BEIRUT — If you’re in the business of selling drones, precision weapons or stealth technology, Morocco’s Air Force could be your next customer.
The African nation is bolstering military-to-military relations and connecting with defense companies to modernize its air power capabilities. Moroccan officials have singled out the use of drones in combat as “a key dimension of its military modernization efforts,” according to Samuel Ramani, a defense expert at the University of Oxford.
“Morocco used a UAV for the first time during its April 2021 airstrike in the Polisario Front-controlled desert area of the Western Sahara,” Ramani told Defense News. The armed political organization wants to end Moroccan control of the desert region.
“The U.S. has been most effective in boosting Morocco’s access to stealth weaponry, specifically U.S. drones [and] precision-guided munitions as well as laser-guided munitions,” he added.
Reuters reported in December Morocco was close to signing a deal with the Trump administration for the acquisition of four MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones. That deal was to be followed by the purchase of 12 Bayraktar TB2 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs from Turkish company Baykar under a $70 million agreement.
“The U.S. and Turkey are working together on bolstering Morocco’s stealth capabilities, as 12 Bayraktar TB2 drones will soon arrive in Morocco,” Ramani said.
As for Morocco’s stealth capabilities, Ramani said recently improved relations between Israel and Morocco have helped in that area. Morocco signed a normalization agreement with Israel, brokered with U.S. assistance, in December — a move defense experts expect will help Rabat in its pursuit to boost unmanned capabilities.
The Moroccan military already operates three Heron UAVs, which were received from France and produced by Airbus Defence and Space in cooperation with Israel Aerospace Industries.
A strong Moroccan military is in the interest of the United States, which aims to more effectively face regional terror threats with the country.
“Selling weapons packages helps build up the security of [Morocco] and U.S. interests in the region in this strategic corner of Africa,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at the U.S.-based geopolitical consultancy Gulf State Analytics. “The current U.S. administration has [a] different foreign policy: It relies heavily on soft power and rarely on kinetics, hence there is a shift or rescoping of [counterterror] missions as terrorism continues to dominate key locations of North Africa and the Sahel.”
In March 2019, the U.S. State Department cleared Morocco to buy 25 new F-16 fighter jets and receive upgrades to 23 of its older models. Then in June 2020, Morocco signed a contract with American company Boeing for 24 AH-64 Apache helicopters.
“The F-16 transfers to Morocco are another key dimension of the U.S. military modernization efforts,” Ramani said. “These F-16s are being used for counterterrorism purposes, unlike the UAVs, which appear to be aimed at mitigating the Western Sahara threat.”
He added that the Apaches will help combat immediate security threats and serve as a prototype for indigenous weapons development. The expected delivery date for the Apache helicopters is 2024.
More recently, Morocco and the U.S. signed a 10-year defense cooperation road map in October, which aims to guide cooperation for the former’s military modernization efforts. The agreement is also meant to improve interoperability.
Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Defense News U.S. foreign military sales provide an open-source, preliminary assessment of the trajectory of Moroccan efforts to both modernize its forces and increase interoperability with the U.S., NATO and regional militaries that operate American-made systems.
“Moroccan arms purchases in 2020 complement other efforts to bolster modernization and interoperability. Most notably, in 2019, Morocco moved forward with the acquisition of 36 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters (24 new, 12 optional), more than 2,400 BGM-71-4B-RF TOW 2A [missiles] to augment Morocco’s integrated defense capabilities, 25 F-16C/D Block 72 fighter aircraft with additional air-to-ground munitions, in addition to sustainment support to enhance systems integration and life cycle maintenance of the fighters,” Nerguizian said.
“Not unlike other regional militaries, there has been a logical focus on enhancing air-to-ground attack and jointness with ground forces,” he added. “Augmenting and sustaining credible air-to-air mission sets will remain a key challenge.”
Morocco is also looking eastward to diversify its sources for arms. The country has signed several deals with Russia and China for military equipment, including short- and medium-range missiles.
“Moroccan military strategy is based on diversifying the sources of weapons from abroad,” noted Mohammad Shkeir, a Moroccan expert in military and security affairs. “Although the United States is the main supplier of armaments to Morocco, this did not prevent Morocco from acquiring the weapons it needs from European countries: the acquisition of the Mohammed VI intelligence satellite from France; and the purchase of frigates from Belgium and Italy; also the ongoing negotiations to acquire naval frigates from Italy.”
Karasik added that countries are competing for a foothold in the Moroccan market. “The U.S. has competition there, from European sellers to Israel to Gulf countries like [the United Arab Emirates] and [the kingdom of Saudi Arabia].”
Ramani noted Morocco has expressed interest in Turkey’s T129 Atak helicopters and has considered buying the Russian S-400 air defense system as well as Chinese tanks and rocket launchers.
However, he added, Morocco remains heavily reliant on U.S. military technology, with American weapons making up about 62 percent of its inventory, “so we should be wary of any eastward pivot.”
Each year, Morocco conducts several military drills, including African Lion, which took place earlier this year to improve interoperability with U.S. forces and to increase operational readiness.
The multinational drills also involved Tunisia and Senegal, and were linked to U.S. European Command’s Defender exercise, meant to counter malign activity in northern Africa and southern Europe as well as increase interoperability with international partners.
Karasik said the latest edition of African Lion was significant in scope, scale and geography, with the U.S. in particular “pushing for capacity building of the Moroccan Army.”
Part of that involves training Moroccan pilots on the latest combat aircraft in the U.S., said Shkeir. “In addition, military experts visit Morocco to train the Moroccan armed forces on American weapons,” the expert added.
But not everyone in the region is on board with Morocco’s modernization efforts.
“For the most part, I don’t see Morocco’s Air Force modernization to be about immediate threats (beyond the generic threat of terrorism and Polisario Front),” Ramani said. “Instead, it’s about preserving a regional military balance. Spain and Algeria are looking at Morocco’s military modernization with trepidation for this reason.”
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.