Orders accelerate the Qatar fighter evolution

Jon Lake reports on an unparalleled expansion for the Qatar Emiri Air Force

Qatar’s latest fighter orders have taken the number of aircraft on order for the Qatar Emiri Air Force to 96 new generation multi-role fighter aircraft. These would equip a fighter fleet eight times bigger than the current force – an unparalleled expansion. And the latest order for 12 additional Dassault Rafales includes provision for 36 further options, potentially taking the total number to 132 aircraft!
For many years, Qatar’s air force has had the smallest operational element of any GCC air arm, with just 12 ageing Dassault Mirage 2000-5s and six Dassault Alpha Jet advanced trainer/light attack aircraft.This force was half the size of the Royal Bahraini Air Force’s fighter element, and was even dwarfed by the Royal Air Force of Oman’s frontline fighter force.
The dramatic expansion and modernization of the Qatar Emiri Air Force began in earnest in July 2010 when Qatar requested proposals to replace its ageing 12 Dasault Mirage 2000-5s, though there had been earlier evaluations of alternative fighters in 2004.
Boeing opened an office in Qatar in December 2010 to promote the Super Hornet and the F-15 as solutions to the Qatari requirement. A circa 20-flight Qatari evaluation of the Eurofighter Typhoon in the UK was scheduled for April 2011, but was cancelled because the personnel involved on the Qatari side were all involved in the Libyan operations. This was not immediately rescheduled after the war amid reports that Qatar had been unhappy with the costs being quoted by the UK MoD for flying RAF aircraft.
Qatar conducted a Rafale technical assessment at Istres in March or April 2012, and two Armée de l’Air Rafales were deployed to Doha in July 2012 for an in-country evaluation. These were followed by a pair of US Navy Super Hornets at the end of August, and finally by a pair of USAFE F-15Es which were flown from RAF Lakenheath to Qatar for evaluation in early September.
Qatari officials were in Britain evaluating The Eurofighter Typhoon re-entered the competition in May 2013, when the Qataris conducted a brief evaluation at RAF Coningsby, after which a Eurofighter team deployed to Doha for further flight trials and evaluations.
Arabian Aerospace reported then that Qatar’s requirement was for 72 aircraft, and predicted that Qatar would split its fighter buy three ways, purchasing 24 examples each of the Rafale, Boeing F-15 Advanced Eagle and Eurofighter Typhoon.
It was always likely that the Rafale would be ordered first. Dassault were hungriest for an export order and were always going to give a competitive price, which could then be used to strike a harder bargain with the next supplier, especially since Qatar asked for 12 options, in addition to the 24 Dassault Rafales ordered in March 2016, for a total cost of US $7.6 billion.
The next order to be placed went to Boeing, and after a November 2016 DSCA notification cleared the way for the supply of up to 72 F-15s to Qatar, Dr Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah Qatar’s Minister of State for Defense Affairs, and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed a US $12 billion deal covering the supply of 36 Advanced Eagles in June 2017. The Advanced Eagle for Qatar was by now designated F-15QA (Qatar Advanced), though precise details of the configuration remain uncertain. It is likely to be similar to the F-15SA for Saudi Arabia, with AESA radar (Raytheon AN/APG-82(V)1 or AN/APG-63(V)3), a digital electronic warfare system, General Electric GE F-110-129 engines, digital Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems, and perhaps with large area displays and fly-by-wire flight controls and two additional underwing weapons stations.
The F-15QA order brought the number of fighter aircraft on order to 60, just 12 aircraft short of the anticipated total requirement, and many expected that the total would be reached by exercising the 12 Rafale options or 12 of the Advanced Eagle options.
Any such expectations briefly seemed to be confounded on 17 September, when the then-British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced he had signed a statement of intent covering a proposed purchase of 24 Eurofighter Typhoons with his counterpart, Khalid Bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah.
Adding further to the confusion, Qatar signed a major weapons deal with France on 7 December which included 12 Dassault Rafale fighters and nearly 500 armoured vehicles.
Three days later, however, on 10 December 2017, BAE Systems announced that it had received a £5 Bn contract to supply 24 Typhoon aircraft to the Qatar Emiri Air Force. New defence secretary Gavin Williamson said that: “The contract will secure work on the production line at Warton into the next decade,” with aircraft deliveries expected to commence in late 2022.
Qatar thereby became the ninth country in the world, and the fourth in the GCC, after Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, to choose the Typhoon and bringing the total number of Eurofighter Typhoons ordered to 623.
The value of the deal was increased with the simultaneous signing of a £1 Bn order for MBDA Meteor and Brimstone missiles.
The contract will include a training and military co-operation package under which Qatari pilots and ground crew will receive training in the UK, while the RAF and the Qatar Emiri Air Force will work and train together more frequently.
On December 14, Defence Minister Harriett Baldwin revealed that a new UK-based joint squadron will be formed at RAF Coningsby, and that this will temporarily integrate Qatari personnel, including pilots and groundcrew, ahead of the delivery of the Qatari aircraft.
The unit, No.12 (Bomber) Squadron, will provide valuable frontline experience to the Qatari personnel, and will be used to provide aerial security during the 2022 football World Cup, which Qatar is hosting.
Qatar’s MoD also said that the agreement includes “an electronic warfare system through continuous joint cooperation between the two countries.” This is believed to refer to the establishment of a dedicated Mission Data centre.
The announcement of Qatar’s Typhoon Statement of Intent was greeted by most news sources as being surprising and unexpected.
Bloomberg called the deal a ‘surprise win for the Typhoon fighter jet’, while analyst Celine Fornaro at UBS judged that “The market was not expecting a Qatar order for Eurofighter.”
But although splitting a 72-aircraft order three ways would seem like insanity to most Western air forces, it actually makes a great deal of sense in a Qatari context.
Procuring three types will inevitably impose higher costs and reduce any ‘economies of scale’, while also requiring more infrastructure and more complex logistics. But the three types have complementary and slightly overlapping capabilities, meaning that Qatar’s multi-type fleet will be more capable than a single-type fleet would have been, while also giving Qatar relationships and leverage with three suppliers, rather than just one.
Qatar’s fighter pilots will be able to train and exercise with the Armée de l’Air’s Rafale squadrons, with the USAF, and with the Eurofighter partner air forces, and will be able to pick up techniques, tactics and doctrine from all of their new allies.
Such training exercises have already begun. Four Royal Air Force Typhoons from No.29 Squadron deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, the home Qatar’s Fighter Wing, for joint exercises with the Qatar Emiri Air Force.
Wing Commander James Bolton, who led the RAF detachment, said that: “We are delighted to be here to exercise and fly alongside our colleagues from the QEAF. We have been demonstrating the exceptional capabilities of the Typhoon to the Qatari Fighter Wing and both the aircrew and the ground engineers from both Air Forces have been learning from each other’s experiences.”