Sunday 31 October 2021

A Rare Bird: The IAI Heron In Moroccan Service

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Some nations eagerly show off their drone arsenal in an effort to display their military might to the rest of the world, other countries are less keen on revealing their inventory and operations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). One such country is Morocco, which currently operates a sizeable fleet of Israeli, Chinese and Turkish UAVs and UCAVs. [1] Nonetheless, very little is known regarding their actual operations, with Morocco appearing intend on keeping UAV operations the armed forces' best-kept secret.

This is also the case for Morocco's fleet of three Israeli-made IAI Heron UAVs. First acquired in 2013 and entering operational service a year later, the IAI Heron has only been sighted in Moroccan service when they were filmed just outside the perimeter of air bases by civilians during landing or on takeoff, and their acquisition has never been officially confirmed by authorities. [2] Through thorough investigation of satellite imagery the number of sightings was increased somewhat, but it is still far less than those of the UAV fleet of neighbouring Algeria.
While Morocco did not until 2020 recognise Israel as a state, both countries have long maintained informal ties and cooperated on matters of security. These ties have meanwhile materialised in the delivery of several drone types from Israel, and Morocco is even set to launch an assembly line for a yet unspecified type of Israeli loitering munition in the near future. [1] Other Israeli drones Morocco has shown considerable interest in are the WanderB, ThunderB and the Hermes 900, all of which are currently believed to be on order. [1]

In addition to acquiring these types and the IAI Heron, Morocco is also an operator of the Israeli-French EADS Harfang (a version of the IAI Herion specifically developed for France) that the French Air Force had retired from service in 2018. After a lengthy negotiating period, it appears that Morocco finally received these systems in 2020. [3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have yet to be sighted in Moroccan service, a testiment to the country's knack for keeping its military acquisitions hidden from public view.

Photographs of Moroccan IAI Herons like this one are far and few between.

The IAI Heron is currently in active service with at least ten countries worldwide that include Azerbaijan, India and Singapore. Another operator of the system is the European Union, which uses them for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. In Morocco, the IAI Herons are operated by the 'Escadron Drones', although further details are lacking (apart for the presumed shoulder patch of their operators).

Although never confirmed by official sources, it currently appears that Morocco's IAI Herons are stationed at Ben Guerir air base in central Morocco with regular forward deployments to Dakhla in Western Sahara. Most of the sightings of the Heron stem from their time at Dakhla, undoubtedly as a result of the air base's close proximity to residential areas. It remains unknown if the newly-acquired EADS Harfangs are also deployed at these locations, with several other air bases in Morocco and the Western Sahara region being used for drone operations also contenders.

An IAI Heron at Ben Guerir air base in February 2016.

The deployment of Herons to Dakhla, which is located in the disputed Western Sahara, greatly increased the reconnaissance capabilities of Moroccan forces in this area. [4] [5] With an endurance of 24+ hours, the platform is well suited for following the movements of the Polisario Front that also claims the Sahara Region. Although the Heron is unarmed (like all Israeli UAVs sold to foreign countries), the purchase of 13 Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey has given Morocco a modest but serious precision-striking capability. [1]

An IAI Heron at Dakhla. Note that the photo has been taken from outside the base perimeter.

An IAI Heron seen on satellite imagery at the same location in November 2018.

With a growing inventory of Israeli-made UAVs and the recent acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey, Morocco now appears to have firmly settled on these nations to provide it with advanced unmanned capabilities. Perhaps not by coincidence, the UAV inventory that results closely resembles that of Azerbaijan, which deployed it to devastating effect during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. It is not unlikely that more countries will seek to follow this trend.

Interestingly, this seems to come at a cost to the popularity of Chinese drones, with Morocco being the third country after Turkmenistan and Nigeria to purchase Turkish UCAVs while already operating Chinese types. The future could see more purchases from Turkey and Israel as Morocco seeks to keep up with its neighbour of Algeria, and as drones become an increasingly attractive option to replace manned aircraft in certain missions (for example those over Western Sahara).

Special thanks to Samir and Federico Borsari.

[1] Operating From The Shadows: Morocco’s UAV Fleet