Saturday 6 March 2021

Qatar’s Purchase of BP-12A SRBMs: A Guppy Sprouts Teeth

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Qatar surprised friends and foes alike by parading Chinese BP-12A short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) during its national day parade on the 15th of December 2017. Making their public debut in the parade, the BP-12A is the first weapons system of its kind in Qatari service. Nevertheless, Qatar is only the last country in the region to come into possession of ballistic missiles. While some think-tank analysts have come out in force to denounce this ''highly aggressive move on behalf of Doha'', its introduction by Qatar is actually a more nuanced matter. [1]
For all its significance, one still could easily have overlooked the transporter erector launchers (TELs) amongst the scores of Leopard 2A7s, PzH 2000 SPGs and other highly advanced weaponry acquired by Qatar in the past decade. Originally possessing the least powerful military in the region, with even neighbouring Bahrain (which is just 6.56% the size of Qatar) proving a stronger foe on paper, Doha embarked on a massive international acquisitions spree in the early 2010s to fill in the gap in capabilities. As soon became evident, this drastic shift in Qatar's defence outlook came not a moment too soon.
On the 5th of June 2017, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt sent shockwaves through the Arab world by imposing a blockade on Qatar and cutting all diplomatic and trade ties with Doha, accusing it of supporting international ''terrorism'' and ''destabilising the region'' for maintaining closer ties to Iran than the other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would like. Although clearly meant to bring Qatar to its knees, the blockade ultimately achieved little but to serve as an annoyance to Doha.
The diplomatic crisis did serve as a reminder that the possibility of conflict is always looming in the background, and that a strong military is arguably the best deterrent to prevent political disputes from quickly escalating into armed conflicts. Immediately after the blockade, Qatar doubled down on expanding its military so as to also face the threat of an actual invasion of the country itself. With its armed forces exhibiting exponential growth, its efforts at creating an effective deterrent to its neighbours have been anything if not realistic. 
While Qatar is renowned for purchasing almost every type of Western fighter jet currently on the market, including the Rafale, F-15QA, Eurofighter Typhoon and with the country currently even showing serious interest in the F-35, its attempts at strengthening its capabilities have gone beyond merely bolstering its air force. [2] Most notably, Doha is completely revamping its navy through the acquisition of a multi-role amphibious ship, corvettes and patrol vessels from Italy. Less notable is the introduction of hundreds of highly mobile and heavily armed Armoured Combat Vehicles from the Turkish manufacturer Nurol Makina for its land forces.
But while the capabilities of Qatar's air force and navy merely lagged behind those of its neighbours, large parts of its ground forces could be called outright outdated. Even as recently as the early 2010s, the French AMX-30 MBT dating from the 1960s still made up the iron fist of Qatar's land forces. The situation wasn't much better for its artillery forces, where the open-topped Mk F3 155mm SPG from the same era was still the weapon of choice. Mirroring developments worldwide, a quest to introduce modern, longer-ranged systems packing a heavier punch was clearly in order.

Qatar's interest in operating short-range ballistic missiles predates the 2017 diplomatic crisis however, and its first attempt to acquire such weaponry can already tracked back to 2012, when it requested permission from the US to purchase seven M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and 60 MGM-140 ATACMS Block IA T2K tactical ballistic missiles for an estimated $406 million. [3] For reasons unknown, this acquisition eventually failed to materialise. Nonetheless, it signified that its later acquisition of BP-12As wasn't merely an attempt at challenging the status quo in the region, but rather the fulfilment of a longtime requirement for such systems.

What did materialise was a Bahraini acquisition of 110 MGM-140 ATACMS in 2018, adding to an arsenal of 30 missiles of the same type already in service since the early 2000s. [4] [5] [6] To the South, Saudi Arabia made rapid strides at strengthening its own missile arsenal through the acquisition of Chinese DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and the financing of the Ukrainian Hrim-2 SRBM (which is set to enter service in 2022). To the East, the UAE acquired at least 224 MGM-140 ATACMS since 2013 while also continuing to operate North Korean Hwasong-6 ballistic missiles with a range of some 500 kilometres. More on North Korean armament in service with the UAE can be read in our article here. One of the few nations in Qatar's neighbourhood that does not operate ballistic missiles, Oman, in fact pushed eagerly for the acquisition of MGM-140 ATACMS in the late 2000s as well, though no such purchase was in fact effected possibly due to budgetary constraints. [9]

