Moroccan Air Force at 50
This year the kingdom of Morocco celebrates its fiftieth year of independence. After the country became independent of France in 1956, the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) were formed that same year. For the occasion a series of 'Journéé Portes Ouverts' (open door days) was organised at several airfields throughout the country between January and April 2006 to increase ties with the public. Lucien Blok/Four Aces Aviation Photography took this unique opportunity to take a closer look at an otherwise camera shy air armů
Earlier this year a mobile caravan of indoor exhibition displays was formed, moving through Morocco to show the latest hardware of the armed forces at airfields it descended on. First starting on 22 January at Rabat-Salé, home of FAR Helicopter Command, 'open door' days followed over the next few weeks at Marrekech-Menare airfield on 11-14 February, housing the basic flying school, and at Meknés- Bassatine on 11-14 March, home of the fighter pilots school flying the Alpha Jet H and fighter squadrons equipped with the F-5. Fourth and final, the caravan arrived at Casablanca-Anfa airfield on 15-18 April, which opened its gates for the public. Casablanca-Anfa is the old airport of Casablanca in the southwest of the city - it now only sees some light civil traffic and holds the Atellier Magasin Général des FRA, a FAR maintenance facility.
During each of the Portes Ouvertes, displays with fire arms, uniforms and combat equipment including the latest gear were shown in showcases while friendly staff were eager to answer questions. Stands of various technical branches showed video documentaries on large plasma screens as well as technical displays with engines, landing gear and weaponry. The emphasis on information about the FAR's role was its current contributions to international humanitarian and peace missions, like Somalia (1993), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999) and domestic relief work during the earthquake in Al Hoceïma (2004). Outside the hangars the public was offered a close view on an impressive line-up of armoured vehicles, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.
The Royal Armed Forces were founded with French support on 2 March 1956, and initially consisted of transport aircraft and helicopters of French and American origin. In the decades that followed, the development of the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) was influenced by Morocco's turbulent history. As could be seen during the open door days, the RMAF still has a surprisingly large variety of aircraft and helicopters in its inventory.
Although the three previous open days offered the public a view of at least one example of (almost) each type in service, the Casablanca open days were an exception. Allegedly due to the short runway of 1,800 meters, no jet aircraft were allowed to land at the airfield, which caused the public to miss out on the T-37B and Alpha Jet H jet trainers and F-5E/F and Mirage F-1CH/EH fighters. The war in West-Sahara during the '70s and '80s caused many losses of aircraft to anti-aircraft weaponry used by the guerrillas and the RMAF preferred to install chaff/flare dispensers in the fin, instead of brake chutes, hence none could land at Casablanca. Some compensation was offered by the preserved F-5A (97094) and F-1EH (168) on static display that already resided on the airfield.
Like the other open days, the Casablanca-Anfa Portes Ouvertes offered a static comprising several components of the armed forces. The Gendarmerie Royale (Royal State Security Forces) brought a SA-330L Puma (CN-AIM), SA-316B (CN-AIH) and a 'Tornado II' ultra-light. The air force put four fixed-wing aircraft on display, the SA202/18 Bravo (CN-AUJ/122) and T-34C-1 Turbo Mentor (CN-ATA/01) trainers and C-130H Hercules (CNA-OG) and CN-235AL (CNA-MB) transporters. The helicopter fleet was represented by a AB-205A Iroquois (CN-AKS/45), SA342L Gazelle (CNA-CF) and SA330F Puma (CN-ASF/32). One helicopter, a AS565MB Panther (112), represented the Marine Royale (Royal Navy).
Scattered around the maintenance facilities several preserved aircraft offered a glimpse of the RMAF history. During the first few years of RMAF existence, an increased Soviet-Union influence on Northern-Africa was highlighted by the delivery of the first fighters jets for the RMAF, consisting a dozen MiG-17 Fresco fighter bombers and two Mig-15UTI Midget jet trainers. One of each type can now be seen preserved at Casablanca-Anfa airfield. The Soviet connection was short-lived at that time, as Russia chose Algerian side when a border conflict erupted in 1963. Turning back to the West, Morocco acquired several transport aircraft and helicopters in the late '60s as well as eighteen Northrop F-5As, four F-5Bs and two RF-5s, delivered by the US. Additional F-5As were later donated by the Iranian Shah from IIAF inventory. France refurbished ex-West German CM-170 Fouga Magisters. Several Fougas now remain preserved at Casablanca-Anfa.
Although the F-5A on static was preserved, pilots told the public that one of their F-5As is still operational at Meknés. The most remarkable fact in the RMAF history is the role the F-5As played in the attempted coup against King Hassan II on 16 August 1972, when several RMAF officers assaulted their King by scrambling F-5As and shoot their 20mm guns at the Royal Air Maroc Boeing 727 carrying the King from a visit to France. The coup failed however, and a purging took place in RMAF circles. Another interesting fact would be the detachment of one F-5A squadron to Egypt in mid-October 1973, to redeem a promise originally made by King Hassan II to help Egypt in the next war with Israel. The detachment did not engage Israeli forces, but flew combat air patrols inside Egypt.
A major influence on the current RMAF inventory was formed by the conflict in West Sahara which broke out in 1974 when Spain pulled out of the country. A considerable interest in the phosphate-rich country tempted Morocco and Mauritania to bring West-Sahara under their rule, much to the dislike of the 'People's Front for Liberation of Saguiá el Hamra and Rio de Oroa' (Polisario). The Algeria-based Polisario organisation formed an extremely mobile and well equipped guerrilla force. A long lasting insurgency followed, at a serious expense of Moroccan and Mauritanian troops and funds.
Many RMAF F-5s fell victim to the Algerian supplied SA-7 SAMs of Polisario guerrillas and an order was issued to Dassault-Bréguet in 1976 for Mirage F-1CH fighter-interceptors, which started arriving from 1978. Additional Mirages ordered comprised the F-1EHs, optimized for ground attack, which were delivered between December 1979 and June 1982. For training and a light attack role Dassault delivered twenty-four Alpha Jets between 1979 and 1981. Also OV-10A Broncos arrived from the US as a specialized counter insurgency (COIN) aircraft, armed with a gun-pod and launchers for unguided rockets. One Bronco now sits preserved near one of the gates of Casablanca-Anfa. By that time, numerous F-5As were lost in the war and the remaining fleet was aging. With Saudi financial help a replacement was found in sixteen factory fresh F-5Es and four F-5Fs. Orders for more helicopters were also issued to support ground troops fighting the guerrillas. An order was placed for twenty-four Aérospatiale SA342L Gazelle helicopters - twelve armed with HOT anti-tank missiles and twelve with 20mm guns. Italy received on order for twelve license-built CH-47C Chinooks and nineteen AB-206 Jet Rangers. To track guerrillas moving across the Algerian border, two C-130s were fitted with Side Looking Airborne Radars (SLAR). As more fighters were lost to ground fire, chaff/flare dispensers were fitted to the fin of the aircraft. Numerous aircraft were still shot down and additions were found by ordering ten former US Navy F-5E aggressors in 1989.
Even long after the pricey conflicts, Morocco still faces the economic problems it started with in 1956, such as poverty and high unemployment. Although funding was made available for seven Casa CN-235s in 1990, an interesting US offer of used F-16A/Bs had to be turned down in 1991 and twenty-five surviving heavily used F-1CH/EH fighters were refurbished in France instead. Apart from the acquisition in the mid 90s of fourteen used T-37Bs for basic jet training at Marrakesh AB and three Eurocopter AS565MB Panthers for the Navy, no major changes have taken place in the RMAF inventory to date.