseeable future, Bulgarian and Romanian navy capabilities will remain limited, and mainly tasked with “green water” missions.
On the other hand, Turkey maintains a quantitatively and qualitatively modern navy, with 14 classic attack submarines, 18 frigates, 61 patrol ships and amphibious capabilities. Yet, Ankara’s navy has to split between the Black Sea and Mediterranean naval theaters, and it should be remembered that purges carried out among the top ranking military officers during the past decade have dramatically affected the Turkish navy. Turkey has engaged in a plan to beef up its naval forces, and ordered new submarines (German Type 214), new amphibious capabilities (Spanish Navantia will procure new LPDs) and a program of indigenous MILGEM littoral combat corvettes with ASW and high seas patrol capabilities. Therefore, without the contribution of Turkish capabilities, the Romanian project would hardly make sense, or it would remain a pure political initiative.
Two other Black Sea stakeholders – namely Ukraine and Georgia – have shown an interest for the Romanian project, however, they are unlikely to really tip the balance considering their respective low naval capacities. Ukrainian navy has 1 frigate and 7 patrol boats, and although Kiev planned to modernize its fleet through the implementation of an ambitious €1,5 billion construction program of Project 58250 corvettes, tremendous economic difficulties question the feasibility of this plan. For its part, Georgia does not have any more fleet since 2009, when Georgian naval forces were merged with the Coast Guard under the auspices of the Border Guard. After the 2008 Georgian-Russian conflict, Ankara transferred to Tbilisi 2 patrol crafts in order to strengthen Georgia’s ability to monitor its borders with Turkey.
Turkey’s dominance over the Straits
A quick look at the naval capabilities of potential regional contributors to the projected NATO Black Sea task force leads to the conclusion that this proposal is all about Turkish capabilities. Furthermore, Turkey’s participation is more than key to the success of this naval task group because of the legal constraints imposed by the Montreux Convention (1936) to cross the Straits and access the Black Sea basin. The text limits the presence of non littoral states' vessels to 21 days maximum, which means that non Black Sea NATO members' warships would have to rotate, raising the cost of the operation. In other words, should Turkey decline to take part in this flotilla, it is unlikely that the US, or other Western NATO members decide to join. Since its relations with Moscow deteriorated after one of its F-16s destroyed a Russian Su-24 above Syria in November, Ankara has demonstrated an interest in enhancing maritime cooperation with its Black Sea neighbors, except Russia. In early April, Turkish vessels visited Batumi (Georgia), Varna (Bulgaria), Constanta (Romania) and Odessa (Ukraine), and carried out sea exercises with the host ships, in the framework of the annual Deniz Yildizi (Sea Star) drills.
The fact that Russia-Turkey relations have been critically downgraded in the context of the Syrian crisis has opened the path for Bucharest to float out this project. All indicates that attracting Turkey is actually the main purpose of Romania’s call for the creation of this flotilla; otherwise, this project could have been crafted months, if not years, ago. Romania’s proposal is indeed based on the assertion that the Russian-Turkish cooperative competition on the Black Sea stage blew up after November 24, 2015, and that both Moscow and Ankara are on the verge of entering of have already entered in a more or less open confrontation for supremacy in the Black Sea basin and beyond.
Despite Russia’s greater military footprint in the Black Sea and Russia-Turkey tensions, Ankara may still think twice before joining Romania’s initiative. Since 1991, Turkey has launched a set of initiatives aimed at strengthening regional cooperation under its leadership: the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization or BSEC (1992), the naval task force BlackSeaFor (1998) or the operation Black Sea Harmony (2004). These initiatives were each time designed at asserting Ankara’s leadership in a regional framework, and, in practice, they offered a concrete ground for Turkish-Russian confidence building measures and naval cooperation. Moreover, since 1991, Turkey has consistently and firmly opposed the involvement of any outsiders in the Pontus Euxinus, and therefore vetoed in 2006 the extension of the NATO naval operation Active Endeavor to the Black Sea waters. This decision was not made to please Russia - although it was a result - but rather to prevent any increase of NATO naval activity in the Black Sea which could, from Turkey’s perspective, weaken the legal regime of the Turkish Straits (Dardanelles, Sea of Marmara and Bosporus). On the other hand, being perfectly aware of Turkey’s concerns of potentially seeing its dominant position potentially downgraded by its own naval activity in the Black Sea, Washington has promoted since the mid-2000s a greater naval cooperation between the regional stakeholders.
If for Romania and Bulgaria the interest for such a NATO flotilla may appear obvious, for Turkey, the question is rather different. In short, Bucharest and Sofia would welcome the creation of a “Black Sea naval policing mission” similar to the one NATO runs to protect the sky of the Baltic states (Baltic air policing mission). However, for Turkey, what is the concrete interest to green light the creation of a permanent NATO flotilla in the Black Sea? As we have demonstrated, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Georgian navies do not add much to Turkish naval capabilities. A permanent NATO flotilla in the Black Sea could furthermore open the path to a greater and formalized Western naval footprint in the Pontus Euxinus. Actually, Western navies’ activity in the Black Sea basin sharply increased in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an almost permanent presence of 1 or 2 units all along 2014. Moreover, if Ankara was prompt to request the Alliance’s support with regard to developments occurring in Syria since 2011, it has always been reluctant to grant NATO with an easy access to the Black Sea naval stage. In Ankara’s view, Russia may appear as a strategic adversary, or even as a threat, but still, Moscow remains committed to the respect of the Montreux Convention. In other words, the 1936 Convention may appear currently at the one of the few persisting common grounds between Turkey and Russia after November 2015. The creation of the NATO Black Sea flotilla would certainly put pressure on the Montreux Convention and frustrate Turkish dominant position in the Straits. So far, Ankara has never permitted anyone inside of its sphere of influence, and the Straits are one of the very key areas of Turkish power in the Black Sea region. It is therefore unlikely that Ankara allows anyone to mitigate its exclusiveness, be it long-standing strategic partners like the US or NATO.
 «Порошенко заявил о готовности Украины присоединиться с созданию черноморской флотилии под руководством НАТО», News-ru, April 21, 2016.
 Igor Delanoe, “Crimea, a Strategic Bastion on Russia’s Southern Flank”, RIAC Blog, December 18, 2014. /en/blogs/igor_delanoe/?id_4=1588
 The B-261 Novorossiysk and the B-237 Rostov-Na-Donu. For a complete picture of the modernization plan of the Black Sea Fleet, read Igor Delanoe, “Russia’s Plans for Crimea: the Black Sea Fleet”, RIAC Blog, July 23, 2014. /en/blogs/igor_delanoe/?id_4=1305
 “Top NATO general: Russians starting to build air defense bubble over Syria”, The Washington Post, September 29, 2015.
 SIPRI Military Expenditures 2015 database.
 IISS Military Balance 2015.
 “Romania pledges to spend 2% GDP on defence by 2017”, IHS Jane’s 360, January 13, 2015. http://www.janes.com/article/47843/romania-pledges-to-spend-2-gdp-on-defence-by-2017
 “Bulgaria to procure two combat ships”, Shephard, April 6, 2016.
 “Chief of staff at the Turkish navy arrested in probe on army spying”, Hurriyet Daily News, September 15, 2012. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/chief-of-staff-at-the-turkish-navy-arrested-in-probe-on-army-spying.aspx?pageID=238&nid=30217
 Joshua Kucera, “Russia's Black Sea Neighbors Boosting Naval Cooperation”, Eurasia.net, April 9, 2016.
Blog: Tracking Black Sea Security Issues