BEIRUT — A new, amphibious ship will soon enter service for the Qatari navy, the second of seven ships to be built for a total of $5.9 billion by Italian ship maker Fincantieri.
And while the larger deal, signed in 2017, includes four corvettes as well as two offshore patrol vessels, the Landing Platform Dock (LPD) amphibious vessel in particular, dubbed “Al Fulk,” is expected to fulfil a unique role for a unique nation.
“The LPD is a niche capability that could be the backbone of a multinational operation in the region and significantly augment the capabilities of partner navies,” Andreas Kreig, CEO of the London-based consulting firm MENA Analytica, told Breaking Defense. “It could function as a hub for greater maritime operations in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.”
He added that vessel is a multirole platform that can be used on humanitarian operations as well, such as evacuation missions, which would tie in with Qatar’s aid and development goals.
The Al Fulk LPD was launched Jan. 24 in Italy at a ceremony attended by Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defence Affairs, Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah, and Italian Minister of Defense, Guido Crosetto, along with other high-ranking guests.
The vessel is 143 meters (569 feet) long, 21.5 meters (70.5 feet) wide and it will be able to accommodate about 550 persons on board, equipped with two vehicle ramps and an internal floodable dock, capable of accommodating a ready-to-go LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) that can also be stored on garage deck, and can be deployed using a system of davits,” Fincantieri said in a statement. The US Navy, which has several LPDs in service, describes the ships as “warships that embark, transport and land elements of a landing force for a variety of expeditionary warfare missions.”
Put more simply by David Des Roches, associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, the ship “will give Qatar the ability to launch and sustain small boats (which should form the bulk of Qatar’s surface naval fleet) at a distance much further afield from Qatar’s main naval base.”
“This role may not be appropriate for most nations, but Qatar is a peninsula, and this may be a unique occasion where an LPD (or another large ship) is the best answer,” he said.
Fincantieri highlighted that the flight deck is sized for hosting NH90 helicopter. In March 2018, Qatar signed a $3.7 billion to buy 28 NH90 helicopters with Leonardo0 as major contractor 12 of which are in the naval configuration NFH and 16 in the tactical transport configuration TTH.
Qatar’s Big Navy Budget Boost
Qatar has been investing in its navy in recent years, but perhaps being a peninsula, the concentration on maritime and naval fleet doesn’t come as a surprise for the rich but tiny Gulf nation.
In March 2022, the Qatari Emiri Navy signed a contract with Italy’s Leonardo to develop a Naval Operation Center (NOC) for the military service, the first of its kind in the country to monitor and control Qatar’s territorial water, Exclusive Economic Zone and adjacent waters.
Earlier, in March 2018, Turkey’s Anadolu Shipyard signed an agreement to build two training warships for Qatar’s navy to train 72 cadets.
Also, according to Turkish news Agency Anadolu, on the side of DIMDEX 2018, Qatari officials signed separate agreements with Ares and Yonca-Onuk shipyards for another 17 military vessels, all of which will be outfitted with weapons built by Turkish defense manufacturer Aselsan.
“Qatar is developing one of the biggest navies in the Gulf that by number of platforms is quickly outgrowing its counterparts in the region,” said Krieg, who is also a senior lecturer at King’s College London. “Qatar is a maritime nation with a strong maritime heritage similar to neighboring states.”
He added that Qatar is aware that its ability to safely export its Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) is the center of gravity of national security. That includes being able to secure supply chains and maritime lines of communication beyond the immediate “brown waters” of its EEZ into the Gulf and East of the Strait of Hormuz.
“Qatar has been interested in developing its ‘brown water’ navy into a ‘green water’ and potentially ‘blue water’ navy that can project Qatar’s influence into the Indian Ocean. Again, much of that is tied to securing supply chains and logistics networks,” Krieg pointed out.
Security Threats And Shortage Of Human Resources
Following the 2021 resolution of a bitter dispute between Gulf nations, Qatar is the only Gulf country on good terms with all other neighboring countries — even with Iran. However, its leaders are still looking to bolster its naval capabilities will help the country counter any future threats.
“Qatar has a complicated security situation [being] a small population, [with] a lot of money. It has a lot of coastline and faces a variety of conventional and non-conventional maritime threats. It makes sense to build up its navy, albeit in a Coast Guard-like role,” Des Roches said.
Likewise, he said that the Qatari navy is likely to focus on addressing disruptive threats, such as naval mines, small boat attacks, air and missile attacks from the sea, and protecting civilian shipping and maritime infrastructure from attack.
“This range of threats would be best addressed by having an array of sensing assets to determine threats, and then a network of small boats and aircraft to respond to and neutralize threats,” he said. “Qatar (and the other GCC states) also needs a larger dedicated anti-mine force. Every Navy has an institutional bias towards large surface ships, but even a country as rich as Qatar will be stretched to acquire, man, field, and sustain such ships.”
From his point of view, Krieg viewed Qatar’s big naval spending as an important to the Doha’s grand strategic posture, and its attempt to establish itself as a facilitator for greater powers active in the region, most notably the United States and other mostly western partners.
“The current platforms developed by Financtieri allow Qatar to provide niche capabilities to multinational operations and missions in the region. It would allow the US navy and other NATO navies to externalize or share the burden of maritime operations with Qatar’s navy, which makes Qatar an even more important ally in the region. Qatar wants to be an indispensable facilitator and broker in the region. [The] navy can support that objective,” Krieg said.
In March 2022, the United States officially designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally. The designation is expected to upgrade the partnership between Doha and Washington and to give the Gulf country special economic and military privileges in its relationship with the US.
But does the small nation have enough human resources to operate all the vessels it would need should the expansion continue apace? No, the analysts said, but there are ways around that problem.
“The Qatari navy has attracted a lot of talent in recent years – more so than other services in the Qatar Armed Forces – all with the expansion of the navy in mind. Beyond that, Qatar relies on loan service officers and servicemen from partnering nations such as Pakistan,” Krieg said.
Similarly, Des Roches said that Qatar is purchasing more military equipment than it will be able to man, and expected it to follow the lead of other GCC countries and hire third country nationals to man and crew some of these items.
“For ships, this is relatively easy — there is a surfeit of skilled mariners from countries such as the Philippines and India ready to serve as crewmen for Qatari pay, and trained officers from countries such as Poland have already served in command positions on GCC naval ships,” Des Roches concluded.