By Eric Knecht
DOHA, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Qatar expects six F-15 warplanes to be delivered to its air force by March 2021, a military official said on Monday, the first batch of 36 it agreed to buy from the United States last year for $12 billion.
Brigadier General Issa al-Mahannadi told reporters at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar that a further six F-15s would be dispatched three months after the initial batch, with four more expected every three months thereafter.
Qatar signed agreements to buy warplanes from the United States as well as Europe last year after a political dispute broke out between it and neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain.
"This is not a purchase, it is a strategic partnership with the U.S.," Mahannadi said.
The tiny but wealthy Gulf state will begin sending eight pilots per year to the United States for training this year, Mahannadi added, while transitioning some of its experienced Qatari pilots to fly the F-15s in order to establish a 53-person aircrew for them by 2023.
The programmes are part of Qatar's drive to beef up its air power and meet the needs of an air force that has also inked deals for 12 more French Rafale fighters and 24 Eurofighter Typhoon aircrafts since the rift with its neighbours kicked off.
Boeing was awarded the contract for the F-15s.
Qatar in August announced it would expand Al Udeid, which hosts the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East, to accommodate the F-15s and other fighter jets.
Mahannadi said construction on the area for the F-15s would start in 2020 and be completed by 2021, in time to receive the first delivery. (Reporting by Eric Knecht, writing by Alexander Cornwell, editing by Mark Heinrich)