Qatar has embarked on one of the most ambitious armament programmes seen in the Middle East in recent times. Its armed forces are growing exponentially as its air force increases in size from 12 to 96 fighter jets, with more on the way. Its army and navy have seen rapid expansion as Qatar spends billions of dollars in order to protect itself.
Qatar, with its large expatriate population, has traditionally been focused on internal security but the sharp downturn in relations with its large and well-armed neighbours forced it to re-evaluate its military.
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Relations soured in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as each country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sought to aid and support various factions in the evolving conflicts in Libya and Syria. Growing regional enmity came into sharp focus in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. Although they were returned to Doha several months later it was clear there had been a significant rift within the GCC that was unlikely to heal any time soon. Qatar quietly looked into boosting its meagre armed forces.
Increasingly ostracised within the GCC, Qatar sought allies in the region. It was already home to the giant Al Udeid airbase, the forward headquarters for the United States’s Central Command, or CENTCOM. The base houses more than 10,000 personnel and is a key American asset in the Middle East, and makes Qatar a key ally.
Turkey has also given extensive support. In a show of solidarity in 2016, Turkey was allowed to set up a military base in Qatar, initially housing hundreds of Turkish personnel sent to train the Qatari gendarmerie and special forces. It also sent a message that Qatar was not alone and had powerful allies in the region. Part of the growing military cooperation between the two countries, the decision immediately provoked a hostile reaction from Qatar’s neighbours.
The downturn in regional relations reached a critical point in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, in a coordinated effort, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Emboldened by a mercurial Trump administration in Washington, DC, these countries recalled their ambassadors, expelled those of Qatar and imposed a severe economic blockade on the country. The immediate closure of the Turkish base was among a list of demands issued to Qatar.
With the threat of invasion by Saudi Arabia and the UAE a tangible reality, Qatar sought to accelerate its arms procurement programme.
Of all the branches of the Qatari military, the air force is undergoing the most significant expansion. In 2017 the Qatari Emiri Air Force, or QEAF, consisted of a dozen French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets and some Alpha trainers. The relatively small number of Mirages would be hopelessly outclassed by the large, modern air forces possessed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qatar addressed the imbalance with three significant purchases of new, advanced fighter jets.
In May 2015 Doha signed a $6bn deal with French aerospace giant Dassault for 24 Rafale fighter jets. A further 12 were ordered in 2018 as part of the initial deal, bringing the total number to 36. Qatar also has an option to buy 36 more.
The Rafale is a highly advanced multirole fighter jet. Combat proven and extremely manoeuvrable, it can carry a large payload of weapons, conduct multiple mission types – giving planners much needed operational flexibility – and is a potent addition to any air force’s inventory.
Qatar did not stop there. In 2017 it signed a $12bn deal with US manufacturer Boeing for 36 advanced F-15QA fighter jets. Although an old airframe, the F-15QA is the most advanced of its line, specialising in air superiority and, increasingly, long-range ground attack. The Qatari version is able to carry more weapons and its sensors have been updated.
Seeking to diversify its air force further, Qatar signed a letter of intent with the United Kingdom in September 2017 for 24 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets. It is another advanced aircraft, an air superiority thoroughbred, yet capable of a wide variety of missions.
All three countries, the US, France and the UK, agreed to train Qatari pilots and provide logistics and training for ground crews in a tacit yet clear message of support for Qatar. The QEAF will shortly see its small and antiquated fleet of 12 fighters expanded to 96 advanced fighter jets, making it one of the most powerful air forces in the region.
Growing Turkey ties
Defence ties with Qatar’s ally Turkey have also strengthened. Turkey’s military-industrial complex is rapidly maturing and many of its weapons have gained a reputation for combat prowess. Qatar has bought and received delivery of six Bayraktar TB2 drones. It has also received two large cadet training ships built in Turkey as well as a fleet of fast patrol craft for its coast guard.
Determined to boost its military capabilities on land, Qatar has sought to dramatically expand its fleet of main battle tanks. It has bought and seen the delivery of 62 highly advanced German Leopard 2A7, arguably one of the best tanks on the market. These have been adapted to fight specifically in high temperatures and the sandy terrain of the desert.
In addition, there is an order for 100 Turkish Altay main battle tanks. However, the programme has run into trouble as its development flounders, adding to delays in production. It is now unlikely any Altay tanks will be delivered in the next year or so.
Despite this setback, the Qatari Army now fields a far larger force of armour, especially when combined with the recent purchase of self-propelled artillery from Germany and short-range ballistic missiles from China. Qatar has also expressed an interest in purchasing Russia’s effective, yet politically controversial, S-400 air defence system.
The Qatari navy is not to be left behind as Italian manufacturer Fincantieri has been contracted to build four corvettes and an amphibious landing dock. The Italian defence company has also been contracted to build submarines for Qatar as well as construct an offshore base for Qatar’s navy.
Rapid military expansion is not without its challenges. Buying weapons from multiple countries means logistics and supply can be an issue. The integration of increasingly complex systems into a unified structure can also be challenging. The largest hurdle for the Qatari military will be manpower. In a small country with a population of 2.78 million, trained personnel adept in the weapons and tactics of 21st-century warfare are relatively scarce.
Nevertheless, the rapid expansion of Qatar’s armed forces has been nothing short of dramatic. In just a few years, every branch of its military has increased in size by orders of magnitude, their firepower and training moving at a great pace. Formerly a cash-rich but militarily insignificant country, Qatar has grown into a powerful regional force, with allies both in and beyond the region.