Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Desert Storm: Listing The Polisario’s Inventory of AFVs


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
A number of Moroccan drone strikes on Polisario targets in the Western Sahara has once again brought attention to the long-neglected eponymous dispute. Fears that the fragile peace could soon make way for renewed conflict seem to grow starker by the month, with a lack of any hard response to the drone strikes from the Polisario Front possibly strengthening Morocco's will to use military means to resolve the conflict in its favour once and for all. [1] Although only the United States recognises Morocco's claim over the Western Sahara Region, the Polisario is isolated from any true political and military allies with the exception of Algeria.

The former Spanish colony of Western Sahara was partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, with Morocco taking control of two-thirds of the desert region. Conflict soon erupted between these countries and the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 with its government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria. After Mauritania abandoned its territorial claims in 1979, Morocco secured control over Mauritania's part of the Western Sahara. After intense fighting throughout the decades, a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1991. At the time, most of Western Sahara was under Moroccan control, with Polisario forces controlling roughly one-third of the territory.
 
The territories controlled by Morocco and by the Polisario Front are divided by a 2,700km-long mostly sand wall that remains in place today. Fortifications along the wall were progressively built by Moroccan forces throughout the 1980s, and are still expanded upon to this day. Since the early 1990s, conflict has mainly been limited to occasional exchanges of fire along this border wall. Most countries have taken a neutral position on each side's claims, pressing both parties to resolve the conflict through peaceful means instead. In 2020, the United States became the first country to formally recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara Region in exchange for Moroccan normalisation of relations with Israel. [2]
 

The respective areas of control in the Western Sahara. Note the small patch of coastline under SADR control in the lower left corner.

The Sahrawi People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is the military force of the SADR. Although initially operating as an insurgent force equipped with Toyota technicals armed with AA guns, large-scale arms deliveries from Libya during the 1980s turned the SPLA into one of the best-equipped militaries in Africa at that time. Gaddafi provided the Polisario Front with anything from T-62 tanks, BM-21 'Grad' MLRs and even 9K33 Osa surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs). The SPLA is nowadays completely cut off from any arms supplier and unable to replace its ageing inventory of Soviet weaponry.
 
Nonetheless, in 2017 it was reported that the SPLA received several pieces of military equipment from Algeria, even said to have included Russian-made armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). [3] These reportedly consisted of BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), Toyota pick-up trucks as well as surface-to-air missiles. [3] No evidence was provided that corroborate these claims, and Algeria is not known to be an operator of the BTR-82A itself. Whether Algeria did provide the SPLA with any military equipment during this time or if the statements were supposed to act as domestic propaganda remains unknown.
 

A row of Polisario T-62 and T-55 tanks. The SPLA will have to attempt to operate its heavy armour against a military equipped with increasing numbers of armed drones.

While Polisario's vast arsenal of tanks, multiple rocket launchers and even SAM systems poses an impressive force on paper, most of this equipment dates from the 1960s and 1970s. Having acted as a strong counterbalance to Moroccan forces throughout the 1980s, even the Polisario's most modern equipment is now hopelessly outdated against a military that has kept up with most military trends worldwide. Is the SPLA to be pitted against Morocco in any future conflict, it could quickly succumb to drone and precision airstrikes carried out by the Moroccan Air Force.

Another problem facing the SPLA is a lack of spare parts and ammunition. Although it seems plausible that Algeria has provided some spare parts for its tanks and other AFVs, delicate equipment such as SAM systems would need to be regularly overhauled to keep them combat capable. This also holds true for its stocks of surface-to-air missiles. That said, it will ultimately likely matter little whether the SPLA is able to keep its ageing SAM systems in operational condition or not, since they are unlikely to pose any sort of threat to Morocco's armed drones and combat aircraft.

Polisario BMP-1s in storage. These IFVs are periodically driven to ensure their continued functioning.

This list only includes vehicles and equipment of which photographic evidence is available or the presence of which in the ranks of the SPLA has been confirmed by U.S. intelligence. [4] [5] [6] The operational status of much of the equipment listed is uncertain. The SPLA is sometimes also reported to operate vast quantities of equipment captured from Moroccan and Mauritanian forces. However, there is no indication suggesting that the SPLA made any appreciable effort to integrate this equipment into its military, presumably for logistics reasons.
 
(Click on the vehicle or equipment to get a picture of them in Polisario service)
 

Tanks


Armoured fighting vehicles

  • ~19 EE-9 (Received from Libya in the early 1980s) 
  • ~12 BRDM-2 (Received from Libya)

Infantry fighting vehicles

  • ~35 BMP-1 (Received from Libya)
 

Armoured personnel carriers


Towed artillery


Multiple rocket launchers

  • 107mm Type-63 (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 122mm 9P132 Grad-P (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 122mm BM-21 'Grad' (Received from Libya)
  • 122mm BM-11 (Received from Libya in the early 1980s) (Not yet seen)
  • 122mm RM-70 (Received from Libya in the early 1980s) (Not yet seen)

Mortars

  • 120mm M-43 (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 160mm M-160 (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
 

Anti-tank guided missiles

  • 9M14 Malyutka (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya) (Not yet seen)
  • 9M111 Fagot (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya) (Documented by a few sources, not yet seen)
 

Man-Portable Air Defence Systems

 

(Self-propelled) anti-aircraft guns

  • 14.5mm ZPU-2 (Mounted on Toyota pickup trucks) (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 14.5mm ZPU-4 (Mounted on Toyota pickup trucks) (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 23mm ZU-23 (Mounted on Toyota pickup trucks) (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
  • 23mm ZSU-23-4 'Shilka' (Supplier uncertain; either Algeria or Libya)
 

Surface-to-air missile systems

 

Radars

  • 1S91 SURN (for 2K12 Kub) (Received from Libya in the early 1980s)
  • P-12 ''Spoon Rest C'' (Received from Libya in the early 1980s) (Not yet seen)
  • PRV-16 “Thin Skin B” (Received from Libya in the mid 1980s) (Not yet seen)
 
 


Special thanks to Buschlaid.
 
[1] Morocco/Algeria: Western Sahara conflict shows signs of escalation https://www.theafricareport.com/69335/morocco-algeria-western-sahara-conflict-shows-signs-of-escalation/
[3] الجزائر تحرض البوليساريو على إشعال الحرب وترسل لها دفعة أسلحة إلى" البير لحلو" المزيد: https://www.akhbarona.com/world/200883.html#ixzz7ES4UuVVp https://www.akhbarona.com/world/200883.html
[6] SUMMARY: THE POLISARIO HAS HAD SOME SUCCESS IN THE WESTERN SAHARA https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp85t00176r001700120006-0
 
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