On the night between April 7th and 8th, the chief of the Polisario Gendarmerie, Addah Al-Bendir, was reportedly killed under unclear circumstances by an alleged airstrike in a Polisario-controlled desert area in the disputed Western Sahara territory near Tifariti, according to an official press release by the Sahrawi Ministry of Public Defence then quoted by several media outlets, though it was almost immediately removed from the official Sahrawi Presse Service’s website.
Bendir’s death is only the latest episode in a decades-old struggle between Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front over the control of Western Sahara, and it follows a period of tensions along the heavily militarized border that separates the Kingdom’s occupied territories from those controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
These tensions escalated last November when Rabat deployed the army to reopen the Kingdom’s only highway into West Africa, blocked by pro-Polisario groups claiming it was built in violation of a 1991 UN-mediated truce. For its part, the Polisario — which has long demanded an independence referendum— has so far ruled out any autonomy offer proposed by Morocco under Rabat’s administration and reacted by announcing daily attacks against Morocco positions. The resumption of hostilities after thirty years of truce not only indicates the profound divide that persists between the two sides; it also highlights the substantial ineffectiveness of diplomacy, with the threat of a larger military confrontation dangerously looming on the horizon.
The strike, which was conducted by Morocco’s air force, has drawn international attention due to the alleged first-time use of an armed UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) by Rabat, as reported by various media articles. Such a possibility would in fact mark the first-known employment of a weaponized drone by the Kingdom, which is undertaking a major process of modernization and restructuring of its armed forces, including the development of advanced UAV capabilities.
In late December of last year, Reuters revealed that Morocco was close to sealing a deal with the Trump administration for the acquisition of four advanced General Atomic’s MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, which should soon be followed by twelve Bayraktar TB2 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs recently purchased by Rabat from the Turkish company Baykar as part of a $70 million worth agreement including three ground control stations as well as technical and training support.
Notwithstanding the wave of international clamour, at first glance, the strike’s dynamics — including the precise location and the resulting outcomes — are murky to the point that the possibility of it being carried out via an armed drone should be considered uncertain, at best. That’s not to say that no drones were involved, however.
In fact, a plausible situation would, for instance, showcase a UAV asset employed to track down the Polisario unit and lock on at it for artillery or fighter jets operating at a greater distance so as to not compromise the operation. Such a possibility has been put forth by some reports, claiming and at times speculating about the use of unarmed Heron drones to mark targets for air-to-ground missiles launched by Moroccan F16 fighter jets. There would be a simple reason supporting this hypothesis: the (supposed) lack of strike-capable UAV platforms within Morocco’s armed forces. After all, according to official information Morocco does not have armed drones (unmanned combat aerial vehicles – UCAVs) and its authorities have rarely commented on military issues, so far refraining from confirming Rabat’s possession of UAV platforms.
As a matter of fact, however, Morocco does possess a number of MALE drones used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. Some defence outlets’ articles and, most importantly, satellite images (presented below) as well as videos published on social media reveal that the Kingdom’s armed forces utilise Israeli-built Heron 1s (pictures 1, 3, 4, 5), three EADS Harfangs decommissioned by France (a modified version of the Heron) and likely fly some General Atomics’ Predator XPs acquired from the US in recent years.
Notably, both the XP — which is the exporting version of the iconic MQ-1 Predator — and the Heron 1/Harfang are not armed, while the four above-mentioned SeaGuardians ordered from the US are yet to be delivered.
Figure 1, April 2021. Note the Heron drone inside the hangar – Credits: @obretix via Twitter
Figure 2, April 2021. Note, in particular, the ground control station (yellow container) and the streetlight (orange) visible in Figure 1 - Credits: @obretix via Twitter
Figure 3, Dakhla military airport, November 2018 - Credits: @obretix via Twitter
Figure 4, Dakhla, January 2021 – Source: Twitter
Figure 5, a parked Heron I at Ben Guerir air base, February 2016 – Source: author’s elaboration based on Google Earth imagery
What about combat drones?
Upon closer examination, the first, more “sceptical” hypothesis — albeit plausible — falls short of comprehensively explaining the dynamics of the strike and, therefore, does not exclude a more possibilist option due to a few crucial reasons.
To begin with, the use of F16s in tandem with drones would require substantial manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capabilities Morocco does not possess yet. To be sure, Rabat is bent on improving this aspect, as indicated by the acquisition of two batches of MUMT-T video receivers and air-ground kits to be used with the AH-64E attack helicopters recently purchased from the US, whose delivery will start in the next years.
Second, the type of munitions suggested by some reports, such as the AGM-114 Hellfire or the AGM-88, are suitable for helicopters or planes, respectively, currently unavailable to Rabat or specifically used against targets such as air defences and radars instead of groups of personnel.
