By James Hackett, Editor, The Military Balance; Senior Fellow for Defence and Military Analysis
The current political and diplomatic stand-off between ‘the quartet’ of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, has potentially significant defence and security implications both within and beyond the Gulf region.
Qatar is a key hub for United States and other Western regional air operations, and a growing prospect for defence sales. At the same time, the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – not least Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – are also key Western allies, host to a patchwork of facilities that help to sustain a Western presence, as well as power-projection capabilities in and around the region. They are also very significant customers for Western-supplied military equipment.
In addition, increased defence integration and cohesion within the GCC has been not only a stated aim of the Gulf Arab states themselves, but also a cornerstone of Western defence strategy in the region. This dispute risks undermining the halting progress that has been made towards improving regional military capabilities and coordination, including the development of collective missile-defence architectures that could more effectively guard against a potential threat from Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Emerging powers with increasing stakes in the Gulf have also been developing defence ties that cut across the confrontation lines of this crisis. This is underlined by the fact that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have each been among the most important ports of call for visiting Chinese and Indian navy flotillas in recent years.
Qatar’s foreign defence ties
To add to the cross-currents, Turkey is becoming an increasingly important military partner of Qatar. The 2017 edition of The Military Balance listed 150 Turkish troops deployed to the emirate. After the current crisis began, Turkey’s deployment of additional troops and equipment to Qatar generated criticism in some regional capitals. Indeed, closing the Turkish base was one of the quartet’s 13 demands issued to Qatar. Ankara’s response was that the deployment was intended ‘to contribute to the security of the region as well as to provide Qatar with support in military training’.
But the most significant foreign military presence in Qatar is at al-Udeid airbase, which is home to US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), as well a large US contingent of airpower, personnel and materiel. Other contingents include the United Kingdom and France, which use al-Udeid to coordinate air contributions to the coalition countering Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. UK air assets operate from Cyprus, and French aircraft are based in Jordan and the UAE. The CAOC performs a pivotal role in regional coalition air operations, and provides, according to US Air Forces Central Command, ‘command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other nations in the U.S. Air Forces Central Command region’.
Qatar is also a lucrative market for Western defence manufacturers. Recent highlights include the November 2016 notification by the US Defense Sales Cooperation Agency of a potential sale of up to 72 F-15QA combat aircraft, with an estimated total value of US$21.1 billion, and the subsequent reported June 2017 government-to-government agreement for 36 of the aircraft at US$12bn. France has also been active, finally inking a US$7.5bn deal for 24 Dassault Rafale combat aircraft in March 2016. In June 2016, Qatar concluded a deal with Italy’s Fincantieri for warships worth US$4.66bn. More information on Qatar’s acquisition plans can be found in the procurement section of Military Balance+, our new online database.
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Foreign defence relations in the Gulf
Of course, Qatar is not the only hub for foreign armed forces in the region. France stated in its 2013 Livre Blanc that it was stepping up ‘its presence and defence cooperation’, and has defence agreements with Kuwait and the UAE besides Qatar, as well as a military cooperation agreement with Bahrain. In 2009, France established a permanent presence in the UAE, with around 650 personnel at three principal locations: a naval facility close to Mina Zayed; a fighter squadron at the UAE’s al-Dhafra airbase; and an armoured battlegroup based at Zayed Military City. The UK maintains a transport hub at Minhad airbase and indicated in late 2016 that Dubai would be home to its new Regional Defence Staff, formed as part of an enhanced defence presence in the region. The UK has also highlighted its existing ties with Kuwait and is expanding its defence footprint in Bahrain and Oman. In December 2016, it also agreed a broader strategic partnership with the GCC, in which defence cooperation was to play a prominent role.
The US maintains an even larger military presence in the UAE and signed a new defence cooperation agreement with Abu Dhabi as recently as May this year. US forces stationed in the country, including at al-Dhafra, have included F-22 Raptor fighters, U-2 surveillance aircraft, and E-3 Sentry airborne early warning aircraft. Meanwhile, it was reported in June 2017 that the UAE ambassador in Washington had suggested that the US could consider moving its airbase from Qatar and that, while there had been no official discussion, the UAE was ‘willing to have that conversation’. The UAE’s own armed forces have been extensively modernised in recent years, have shown themselves useful direct participants in Western-led operations, and have demonstrated their ability to project military power in operations in Afghanistan and Libya, as well as Yemen. Notable defence modernisation programmes have included satellites, armour, combat and transport aircraft, and Patriot and THAAD missile defence systems.
Bahrain, meanwhile, is home to the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), as well as four forward-deployed UK Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels and a support ship. Under an agreement with the government of Bahrain, the UK is reviving both its permanent naval base there and the historic name HMS Juffair for it.
Implications for improving Gulf defences
Even before the current crisis, and notwithstanding a raft of agreements and aspirations, effective defence cooperation and the development of multilateral capability among GCC states have always remained somewhat elusive, even if the coordinated action of a few Gulf Arab states over Yemen and against ISIS had appeared to indicate that closely aligned threat perceptions can lead to more cohesive activity.
The dispute with Qatar risks complicating the effort to increase GCC naval cooperation through Task Force 81, and it also places in jeopardy aspirations by external actors – such as the US – for Gulf states to coordinate their missile-defence assets more effectively. This is required in order to tackle the potential missile threat from Iran more efficiently. Critically in this regard, Qatar is home to a range of regionally significant systems, including the US AN/TPY-2 X-band radar associated with the THAAD system, two US Patriot PAC-2/3 batteries, as well as Qatar’s own Patriot PAC-2s (PAC-3 is on order). Meanwhile, Qatar plans to buy two THAAD batteries, a system that the UAE has also bought, though has yet to declare operational.
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If GCC states integrate their sensors across four (or possibly more) THAAD batteries, their radars can be oriented to provide a wide field of view. This increases the possibility that a missile launched from anywhere in Iran will be detected and tracked soon enough to support target interception. If the GCC works cooperatively on missile defence, Iran will find it difficult to launch missiles without them being detected and tracked quickly and reliably, regardless of target location.
Source: 'Notional Missile Defence Architectures', in Missile Defence Cooperation in the Gulf, IISS, 2016.
In January 2017, US firm Raytheon signed a contract to sell to Qatar an AN/FPS-132 Block 5 long-range early warning radar, in a deal worth some US$1.06bn. The same firm, meanwhile, is building an Air and Missile Defense Operations Center under a 2014 contract intended to ‘integrate U.S. air defense systems including Patriot, the Early Warning Radar, and THAAD; with European air defense systems and radars and Qatar's Air Operation Center’. A number of other regional states either have, or are procuring, similar missile defence assets to Qatar. According to the IISS 2016 Strategic Dossier on Missile Defence Cooperation in the Gulf, ‘to take full advantage of existing and future missile-defence technology purchased by each GCC state, individual systems must be fully integrated’. Even if there is a political and diplomatic accommodation in the current dispute, the fallout from it risks making cooperation on this level more difficult.