by Paul Iddon
If even a sizable portion of the Emirate of Qatar’s current arms deals come to fruition in the foreseeable future then Doha’s military will become far larger and more powerful in the first half of the 2020s. From expanding its air force with cutting edge American and French fighter jets to an unprecedented expansion of its ground and naval forces, Qatar is pouring billions into making its military a formidable power that could punch well above its weight in the Persian Gulf region, if it finds enough skilled personnel.
Since the blockade was imposed upon it in the summer of 2017, Qatar has made deals which will transform its modest air force of just 12 French-made Dassault Mirage 2000s into a highly formidable air force in terms of both quantity and quality.
Doha has reached a deal to beef up its air power with 36 F-15E Strike Eagle with the US – which is building the sheikdom a new variant of the iconic jet fighter known as the F-15QA, with some superior capabilities to Saudi Arabia’s F-15SA Strike Eagle variant. The Boeing contract to build these jets is worth $6 billion.
Qatar also completed a pre-blockade deal with France to supply it with 24 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter jets in a deal valued at approximately $7 billion. It was also announced last December 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron visited, that Doha exercised its option to purchase an additional 12 Rafales. This came into effect in late March, meaning that Qatar will receive two batches of Rafales that will give it a 36-strong fleet. This fleet will likely consist of mostly single-seat variants. It’s not yet clear how much Qatar will pay for the additional 12 jets.
The deal also includes the supply of Meteor air-to-air missiles and long-range cruise missiles, giving the Qataris an aerial platform capable of holding its own in the air and striking any potential adversaries on the ground with precision.
As previously noted here on offiziere.ch last July a fleet of these advanced American and French aircraft will give the Qatari Emiri Air Force (QEAF) a formidable arsenal which, especially in terms of per capita, could seriously challenge its much larger neighbours.
Doha also made a £6 billion deal (roughly $8 billion) with the UK to purchase 24 Eurofighter Typhoons last December. The deal includes support and training from Britain’s BAE Systems and is scheduled to commence in 2022.
Just after the initial letter of intent was signed last September 17 Jane’s defence journal noted that if all of Qatar’s “orders are fulfilled in full, the QEAF will field a fighter force of 84 platforms across three different types.” (Add to this the additional 12 Rafales then the tiny sheikdom will possess a highly formidable fleet totaling 96 new jets; the Dassault Mirage 2000s will be replaced by the new fighter jets)
In March 2018 the tiny emirate also made an agreement to buy six armed Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones along with ground control systems, equipment and a training simulator. According to the Turkish press these systems will be delivered within a year.
On top of all this Qatar is also in talks with the Russians to buy sophisticated long-range S-400 air defense missile systems, which could potentially turn Qatar’s airspace into an Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenge for any potential adversary. “Talks about the subject are at an advanced stage,” Fahad Mohammed Al-Attiyah, Doha’s ambassador to Moscow, told the Russian state-run TASS news agency in January.
Doha has also reached an other agreement with Turkey which will bolster its almost nonexistent ground forces, that currently consist of little more than 30 aging French-made AMX-30 tanks, with 85 armoured vehicles. The head of Turkey’s BMC company, Ethem Sancak, told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news recently that the deal consists of 50 of Turkey’s BMC Kirpi (Turkish for Hedgehog) Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles along with 35 lightly armoured BMC Amazon 4×4 vehicles. It’s unclear when production of these vehicles and their eventual delivery will transpire.
In 2013, Doha bought 62 Leopard 2A7+ main battle tanks from Germany along with 24 Panzerhaubitze 2000 (a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer) and some light support vehicles in a €1.89 billion (approximately $2.2 billion) deal. The Qataris also have the option of purchasing another 200 Leopard 2A7+s in the future. At present they have taken delivery of no fewer than 32 of the German-made tanks.
Qatar also signed a letter of intent to buy 490 armoured VBCI infantry fighting vehicles built by the French government’s Nexter Systems weapons manufacturing company during Macron’s aforementioned visit last December. The Norwegian firm Kongsberg was selected in March to provide turrets and weapon systems for those vehicles. However, that potential $1.94 billion contract has not yet been finalized. Jane’s also noted that “it is unclear what vehicle variants and weapons configurations the Qataris will ultimately order”.