With all of Qatar's neighbours having hundreds of ballistic missiles in their arsenals, most of which with a range that only allows them to realistically target each other if launched from their respective territories, the introduction of the BP-12A does little to alter the military balance in the region. The US incidentally affirmed this view, describing the proposed 2012 Qatari deal to acquire MGM-140 ATACMS as follows:

''The proposed sale will improve Qatar's capability to meet current and future threats and provide greater security for its critical infrastructure. The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.'' [3]
As the marketed range of the BP-12A is actually smaller than that of the ATACMS (280km vs. 300km), with the only significant difference being the warhead (480kg vs. 230kg), what held true for the ATACMS should effectively hold true for the BP-12A deal with China as well. Although there are rumours that suggest that the BP-12A's range in fact somewhat exceeds the limits imposed by the MTCR's 300km range guideline for export control (of which China isn't a signatory), this would do fairly little to extend its actual capabilities and still falls short of the ranges of ballistic missiles operated by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Prior to the introduction of the BP-12A, Qatar's longest-ranged artillery assests consisted of several Egyptian Sakr and Brazilian ASTROS II multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). The Sakr, an Egyptian copy of the North Korean BM-11 MRL, was for a long time the only type of weaponry in Qatari service originating from a non-Western source. Nowadays Qatar operates several other types of non-Western weaponry, including AK-12 assault rifles, 14.5mm ZPU-2 AA guns, 9M133 Kornet ATGMs and 9K338 Igla-S MANPADS from Russia, Type-56 assault rifles, M99 anti-materiel rifles and FN-6 MANPADS acquired from China and Skif ATGMs purchased from Ukraine.

The BP-12A was first unveiled during the Zhuhai Airshow in 2010, and is a shortened variant of the B611 short-range ballistic missile (which is license-produced in Turkey as the J-600T Yıldırım alongside the B611M as Bora, or Khan, for export). The WS2400 chassis from which the BP-12A is launched can either carry two BP-12A SRBMs or eight SY-400 guided artillery rockets, or a combination of one BP-12A and four SY-400s.
The BP-12A missile carries a 480kg HE warhead to a range of at least 280km, making it ideally suited for targeting enemy troop concentrations and command posts located in the enemy's rear. [7] Although only the BP-12A is confirmed to be in use with the Qatari Land Forces, the SY-400 guided rockets with an estimated range of 200km can be seamlessly integrated in the future if they are not already in service with Qatar. Incorporating not only inertial, but also satellite guidance, the BP-12A also boasts increased effectiveness over older systems that use only the former with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) likely (well) below 50 metres.
To ensure that each launcher is never long without missiles, the TELs are accompanied by dedicated transporters (also WS2400-based) carrying two reloads each. To date, Qatar is the only known operator of the system, although its direct competitor (also Chinese) that uses M20 SRBMs and A200 guided artillery rockets has entered service with Belarus (under the designation of Polonez, rockets subsequently exported to Azerbaijan) and Ethiopia, where they recently saw action with Tigray seperatist forces against the Ethiopian military in the 2020 Tigray War. [8]

Qatar's acquisition of the BP-12A SRBM may easily be mistaken as an aggressive move on behalf of Doha (especially if you work for a UAE-funded think tank), posing a threat to the capitals of the KSA, the UAE and Bahrain and propelling the region into an arms race. From a slightly less narrow perspective, it fits a narrative of gradually escalating proliferation over the entire region, which has now culminated in another country attempting to level the playing field. In the shark-infested waters of a region where political allegiances can shift swiftly, and where the military balance leans ever more towards predators that manage to fend for themselves, the fact that these ballistic missiles pose a powerful deterrent is of course a benefit it will gladly welcome nonetheless. Now that ties are mending, the missiles in question may never be fired in anger at any of its neighbours, but remain simply as a stark remainder that a once defenceless guppy has suddenly sprouted teeth.

[2] Exclusive: Qatar makes formal request for F-35 jets - sources 
[4] Bahrain – M31 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) Unitary and Army Tactical Mission System (ATACMS) T2K Unitary Missile