BEIRUT and WASHINGTON — Satellite images show Morocco is constructing a new air defense base in Sidi Yahya el- Gharb, which is located northeast of the capital Rabat.
A source gave Defense News the images, taken via Google Earth, on the condition of anonymity, but would not share the exact coordinates on the grounds of national security. However, independent research by Defense News shows the base is located at approximately 34.29753301432181, -6.283922702669312.
To get a sense of the construction’s progress, Defense News spoke to several experts.
“The facility is definitely an air defense base,” Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said upon receiving the coordinates and an updated image from Jan. 2, provided in conjunction with Planet Labs.
China North Industries Group Corporation Limited — commonly referred to as NORINCO — delivered 24 Sky Dragon 50 medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Morocco in December 2017. The African country has also procured the French short-range missile defense system VL Mika. The €200 million (U.S. $226 million) contract for the vertical-launch system was signed between European missile-maker MBDA and Morocco in 2019.
But it’s the 2017 purchase that caught Lewis’ attention. “The construction of the base, which also began in 2017, would suggest it was created with this large purchase in mind,” he said. “Moreover, the Moroccans released an image of a Sky Dragon 50 that I was able to determine was taken at this location.”
It appears construction was completed around August 2020, he added.
Abdel Hamid Harfi, a published researcher who has appeared on regional television shows as a subject matter expert, said the Sidi Yahia el-Gharb base area is “approximately 40 hectares in the middle of the major Moroccan metropolises, which contain several sensitive and strategic areas.”
He added it’s likely the base will host air defense units, a maintenance center, military housing and other administrative buildings.
Mohammad Shkeir, a Morocco-based military and security affairs expert, expects the base will operate air defense systems from several countries.
“This base will operate air defense systems procured from China, Patriot [Advanced Capability]-3 missile systems from the United States, as well as defense systems from Israel, after the recent visit of the Israeli defense minister to Morocco and the agreements signed in this regard,” Shkeir said.
A Dec. 19 report on Defensa.com claimed the base already featured the Chinese FD-2000 surface-to-air missile system, but Harfi said he hasn’t seen a procurement contract between Morocco and China.
Still, said Lewis, the vehicle sheds on site are different sizes, and the larger ones could imply large surface-to-air missile systems like the FD-2000.
“If Morocco has now acquired FD-2000B SAMs from China, as reported by Defensa, this is almost certainly where they would be based,” he added.
Morocco has reportedly held negotiations with different suppliers to buy medium- and long-range air defense systems. The government has made no official announcement, but Harfi expects there will be one in the coming months or during 2023 at the latest.
“Morocco is interested in the Israeli Barak 8 system, which may be one of the new systems that may enter service with the Royal [Moroccan] Air Force,” Harfi said.
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.
Chris Martin is the managing editor for Defense News. His interests include Sino-U.S. affairs, cybersecurity, foreign policy and his yorkie Willow.