Also last December, Qatar revealed that they had a modified China-made SY-400 short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile system, which they paraded through Doha. The SY-400s are capable of delivering a payload of 200 kilograms against targets up to 400 kilometers away, meaning Qatar’s ground forces are at least theoretically capable of striking the territory of any of its neighbours were it to come under attack.
Another potential country that could supply Qatar with some of its military’s needs is Ukraine. Both countries signed an agreement regarding military and technical cooperation during a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in March. The document says it “will contribute to strengthening friendly ties between Ukraine and Qatar aimed at improving the defense capacity of the two states.”
In the meantime, Qatar has permitted Turkey to base troops (about 150 soldiers) and equipment on its soil since the onset of the blockade, which serve as another deterrent against any potential attacker.
On the sea, Qatar also wants to beef up its small navy of just seven attack boats – which currently consist of four British-made Vita-class fast attack craft and three French-made La Combattante III-class fast attack craft.
From Italy Qatar made an order last August of seven vessels produced by the country’s Fincantieri shipbuilder. The order consists of four air defence corvettes of over 100 meters in length, two offshore patrol vessels and a landing platform dock (LPD) in a project worth up to $5,9 billion. Doha is expected to take delivery of the first corvette by 2021, while the rest of the ships should enter naval service in the emirate in the next six years.
The vice president of Fincantieri’s Qatar program, David Traverso, lauded the deal describing it as “the biggest turnkey program we have ever had in terms of export market in the Arab region. [..] The program will be a big boost for our shipyards in the naval business area,” he said, “but I would say the same for Qatar, as we will be staying there for approximately 10 years in order to maintain the naval units.”
The corvettes will be fitted with an assortment of firepower ranging from main 76 mm guns to Exocet anti-ship missiles and Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles. Such weapons could prove devastating in close quarters, such as in the narrow confines of the Persian Gulf. The lone LPD, the “mother ship” of this nascent new navy, will likely be a helicopter carrier for some of the NH90 helicopters Qatar is also buying from the NHIIndustries consortium. Doha ordered 12 naval variants of the helicopter along with another 16 configured as tactical transports.
On March 13 the Anadolu Shipyard in Turkey also announced that it had signed an agreement to build two training ships for the Qatari Navy. The chairman of the shipyard told Turkey’s Anadolu news agency that they will have the capacity to train 72 naval cadets at a time. Qatari officials also said in March that they made agreements to procure another 17 warships which, according to Anadolu, “will be outfitted with weapons built by Turkish defense manufacturer Aselsan.”
Conclusion: Lack of manpower the main stumbling block
The fact that many of these deals were made after Qatar was placed under a blockade in mid-2017 is a slap in the face to that Saudi-led endeavour, which aimed to essentially strip the tiny country of its independence and bring its foreign policy in line with the interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It’s also a sign that Doha is conscious of how limited its military capabilities have been in the preceding decades.
While all these deals combined are unlikely to enable Qatar to prevail on some future battlefield against its neighbours, they will give Doha a much more effective deterrent against any potential attack, fulfilling its most fundamental defence needs in ways it hitherto could not.
Nevertheless, tiny Qatar – with a native population of a mere 300,000 – is faced with the enormous task of finding skilled personnel to both operate these systems and, eventually, maintain them. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies‘ (IISS) 2018 Military Balance report notes: “At a conservative estimate of 1.5 pilots trained per aircraft, this will mean that, in due course, the QEAF will need a minimum steady state of over 300 trained pilots, plus the requisite engineers, weapons experts and other personnel, which will likely prove a significant challenge”.
Things are not much better on the naval front. The report notes that Qatar “lacks its own naval academy, and even if it had one, officers would be hard pressed to assimilate the specialist training and experience that will be required to operate the navy’s new ships to their full capability”.
And, finally, on the ground the Qatari army “also requires a wide range of supporting capabilities that will be essential for it to be militarily effective, not least a fully integrated command-and-control system, […] training, maintenance and logistics requirements”.