Morocco is keen to build a flexible air force capable of supporting its other forces whether they are deep in the Atlantic, high in the Atlas Mountains or in an isolated outpost in the inhospitable Sahara Desert. With Rabat's growing ability to purchase advanced precision-guided munitions, the Moroccan air force increasingly can be depended on to fulfill these tasks.
Given Morocco's almost complete lack of surface-to-air defenses, its air force is also charged with defending Moroccan airspace. Thus, Morocco's air force is one of the few in Africa that have deemed it necessary to invest in developing an aerial refueling capability to better project power across its territory. Moreover, Morocco is unique in Africa in the emphasis it has placed on acquiring considerable surveillance and electronic warfare capabilities, ranging from unmanned aerial vehicle platforms to traditional transport aircraft configured with electronic surveillance and intelligence gear.
While Morocco depends heavily on its air force both in the ongoing Western Sahara territorial issue and in various political and border disputes, it faces significant constraints, principally its funding limitations for its armed forces. Morocco therefore places a heavy emphasis on maintaining close ties with select regional and global powers, including the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. These countries have supported Morocco diplomatically and politically, and Morocco has bought the bulk of its weaponry from the United States and France, in many cases with the help of Saudi financing.
The Moroccan air arm was founded in 1956 under the name of the Sherifian Royal Aviation before renaming itself the Royal Moroccan Air Force shortly thereafter. Initially, the force depended heavily on aircraft procured from the Soviet Union, but since Rabat's political shift toward the United States in the mid-1960s, the Moroccan air force has relied predominantly on U.S. and French equipment.
Because of its prominent role in the 1972 military coup attempt against King Hassan II, the air force came to be viewed with suspicion and was continually deprived of major funds for decades. Very few major acquisition programs followed the initial purchases of fighter jets in the 1970s to support the Moroccan forces in the Western Sahara War. By 1999, the air force's fleet of aircraft was aging rapidly and approaching obsolescence.
Even throughout this time, Morocco depended heavily on its air force. With an expansive desert to the south and a strengthening Algeria to the east, Morocco has needed its air force to patrol and defend its claimed territories. In the Western Sahara conflict, Morocco has for decades committed substantial military resources to defeat and keep out the Algerian-supported Polisario Front forces. Heavy losses of Moroccan aircraft during the conflict convey the important role the air force has had in the fight.
Having clashed with Algeria directly in the 1963 Sand War and indirectly in the 1974-1991 Western Sahara War, Morocco remains concerned by the balance of power between Rabat and Algiers. Concerned by Algeria's investment in its own air force, Rabat began revitalizing its air force in 1999. It purchased large numbers of capable aircraft as well as air defense weaponry, financed with the country's considerable energy resources. The 1999 appointment of the politically favored Gen. Ahmed Boutaleb as head of the air force — now reportedly being considered for promotion to the head of the Moroccan armed forces — also marked the beginning of the modernization period.
Morocco pursued a double track in strengthening its air arm. First, Rabat established an overhaul program to modernize aircraft already in service, resulting primarily in a significant upgrade to long-serving F-5 and Mirage F1 fighter planes. Both fleets received new radars, electronic countermeasure suites and precision-guided air-to-surface weaponry. The aircraft were upgraded with air-to-air refueling probes to extend their range, and significant effort was made to enhance their data links and avionics. Despite their aging airframes, the two types are now some of the most heavily upgraded aircraft of their types in service in the world.
Second, Rabat purchased new aircraft. Through a $2.4 billion program, Morocco purchased 24 F-16C/D Block 52 aircraft, also called Fighting Falcons, from the United States to be used in air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. The former Ben Guerir Air Base was refurbished and made operational for the aircraft in July 2009, and deliveries began in 2011. Once again emphasizing its focus on extended range operations, Morocco configured its F-16s with additional fuel tanks built to fit closely into the airframe. It also enhanced their operational abilities by purchasing a variety of advanced precision-guided weaponry, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and various laser- and satellite-guided bombs.
Concerned over Algeria's significant networked surface-to-air missile defense system, Rabat has also placed considerable emphasis on suppressing enemy air defenses. The air force has done this by acquiring high-speed anti-radiation missiles, which hone in on electronic signals from surface-to-air radar systems, and matching them with the F-16s' electronic warfare systems, which jam electronic signals.
Rounding out the major modernization programs, Morocco has sought to improve its flight training through both the purchase of newer trainer aircraft, upgrading its trainers already in service and integrating live and post-mission training software. Moroccan pilots also fly considerable numbers of sorties; for instance, a fighter pilot could expect to fly a total of 211 sorties with trainer aircraft before deploying to his operational fighter squadron.
Limitations to Further Growth
Despite considerable upgrades and investments, the Moroccan air force continues to face several disadvantages relative to its key neighbors. The Spanish air force is far better resourced and equipped. Morocco relies on maintaining cordial relations with its northern neighbor, though during occasional disputes with Madrid, Rabat depends on its key alliances with Paris and Washington.
Morocco's relationship with Algeria remains rife with tensions, however, with disputes over the Western Sahara as the primary concern. Land borders between the two countries are closed, and both militaries upgrade their arsenals in competition with each other. The Moroccan air force's main disadvantage relative to the Algerian air force is its size. While Morocco has a competitive edge over Algeria in electronic warfare, Algeria operates approximately twice as many combat aircraft as Morocco does. Algeria, which relies heavily on Russian aircraft, is also equipped with the Su-30MKA fighter plane, which is more than capable of combating the bulk of Moroccan aircraft. The Algerians have also placed an emphasis on an aerial refueling capability given the sheer size of their country, and they operate at least a few tanker aircraft from Russia.
Rabat has invested heavily in its air force in the past 15 years, building up a flexible force that can support Moroccan interests in a number of different ways and locations. As Algeria strengthens its military in step with its rising profile and ambitions, Morocco will struggle to match its better-resourced neighbor, bolstering its air force in the process.