Qatar fighter choice still up in the air
Qatar's long-running quest to find a new fighter to replace its Mirage 2000s – part of a wider air force modernisation programme – seems to be entering the final phase. Jon Lake reports.
The Dassault Rafale, Boeing F-15 and Boeing F/A-18E/F have been slugging it out in the Qatar heat during July, August and September with in-country evaluations taking place.
Two Armée de l’Air Rafales were deployed to Doha in July 2012 (having been sighted there on July 8), while two Super Hornets flew in from a nearby US carrier at the end of August. Finally two USAFE F-15Es were flown from RAF Lakenheath to Qatar for evaluation in early September.
These in-country evaluations are believed to have followed preliminary assessments in the US and France. Certainly Qatar conducted a Rafale technical assessment at Istres in March or April 2012.
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 never rescheduled after the war amid reports that Qatar had been unhappy with the costs being quoted by the UK MoD for flying RAF aircraft. But, whatever the reason, the Typhoon now appears to have slipped off Qatar’s shortlist.
The F-16, by contrast, appears to have joined that shortlist, with reports that Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Crown Prince of Qatar and deputy supreme commander of the Qatari Armed Forces, had been talking about the possibility of Qatar buying either the F-16 or the Rafale during July 2012.
As long ago as March 2004 Qatar was reported to be evaluating a range of Western fighters, including the US Lockheed Martin F-16, the French Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the quadrinational Eurofighter Typhoon.
The Qatari requirement was thought to be for between 24 and 36 aircraft, making much more than a simple replacement and modernisation of the current fighter fleet. Either 24 or 36 aircraft would mark a significant expansion from the present force of nine single-seat Mirage 2000-5EDAs and three two-seat Mirage 2000-5DDAs, which serve with the sole unit of No.1 Fighter Wing, No.7 Air Superiority Squadron at Doha Airport, and which were delivered from 1997.
The expansion is believed to form one element in a wider plan to reconfigure Qatar’s armed forces for deployed operations and coalition war-fighting. This is, in turn, driven by a more robust interpretation of Qatar’s constitution, which lays down that the nation’s foreign policy should be driven by resolving disputes in the Middle East. Qatar is increasingly flexing its muscles as it seeks to reshape the nation’s regional profile.
By January 2011 analysts were predicting that either the Rafale or a US type would be selected, with a winner to be chosen before the end of 2012. Qatar’s interest had by then shifted from the F-16 to the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle and, indeed, to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Any sale of the F-35 in the Gulf region would be politically complex, and would not seem likely in the near term.
Before the war in Libya, many expected that US platforms would have an edge in Qatar, since US fighters had, until then, tended to be the preferred choice among GCC states (though both Qatar and the UAE had ordered the Mirage 2000 and had operated the French Delta with conspicuous success).
The fact that the UAE and Qatar had deployed fighters to participate in the Libyan operation led others to conclude that interoperability considerations would further favour US fighter types.
However, any US advantage was eroded during Operation Odyssey Dawn, when Qatar deployed six Mirage 2000s to the military airbase at Souda on the Greek island of Crete to operate in concert with French Armée de l’Air Mirage 2000s, forging close links between the Qatari aircrew and their French counterparts in the process. This exposed the Qataris to French concepts of operations and, no doubt, to an informed view of the Dassault Rafale from the point of view of French pilots about to convert to the new jet.
Over Libya, the Qatari Mirages operated mainly in the air-to-air role, using Mica and Magic missiles, though the aircraft have gradually gained air-ground capabilities in service, including an integration of the GBU-12. Qatari pilots used this weapon for the first time during operations over Libya.
Consideration was briefly given to integrating the Sniper laser designator pod to give the aircraft a self-designation capability.
But, with slowing economic growth in the US and Europe and dwindling defence budgets, Qatar is an important buyer of both military and civilian aircraft and Boeing was not willing to sit back and let Dassault win the Qatari fighter competition without a fight. The US company opened its first office in Qatar in December 2010 and since then has been actively promoting both the Super Hornet and the F-15 as solutions to the Qatari requirement.