Why Turkey Would Welcome An Up-Close Look At Qatar’s Rafales
Turkey could soon get an opportunity to examine the French-built Dassault Rafale F3R multirole fighter jet if Qatar deploys some of these jets under a recently-ratified training agreement. This could prove valuable for the Turkish military since its rival Greece recently acquired and began fielding the advanced 4.5-generation aircraft.
Under the agreement, Qatar can deploy 36 jets and 250 military personnel to Turkey on a temporary basis for training. A Turkish pilot must be present as an observer during all training exercises. It’s worth noting that Doha bought at least six twin-seat DQ variant Rafales. However, it’s not yet known which jets Qatar will ultimately deploy. Doha operates a diverse fleet of Western-built 4.5-generation fighters, including advanced F-15s and Eurofighter Typhoons.
The training agreement was signed on Mar. 2, 2021, and approved on Sept. 15. Qatari warplanes could, therefore, come to Turkey as soon as early 2023 since the agreement stipulates that Doha needs to give Ankara 60 days notice ahead of any deployment.
Turkey and Qatar have enjoyed exponentially burgeoning defense ties in recent years. Qatar has bought Turkish drones, and Turkey recently built two landing craft mechanized ships for the Qatari navy.
Turkey also has a military base in Qatar and enlarged its military presence there after Doha was subjected to an expansive blockade by its neighbors in 2017. In October, Turkey again dispatched troops to the peninsular state to help bolster security for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“Turkey Qatari defense ties go back to before the blockade and continue to develop because Qatar has something to learn from Turkey’s military experience,” Ryan Bohl, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, risk intelligence, told me. “Turkey continues to see Qatar as an important regional ally and, most importantly, a key means of economic support for their struggling economy back home.”
“Defense drills make a good deal of sense on the backdrop of their overall relations,” Bohl said.
Given these close ties, Doha may feel comfortable letting Turkey examine some of its Rafales and train against them to gain a more intimate understanding of their capabilities.
The United States banned Turkey from buying fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters following its contentious purchase of S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia. The U.S. had warned for years that having S-400s based in Turkey could potentially enable Russia to glean sensitive intelligence about the F-35’s capabilities.
Bohl is skeptical that a Qatari Rafale deployment to Turkey could similarly compromise that French jet’s capabilities or give Ankara any serious military advantage over Athens.
“I think the fears of Turkey using these drills to gain a military advantage over Greece is minimal,” he said. “Although Turkey will continue to rattle sabers towards Greece occasionally, especially when they need some sort of nationalist boost from the public at home, their NATO ties make the potential threat of any technical knowledge gained from these drills in a different threat category as that of the S-400.”
“After all, these are French jets, and France too is a part of NATO.”
Suleyman Ozeren, a professorial lecturer at the American University and senior fellow at the Orion Policy Institute, pointed out that French silence over any Qatari Rafale deployment could be interpreted as, at the very least, an amber light from Paris.
“Under normal circumstances, the French government should be wary of Turkey’s closer look at Rafale’s capabilities and acquiring know-how about this fighter jet,” he told me. “And if that were the case, the French might have forewarned the Qataris about it.”
“But hypothetically speaking, if there is no such expressed concern, then this could be a sign of silent consent on the French side to let the Turkish military observe — test drive if you will — the Rafales for a prospect of a bid to purchase them in the future,” he said.
Either way, Turkey would undoubtedly benefit from an opportunity to get an up-close look at the Rafale and test its air force against it.
It’s worth remembering that the two occasions that air-to-air missiles shot down Turkish jets in the second half of the last century involved French-built jets.
On Sept. 14, 1983, an Iraqi Mirage F1 shot down a Turkish F-100F Super Sabre jet with a Super 530F-1 missile after it entered Iraqi Kurdistan’s airspace. Just over 13 years later, on Oct. 8, 1996, a Greek Mirage 2000 shot down a Turkish F-16D Block 40 with an R.550 Magic II missile after the Turkish jet violated Greek airspace near the island of Chios.
The Rafale is more advanced than anything in the current Turkish arsenal. And if Turkey cannot get the advanced Block 70 F-16 Vipers it has requested from the United States, the technological airpower gap between Ankara and Athens will only further widen in the latter’s favor.
It would, therefore, be completely unsurprising if Ankara seizes the opportunity to familiarize itself with what could potentially become the most sophisticated rival aircraft it has faced for a long time.