Morocco has ordered 36 American AH-64E Apache attack helicopters after first expressing their interest in 2018. The U.S. government has approved the sale but it still has to be approved by Congress, which is unlikely to have any reason to block it. Morocco has local Islamic terrorism under control and always has. The AH-64Es would be used to deal with any foreign threats and the most likely one is renewed violence from Polisario separatists in the south. Less likely are any serious problems with neighboring Algeria. Finally, the AH-64Es are most urgently needed to replace elderly French Gazelle SA342 helicopters, some of which are armed with missiles and machine-guns to act as gunships. Several other Arab nations (plus Israel) use the AH-64 and find this gunship worth the cost.
The AH-64Es will cost about $4.25 billion. This includes 24 AH-46Es with an option for an additional 12 together. The initial purchase includes 79 engines, 36 AN/ASQ-170 target acquisition systems, Pilot Night Vision Sensors, 18 Fire Control Radars and other electronics plus related equipment, support, training, and logistics.
Morocco is also interested in obtaining 600 Hellfire ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles), 558 smaller APKWS ATGMS and some unguided 70mm Hydra rockets as well. There is also some interest in buying 200 AIM-92H Stinger air-to-air missiles.
The AH-64E Apache is the latest iteration of the famous tank buster gunship which has been used by the U.S. Army since 1984 when the AH-64A entered service. So far about 2,200 Apaches have been delivered to customers in various versions. The latest model, the AH-64E, entered service in 2011 and attracted many export customers, including India, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The AH-64 is a heavily armed and armored attack helicopter with a maximum takeoff weight of 11.5 tons and a top speed of 279 kilometers per hour. New AH-64E features included the improved Longbow fire control radar and the capability to cooperate with UAVs. The AH-64E can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles in addition to a 30 mm M230 autocannon. A pair of Stinger air-to-air missiles are often carried as well.
Morocco has long enjoyed good relations with its neighbors. Algeria has been a threat in the past but is now sharing concerns about a growing problem with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these refugee camps created by earlier Algerian support for the Polisario separatists of southern Morocco. That animosity has diminished as has Algerian support for Polisario. There were doubts about this new Algerian attitude. For example, in early 2018 Algeria assured Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario But soon after an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well.
For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics where the creation of a “president for life” became acceptable in what is supposed to be a democracy. This was very similar to what Algeria has had since the 1960s. Fortunately, many Algerians shared those misgivings and by the end of 2018 a popular mass movement got going and the Algerian president-for-life was ousted in early 2019. A new, truly democratic government is a strong possibility.
Algeria and Russia have a lot of history. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union, the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco, which was, and still is, a centuries-old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria. Morocco felt betrayed by Algeria but generally ignored Algerian threats and denunciations. That crisis with Morocco was one of the reasons Algerians finally toppled the government that created Polisario and seemingly endless problems with Polisario.
Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. Algeria and Morocco recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile, Polisario was providing Islamic terrorists safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario rebels, who were seeking independence for Western Sahara, a region south of Morocco. Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps.
This all began in the 1960s when Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario created enough diehards to keep the violence in Morocco going and lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area called Western Sahara is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But until the 1990w there were still thousands of people in Western Sahara plus refugees who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco.
Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. Western Sahara was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have now made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again, Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian and Mauritanian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp inmates are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated, until now, by Algeria. As more veteran Algerian Islamic terrorists are captured or surrender, the information they provide keeps pointing back to Polisario as a major source of support for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its lucrative smuggling (drugs, people, weapons) from the south into Algeria. Polisario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this but that is becoming more difficult to do with their major supporters in the Algerian government gone. --- Przemysław Juraszek