by Paul Iddon
In any potential war pitting Qatar against the militaries of its Saudi and Emirati neighbours it’s clear Doha would face two adversaries with superior militaries, in terms of both quality and quantity.
The tiny resource-rich sheikdom, the wealthiest country in the world, has a relatively modest military made-up of a handful of French-made Mirage 2000s multi-role jets fighters and some aged light armor, also French-made.
The Saudis, on the other hand, have 72 Eurofighter Typhoons and 70 American-made F-15C Eagles (Riyadh has also ordered 84 lethal derivatives of the F-15E Strike Eagle) while the Emiratis have 80 F-16 Block 60 fighters. Riyadh’s armored forces have about 400 American-made M1 Abrams main battle tanks while Abu Dhabi has 388 French-made AMX Leclerc main battle tanks. Such firepower could devastate Doha’s armed forces were war to breakout.
Given this reality, and the fact its neighbours are prepared to blockade and threaten it to change its foreign policy, Qatar may shore up its military in the future to more adequately deter any potential attacks. It is already taking steps in this direction.
[T]he production of complex fighter jets will take a period of years. [Washington is] confident that Qatar can address its remaining issues within this timeframe, prior to delivery. — A U.S. State Department official cited by Foreign Policy.
In November 2016, Congress approved a sale of a whopping 72 F-15s to Qatar in a deal worth $21.1 billion, under this current deal Qatar is reportedly set to receive up to 36 of the warplanes. It’s unclear if they are connected or if the November deal was downsized.
The tiny sheikdom also completed a deal last year worth at least $6.9 billion to purchase 24 advanced Dassault Rafale jet fighters from France. “The deal has been made for the same number of jets purchased by Egypt in 2014, but the Qatari deal is priced higher due to the provision of long-range cruise missiles as well as Meteor [beyond-visual-range air-to-air] missiles,” Defense News reported. The Qatari Rafales are currently engaged in flight trials in France and will be delivered beginning in mid-2018.
One reason Qatar may have opted to buy fewer Eagles is the upcoming delivery of these Rafales. After all, an air force with 36 Eagles and 24 Rafales is an air force to be reckoned with, especially for such a tiny country.
The F-15QA jets are a variant of the Eagle built specifically for Qatar and are possibly similar, or identical, to the aforementioned Saudi F-15SA Strike Eagle derivative. “The proposed sale improves Qatar’s capability to meet current and future enemy air-to-air and air-to-ground threats,” a November Defense security Cooperation Agency news release on the proposed 72 Eagle deal stated. “Qatar will use the capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense. Qatar will have no difficulty absorbing these aircraft into its armed forces.”
While most US press releases concerning arms sales to the Persian Gulf states note that such arms sales help deter Iran a brand new fleet of Qatari F-15s, bolstered by Rafales, may well be used to deter Saudi Arabia and the UAE as much, if not more so, than Tehran.
The November release claims, as such statements invariably do, that an influx of F-15s into the Qatari Emiri Air Force (QEAF) “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” It also insists that US foreign policy and national security interests would be served “by helping to improve the security of a friendly country and strengthening our strategically important relationship.”
Qatar is indeed an important strategic US ally in the region. It’s home to the Al-Udeid airbase, the most significant airbase used by Washington in the Middle East outside of Incirlik in southeast Turkey. Al-Udeid may even exceed Incirlik in importance given its greater reliability of use. The present US relationship with Saudi Arabia, as illustrated by US President Donald Trump’s rather brash visit to the kingdom last month, is also important.
An armed standoff between two US allies and client states certainly would not be unprecedented. For decades the US has sold military hardware to its Greek and Turkish NATO allies in full recognition that many of these weapons have been used in standoffs between Athens and Ankara over the status of islands in the Aegean Sea. Greek and Turkish F-16s frequently intercept each other over these disputed territories. In October 1996 a Greek Mirage 2000 jet shot down a Turkish F-16 killing the pilot. Later, in May 2006 two Hellenic Air Force F-16s intercepted two of their Turkish counterparts, which were escorting one of their RF-4 reconnaissance planes, the same kind Syria shot down in May 2012, resulting in a midair collision that killed a Greek pilot.
Another precedent worth considering is Washington’s military dealings with Egypt and Israel over the last four decades. Since the implementation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Washington has provided both countries billions to spend on American weapon systems. Peace has endured and today the inventories of both sides are predominantly American-made. Any potential war between the two could, for example, see Israel and Egyptian F-16s shoot at each other. Nevertheless, that’s a highly unlikely scenario since both countries benefit from continued peace and possession of vast military arsenals.
Washington may well continue to beef up the Qatari military while diplomatically mediating a cold peace between Doha and its neighbours. Then, ultimately it can reap the benefits of having wealthy client states that are increasingly eager to shore up their armed forces.