Featured Operating From The Shadows: Morocco’s UAV Fleet

Ghost soldier

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By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Morocco's use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been a subject shrouded in secrecy since the country first acquired drones in the late 1980s. Although this secrecy surrounds nearly all of its defence acquisitions, Morocco has taken extra care to reveal as little as possible with regards to what UAV types it purchased and where they're being deployed. But in a time when most people own camera phones and satellite imagery is readily available, an increasing amount of information about Morroco's drone operations is slowly becoming available.

The Kingdom's first experience with operating UAVs is reported to have commenced in the late 1980s when it acquired several BAE Systems R4E SkyEyes from the United States. [1] Yet little if any information is known regarding their subsequent use in Morocco, and they might have faced an early retirement owing to their unreliability and technical problems encountered in the operation of these early-generation drones (similar problems hampered the operation of U.S. General Atomics Gnat UAVs by Turkey). [2]

It would take until 2013 until new reports of Moroccan drone acquisitions surfaced, ultimately culminating in the acquisition of three IAI Herons from Israel a year later. [3] While Morocco did not until 2020 recognise Israel as a state, both countries had long informally cooperated on security matters. Several years later it became known that Morocco was interested in purchasing three EADS Harfangs (a version of the IAI Herion specifically developed for France) that France had just retired from service. After a lengthy negotiating period, it appears that Morocco quietly received these systems in 2020. [4]

The best publically available image of a Moroccan drone is this screenshot showing an Israeli-made IAI Heron just before landing.​

Already some time before that, Morocco was said to have acquired four unarmed MQ-1A Predator UAVs from the United States, although they've never been sighted in Moroccan service. [5] Then in June 2020, Morocco was reported to be in the process of acquiring four MQ-9B SeaGuardians along with manned-unmanned teaming kits (MUTKs) that would enable Morocco's newly-acquired AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to collaborate with surveillance drones by receiving the video feed of nearby drones. [6] [7] As of the writing of this article it remains unknown if the MQ-9B SeaGuardian acquisition actually materialised.

The first (confirmed) acquisition of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by Morocco occurred the same year, when it took delivery of three or four Chinese-made Wing Loong Is. [8] Interestingly, rather than directly purchasing the UCAVs from China, it appears that the Wing Loong Is were instead received as a gift from the UAE. It wouldn't take long before Morocco put its newly acquired UCAV capabilities to use, apparently utilising a Wing Loong I to assassinate the chief of the Polisario head of the Gendarmerie in the disputed Western Sahara in April 2021. [9] It was expected that the gifting of Wing Loong Is by the UAE would eventually lead Morocco to acquire additional drones of the same type from China.

But rather than settling on additional Wing Loongs from China, the Moroccan Air Force instead purchased 13 Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey for an estimated 70 million USD, taking delivery of the first drone in September 2021. [10] Their acquisition was followed by Hermes 900 reconnaissance UAVs from Israel and perhaps more surprisingly, an unknown type of loitering munitions that are to be manufactured in Morocco. [11] [12] [13] These same types were used with high success during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War on the side of Azerbaijan, and it seems likely that Morocco aims to replicate these successes in a potential future conflict with Polisario in Western Sahara or Algeria.

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles​

  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    IAI Heron [2014] (Three believed to have been acquired. Stationed at Ben Guerir air base with forward deployments to Dakhla in Western Sahara)
  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    EADS Harfang [2020] (Three acquired second hand from France in 2020. French version of the IAI Heron. Not yet seen)
  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    Hermes 900 [2021] (Four reportedly acquired in 2021. Not yet seen)
  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    WanderB (Reportedly acquired in 2021. Not yet seen. Known to have been trialled in Morocco in 2019)
  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    ThunderB (Reportedly acquired in 2021. Not yet seen)

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles​

  • 23px-Flag_of_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China.svg.png
    CAIG Wing Loong I [2020] (Three or four examples reportedly received as a gift from the UAE. Believed to be stationed at Laayoune in Western Sahara)
  • 23px-Flag_of_Turkey.svg.png
    Bayraktar TB2 [2021] (Not yet seen)

Loitering Munitions​

  • 21px-Flag_of_Israel.svg.png
    ThunderB/IAI Harop [2021] (Reportedly to be license produced in Morocco. Not yet seen)

Documented but not yet confirmed to be in service UAVs​

  • 23px-Flag_of_the_United_States.svg.png
    MQ-1A Predator (Documented by a number of sources. Not yet seen)
  • 23px-Flag_of_the_United_States.svg.png
    MQ-9B SeaGuardian (Documented by a number of sources. Not yet seen)

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