Qatar’s Air Force Multipliers: Aerial Tankers and AEW&C
At the end of DIMDEX 2014 in late March, reports surfaced that Qatar had embarked on a $23 billion shopping spree, buying advanced air defense systems, anti-tank missiles, fast boats, and a mix of utility, attack, and naval helicopters. They also made a pair of high-end aerial purchases with far-reaching implications: long-range aerial tankers, and a medium-range AWACS fleet.
QEAF’s Reach: The A330-MRTT Tanker and E-737 AEW&C
Aerial Refueling is a critical asset for militaries that want to extend their strike and surveillance reach. The A330 is large, given Qatar’s needs, but it was still an obvious choice. Fellow GCC members the UAE and Saudi Arabia already committed to the A330-MRTT (KC-30), and over 30 A330s fly for state-owned Qatar Airways Company Q.C.S.C., which has no 767s.
Qatar’s fighter fleet is small, at just 12 aircraft. Even so, the country has been extending its military reach, alongside the extended media reach associated with Al-Jazeera. QEAF Mirage 2000s participated in operations over Libya, for instance, with help from allies. The A330 tankers would give them independent reach in a similar situation, and they will remain useful as Qatar buys 24-72 new fighters to replace the Mirages. Each A330-MRTT is capable of deploying up to 4 fighters 2,800 nmi / 5,200 km, while carrying up to 20 tonnes of cargo. Maximum cargo capacity is 45 tonnes, though they would trade much of their refueling capacity and 270-300 passenger capacity if they were loaded that heavily. In this role, they will supplement and sometimes support the QEAF’s 4 new C-130J-30 intratheater tactical transports, and 4 new C-17A inter-theater tactical heavy jet transports.
Airspace control and coordination are another critical requirement set for advanced militaries. To meet that need, various sorts of Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C/ AWACS) options are available on the global market. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan all operate Saab’s Erieye turboprops, for instance, and Brazil’s Embraer makes a variant that mounts an Erieye radar and onboard command system in their ERJ-145 regional jets. It makes some sense for the Saudis to also operate E-3 AWACS, but a 737 is a big platform for the tiny peninsula of Qatar’s territorial needs. The tankers will give the QEAF’s E-737s extra-long surveillance times, and extended reach. The question is where they intend to reach, unless it’s simply a prestige buy.
Contracts & Key Events
March 27/14: Contracts. At DIMDEX 2014 in Doha, the Emirate reportedly signs $23 billion worth of deals, including one for 2 A330-MRTT aerial tankers, and another for 3 E-737 AEW&C planes. The wording of all language is ambiguous, and the Boeing deal in particular may still be under negotiations.
Airbus Defense & Space says that Qatar’s choice of the A330 MRTT makes them the 7th customer, after Australia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. That and other language would appear to indicate a firm deal, though Airbus will only say that their plane “has been selected”. Half of the 34 A330 aerial tankers on order around the world are already in service, India is “in the final stages of contractual negotiations” for another 6 of their own, and the French are expected to buy 10-14 over the next couple of years.
Qatar will be Boeing’s 4th customer for the E-737, which has no Airbus equivalent. Australia, South Korea, and Turkey already operate it. One of the interesting commercial/ political developments to watch will be whether Turkey winds up being gifted with a significant chunk of the support requirements for this fleet. Sources: Airbus Military, “Qatar selects Airbus A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker” | Al Defaiya, “Qatar Announces Big Defense Deals at DIMDEX 2014” | Arabian Aerospace, “Qatar to buy Airbus A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker Transport” | Australian Aviation, “Qatar to buy MRTTs, AEW&C and more” | Reuters, “Qatar buys helicopters, missiles in $23 billion arms deals”.
- Airbus Military – A330MRTT.
- Airforce Technology – Boeing 737 AEW&C Wedgetail Early Warning Aircraft, Australia
- DID – UAE Buys Saab’s Erieye AEW&C Aircraft. A smaller option, also in use in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The UAE is considering a purchase of larger AWACS, but before they bought any planes, they spent a lot of money to install national-level command and control systems on the ground. That’s smart.