Morocco unveils its new kids on the Block

Morocco's new Advanced Block 52 F-16 fighters are now in service with the Escadron de Chasse 'Falcon' at Base Aerienne des Forces Royales Air 6 at Ben Guerir, near Marrakech. Two further squadrons, 'Spark' and 'Viper' will stand up at the same base. Jon Lake looks at the country's growing capabilities.


Ben Guerir was originally established in 1951 by the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) to allow the rapid deployment of nuclear-armed B-47 Stratojet bombers.

It was one of five air bases constructed in northwest Africa for SAC, and was closed in 1963.

More recently it was better known as a transatlantic abort-landing site for the Space Shuttle, finally de-activating in 2005.

However, the proximity to Marrakech, the long runway and NASA-installed Microwave landing aids and TACAN, made the base an attractive candidate for rebuilding and remodelling to house the new F-16s.

It is thought that the arrival of the F-16s may allow a reduction in the size of the Moroccan F-5 force, which could be relegated to advanced and lead-in fighter training duties.

The Moroccan Mirage F1 force should remain at its present two-squadron size, with 27 Mirage F1CH, F1EH and probe-equipped F1EH-200 fighters being upgraded to MF2000 standards under the F1 renovation programme. This will see the aircraft gaining Mirage 2000-5/9 avionics and defensive systems, and a Mirage 2000-derived Thales RC400 (RDY3) multi-mode pulse Doppler radar.

The Mirages will be equipped with Mica AAMs and a range of air-to-ground weapons, including the new AASM Hammer precision-guided, stand-off, rocket-boosted bomb, the ARMAT anti-radiation missile, and the MBDA AM39 Exocet anti-ship missile.

The first four F-16s were delivered on July 30 2011 and all eight of Morocco’s two-seat F-16Ds are now in service, together with about five of the 16 F-16Cs ordered by the North African kingdom.

Four former Royal Moroccan Air Force F-5 pilots underwent F-16 conversion training with the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing, the USAF’s international F-16 training unit at Tucson International Airport. Each averaged three sorties per week and accumulated more than 150 F-16 flying hours, qualifying as flight leads and as instructor pilots, graduating in time to deliver the first four of Morocco’s 24 F-16s in July 2011.

Six further Moroccan pilots underwent the basic F-16 course in Tucson, graduating in September 2011. Together, these two courses of pilots formed the cadre of the new F-16 unit in Morocco and began training further pilots in-country.

Two F-16s were displayed in the static park at the recent third Marrakech airshow at Marrakech-Ménara, and four F-16Cs took part in the flypast.

The last of the 16 F-16Cs and eight F-16Ds ordered under Morocco’s May 30 2008 contract first flew on March 15, and was ceremonially handed over at Fort Worth on April 3. This aircraft was actually the 4,500th F-16 built, and it is one of two Moroccan aircraft that will be retained in the USA until sometime in 2013. One of these last two aircraft will be used for integration tests at Edwards Air Force Base, with the other acting as a spare. The remainder of the Moroccan F-16s should be delivered by December 2012.

Morocco’s F-16 buy came as a surprise, as an earlier attempt to acquire 20 Block 15 F-16s (funded by the UAE and Saudi Arabia) during the early 1990s fell through, and many had expected Morocco to order the Dassault Rafale.

Successive modernisations of Algeria’s fighter arm (first with some 100 MiG-29s, and subsequently with the introduction of Su-30MKAs and Su-24 fighter-bombers) gave the Moroccan hunt for a new fighter extra impetus.

The French Government made an initial offer of 18 Rafales at a cost of $3.3 billion. The US counter-offered up to 36 second-hand F-16s at a cost of just $1.4 billion. France revised its bid, offering either 12 Rafales and 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft, or 24 Rafales for $2.85 billion. In the end, a US offer of 24 next generation Advanced Block 52 F-16s at a total programme cost of $2.4 billion proved more compelling. With the delivery of its first F-16s in July 2011, Morocco became the 25th country to own and operate F-16s.

The complete $2.5 billion deal for the F-16s included the aircraft, their Pratt & Whitney F100-229 engines and Northrop Grumman APG-68(V)9 radars, and a comprehensive package of weapons, including the latest Raytheon AIM-120C7 AMRAAM beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, short-range AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and both laser- and GPS-guided precision-guided munitions.

Subsequently, Morocco has requested a possible purchase of an initial 20 Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, training and support to equip its new F-16s, and the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of this in mid-May 2012. The deal would be worth $50 million.

Morocco is also understood to be seeking AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles and Paveway II laser-guided bomb kits for the new fighters.

The F-16 procurement raised a reaction from Morocco’s enemies, with the Polisario Front – the guerrilla movement fighting to achieve the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco – issuing a statement expressing “deep concern about the dangerous path adopted by Rabat” in the wake of the first F-16 deliveries.

Some observers took the statement as being part of a media war being waged by proxy on behalf of the Algerian government.

Though the F-16 procurement and Mirage F1 upgrade will not redress the quantitative imbalance between Moroccan and Algerian air power, it promises to give Morocco a vital qualitative edge, enhancing and safeguarding Morocco’s security for decades to come.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, not least in the Middle East, with recent orders from Egypt, Iraq and Oman.

The first of 20 Block 52 aircraft for Egypt made its maiden flight on April 6 2012. The aircraft was the first of 16 F-16Cs and four F-16Ds ordered under a March 2 2010 contract, as part of Operation Peace Vector VII.

The existing orders from Iraq, Egypt and Oman should keep Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth production line open through 2015, though the company is looking for new opportunities that would allow it to keep the line busy through 2016-17, giving a smoother transition to the (delayed) higher rate F-35 Joint Strike Fighter production.

Iraq is pressing for the supply of 18 Block 60 F-16s in addition to the first batch of 18 F-16s that it already has on order, while Qatar is understood to have turned its attention away from the Rafale and towards the F-16, and Bahrain is believed to be trying to obtain more F-16s for the Royal Bahrain Air Force. The F-16 is also one of the options being considered by the Libyan Air Force.

In addition to these opportunities for new-build F-16s, there are a number of requirements for upgrades, including for the USAF (where up to 300 may be upgraded) and in Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

In an attempt to win new orders, Lockheed unveiled a new F-16 variant, the so-called F-16V (V for Viper) at the 2012 Singapore air show. This new model, which could be produced by retrofit of all but the oldest existing legacy F-16s, or by new production, is broadly equivalent to the Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcons used by the UAE, with an AESA radar, an upgraded mission computer, and an improved cockpit layout with new displays.

Which AESA radar will be integrated remains uncertain. The Block 60 F-16E/Fs operated by the United Arab Emirates are equipped with Northrop’s APG-80 AESA radar, while the Raytheon advanced combat radar (RACR) and Northrop Grumman scalable agile beam radar (SABR) have been mooted as alternatives.

The F-16V has already attracted interest, and the UAE Air Force is now said to be favouring the F-16V over the Rafale, F-15 and Eurofighter.