Third, based on the author’s analysis of open-source information, there is satisfactory evidence suggesting the Kingdom might have a fleet of UAVs larger than what most analysts assume, including platforms that can be fitted with kinetic ordnance such as the Chinese-built Wing Loong I (Figures 6-7), which are likely operated from the military airports of El Aaiùn and, possibly, Dakhla (Figure 8), in the northern and southern parts of Western Sahara respectively. This means it would have made little to no sense to employ a fighter jet such as the F16 – based farther away and at higher operational costs – for a mission that could have easily been accomplished with a combat drone.
Whether the Wing Loong(s) were acquired directly from Beijing or through another state remains unknown, although the deepening cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, wherein an undisclosed number of these systems flow, might have been instrumental in this respect.
Quite interestingly, according to a recent Arab Weekly article, Rabat is reportedly finalising a deal with China for the acquisition of Wing Loong platforms but, as the evidence presented here suggests, they would not be the first to overfly the dunes of Western Sahara.
Figure 6, UAV (Wing Loong I) filmed at El-Aaiùn in December 2020 – Source: Twitter
Figure 7 – Source: Twitter
Figure 8, Morocco’s military bases in Western Sahara with confirmed UAV presence – Source: author’s elaboration based on Zoom Earth imagery.
All things considered, whilst the lack of any official comment or confirmation from authorities in Rabat draws a veil of uncertainty over this issue, the hypothesis of a drone strike appears highly likely. Nonetheless, despite being the first-known such operation for Morocco, we should be careful about classifying it as the first of its kind, for the Kingdom has had a long-standing experience with UAVs for its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance needs since the ‘90s and, over the last year, has brought it to the next level through the procurement of strike-capable models.
In other words, since the ceasefire collapsed in November 2020, there might have been other drone strikes that have remained off the radar. As a Moroccan military expert put it: “Currently, Morocco’s armed forces are highly competent in terms of UAV piloting and techniques, as they have been using this technology for 35 years in a myriad of surveillance missions”. The presence of at least one operational drone unit (Escadron Drones) within the Forces Armée Royale (FAR) (Figure 9) confirms the emphasis posed by Rabat on the development of superior UAV capabilities.
Figure 9, FAR’s drone unit’s insignia – Source: Official Facebook page of the Forum des Forces Armées Royales Marocaines (FAR-MAROC)
Similarly to Israel or China, it is clear that Rabat is eager to maintain the secrecy surrounding both its drone fleet and operations, especially in the context of deepening rivalry with neighbouring Algeria. If authorised, the two most recent purchases of advanced MALE UCAVs from the US and Turkey would represent a considerable step forward for the Kingdom’s military capabilities, with the MQ-9Bs ensuring unmatched offensive potential also in contested or peer/near-peer combat scenarios and the TB2s doing their best in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions.
If – and when – combined with Morocco’s two surveillance satellites, these UAV assets would make Rabat’s drone inventory one of the most powerful in the region, deeply impacting the latter’s military and security dynamics at a time of rampant geopolitical competition and a generalized arms race. Additionally, the decision to acquire the Ukrainian-made Bukovel-AD counter-UAV system in 2019 also fits within a larger military strategy that foresees a surge in the use of UAVs in future conflicts.
At the same time, it is also worth noting that Morocco’s potential expansion in the use of combat drones against the Polisario could gradually push Rabat to institutionalize a more aggressive approach towards the pro-independence group, thereby ushering in a season of targeted strikes aimed at degrading its leadership and morale.
However, the military advantages of this strategy should be carefully weighed against both the potentially negative consequences in the political and diplomatic spheres — as Morocco might have fewer incentives to support a concrete political solution — coupled with a whole set of ethical and humanitarian implications that come with drone warfare.
The problem primarily lies with making sure the use of armed drones complies with international norms and principles regulating the use of force, as the line between risks and advantages remains very blurry, an aspect all too often underestimated or even deliberately ignored by belligerents in the region and beyond. The lack of transparency that surrounds Morocco’s drone programme – and several other countries’ as well – increases the risk of misuse and prevents accountability standards from being properly applied and observed, ultimately potentially exposing civilians to greater risks.
Drones’ destabilizing effects, however, are not always the given outcome. In Libya, for instance, the use of Turkish Bayraktars has paradoxically favoured a return to the negotiating table by reversing the military tide in favour of the GNA and forcing Haftar’s forces to choose between a bad ceasefire and an even worse military defeat, prompting some observers to coin the expression: “Bayraktar diplomacy”.
Although the main drivers of conflict are still in place, in the Libyan case drones equalised the two opponents’ military capabilities on the field and thus acted as a deterrent factor, making it too costly for the attacking forces to continue their offensive.