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Qatar Is Spending A Fortune On Air Power

September 3, 2021
Via Boeing Defense/Qatar defense ministry.

One of the largest transactions for combat aircraft is now underway between the US aerospace manufacturer Boeing and its premium client–natural gas and oil-rich Qatar. In late August an F-15QA dubbed “Ababil” was unveiled to a select audience as part of Boeing’s push for recognition as the main fighter jet supplier for the world’s most ambitious kingdom. Since 2016, in fact, Qatar’s military spending has ballooned to beat the uncertainty posed by its unpredictable neighbors. Faced with an economic blockade from Saudi Arabia and its allies Doha embarked on what seemed a ludicrous acquisition spree to give it a real air force. In hindsight, the results are now indisputable.

Qatar’s air force is the sole operator of the F-15QA Ababil, whose capabilities are now found in the F-15EX, and 36 are expected to be delivered from 2021 onward. Boeing won’t confirm if the original order for 72 F-15QA’s in 2016 for an astronomical $21.2 billion (including munitions) is being fulfilled with another 36 aircraft due for delivery in the late 2020s to early 2030s. The accompanying munitions on the F-15QA were plain to see at the August 26 unveiling in Boeing’s corporate headquarters. They include AIM-9X Sidewinders, AIM-120 AMRAAMs, AGM-88 HARMs, AGM-84L-1 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and a lot of JDAMs. Boeing’s sales pitch for the F-15QA touts its “digital fly-by-wire controls, an advanced cockpit system with glass displays and state-of-the-art electronic weapon systems.”

In a clear hedging strategy to ensure the QEAF receives fourth-generation combat aircraft regardless of diplomatic pressure on suppliers the orders for F-15QA’s announced in 2016-2017 were followed by equally audacious bids for Dassault Rafales and Eurofighter Typhoons. The combination of fighter models may seem odd but in comparison to its neighbors Doha wasn’t overstepping its budget nor the received wisdom for building air forces. It’s very common for the aerial branches of the Middle East to field competing fighter models since none assemble indigenous combat aircraft. The diverse aerial warfare fleets of Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind with more than a thousand fighter jets between them.

The complete fixed wing inventory Doha is acquiring to give its air force a decisive edge reaches 132 fourth-generation fighters: 72 F-15QA’s, 36 Rafales, and 24 Typhoons. The total cost is estimated to reach $35 billion and includes building infrastructure to support these airframes throughout their service lives. But arms sales can be precarious and whether or not all these orders are fulfilled is a question mark. Besides, the amount Doha is covering looms over the $21 billion the UAE must pay for 50 F-35A’s and their munitions as a reward after its recognition of Israel in 2020. Older variants of the F-15 Eagle are operated by two other countries in the Middle East, these are Israel and Saudi Arabia.

While the QEAF of 2030 might punch above its weight its present fleet is far from impressive, being a single squadron of Dassault Mirage 2000ED/D’s. France might have a longer history of supplying arms to the Middle East but, with few exceptions, this late 20th century hardware is becoming more obsolete by the day. Indeed, the current air power of Qatar is more apparent in its AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters. From 2012 until 2019 a total of 48 were ordered and this represents an enormous leap in the kingdom’s military strength to complement its German-made tanks and self-propelled howitzers. No wonder Doha’s plans to build an unbeatable military involve many suppliers outside the West. Russia and Turkey have significant contracts with the kingdom and these two might end up exporting their domestically manufactured aircraft and rotorcraft to Qatar sooner than anyone thinks.

The real amount Qatar spends each year on its military is unknown and figures have been elusive for years now. It’s a kind of secrecy shared by its neighbor the UAE whose expansionist foreign policy runs on undisclosed billions poured into willing partners. Considering its clever management of relations with the US and regional powers such as Iran and Turkey the influence of Doha on significant events far beyond its borders will be felt for years to come.


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