British Prime Minister David Cameron boards a Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon during a Dec. 21 visit to Muscat, capital of Oman. The Typhoon also has become a possible candidate in the fighter competition held by Qatar, Oman's gulf neighbor, after visits by British officials. (Agence France-Press)
LONDON — Qatar has opened the door for the Eurofighter consortium to renew its bid for a combat jet order after having seemingly slipped from the contender’s list. The move comes in the wake of a visit by British government ministers to the gulf state last month.
Sources familiar with the fighter competition said the Qataris asked to evaluate the Typhoon following government-to-government discussions in Doha in late February.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and defense Procurement Minister Philip Dunn were in the Qatari capital separately for talks Feb 19. The official QNA news agency reported at the time that Hague’s discussions had centered on cooperation between the two nations and regional developments, mainly regarding Syria.
A BAE System spokesman confirmed the company was back in discussions with the Qatari government over the Typhoon, but declined to comment on whether it had been asked to take part in a flight evaluation.
“Following our response to a request for proposals in 2010, discussions with Qatar on Typhoon were placed on hold while Qatar evaluated their future fighter aircraft requirement,” the spokesman said. “Through the U.K. government, discussions have recently been reinstated between ourselves and Qatar. We look forward to continuing the discussions on how Typhoon can best meet Qatar’s requirement.”
The move by Qatar marked the second time in a matter of weeks that the Typhoon’s chances of securing a new export customer have been revived.
Earlier this month, Denmark gave its approval for Eurofighter to re-enter its fast jet competition after the consortium had previously walked away from the contest, citing dissatisfaction with the bidding process.
The Qatar Air Force has a long-standing requirement to replace its fleet of Dassault Aviation Mirage 2000s with about two squadrons of modern fighter jets. Until now, Boeing’s F/A-18 and F-15, and Dassault’s Rafale, have been the leading contenders.
BAE, the Eurofighter consortium member leading the Qatari bid, also responded to that information request. EADS and Italy’s Finmeccanica are the other two industrial partners in Eurofighter.
According to a report in the Arabian Aerospace news service last November, the Rafale, F/A-18 and F-15 all underwent in-country flight evaluations last year. The media report said Typhoon had been scheduled for an evaluation in 2011, but the plan was scrapped when the Qatari Air Force joined the NATO-led operation in Libya.
Until last month, a new evaluation had not been rescheduled, and Typhoon was thought to have slipped out of the race to supply some 24 combat jets.
Analysts in London said improving relations between Britain and Qatar and the recent Typhoon win in Oman, along with an earlier Saudi Arabian order, could help explain the renewed interest in the twin-engine combat jet.
Boeing declined to confirm if its jet had been evaluated, but said the company continues “to respond with information about our products when it is requested by the Qatari government.”
Dassault hadn’t responded by publication time.
Qatar’s planned fighter buy is one element of a massive effort to update the nation’s armed forces as the energy-rich state moves to raise its regional and global influence. French defense experts reckon Qatar could spend at least 20 billion euros ($25.7 billion) on weapons purchases over the next few years.
France has previously dominated Qatari arms procurement, but that hasn’t stopped the British, Russians, Chinese, Turks, South Koreans, Germans and others from piling on with offers to re-equip Army brigades, the Navy and the Air Force with new equipment.
Typhoon appears to be enjoying some momentum in the region, contesting a potentially big deal in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s neighbor, which at one time seemed on the verge of buying the Dassault Rafale.
Boeing also is a contender for the UAE requirement.
Industry sources said a Finmeccanica-led campaign to compete the fighter for a Kuwaiti requirement had seen Typhoon recently undergo a successful in-country evaluation.
Whether Eurofighter and Boeing are serious contenders, or just stalking horses for the UAE to wring more concessions out of the French, is unclear to fighter industry executives.
What the UAE really wants is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but that plane is out of reach at present, one European executive said.
Pierre Tran contributed to this report