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Spy wars in the skies over north Africa

Posted 19 November 2018 · Add Comment

Alan Warnes looks at the tense spying game being played out between Morocco and Algeria.

Tensions flared between Morocco and Algeria in early April when the former’s government accused its long-time foe of allowing Polisario Front fighters through its border.
The freedom fighters, recognised by the United Nations, come from the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf, inside Algeria.
The Polisario Front is a national organisation, and a legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, which has been trying to take back the region since Morocco annexed it in 1972.
The Western Sahara War, which started after Morocco’s annexation of the former Spanish colony in 1975, ended in a peace settlement in 1991. However, there has been no lasting resolution to the conflict. Instead, a UN buffer-zone has been drawn up and Morocco is threatening to take it over if the Polisario Front is not stopped.
So, it is not surprising that there are deep tensions between the two north African countries and, as a result, both have been introducing tactical reconnaissance systems since the late 70s specifically for their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles.
Due to their political alignments, the countries have taken different routes. Morocco looks to the US and France, while non-aligned Algeria follows the orbit of the former Soviet, and now Russian, supply chains.
Equipment was initially related to fighters, modified for carrying reconnaissance mission systems. Algeria used MiG-21 Fishbeds fitted with Vinten pods and MiG-25R Foxbats, while Morocco looked towards the RF-5A and Mirage F1s, equipped with French reconnaissance pods.
Due to the need to support its soldiers on the ground, the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) upgraded three C-130s in the late 70s. They were equipped with Motorola ground movement target indicator (GMTI) and sideways-looking airborne radar (SLAR) systems.
When one of the Hercules was shot down by a MiG-23, launched from Tindouf Air Force Base on October 12 1981, both sides nearly went to war. However, diplomatic efforts from the UN won the day.
The Moroccan fleet took yet another major knock on July 26, 2011 when one of the two surviving EC-130Hs crashed in bad weather during a transport flight.
The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)-equipped Hercules have made a massive contribution to detecting Polisario fighters crossing the borders from their camps in Algeria, and have provided the early warning to ensure Moroccan troops were not ambushed.
Operating alongside the C-130s are a couple of Falcon 20s, which are equipped for signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations, mainly to provide advanced early warning (AEW) and acquire an electronic order of battle (a listing of non-communications electronic devices with possible military significance) for the RMAF.
The two Falcon 20s were upgraded in the late 90s but are now considered obsolete. This has led the RMAF to look at the possibility of using advanced business jets like the Gulfstream 550 or the Global Express 6000.
Procuring four strategic ISR platforms would go some way to defeating Algeria’s deadly S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or the Sukhoi Su-30MKA.
In the early 90s, Algeria needed a sophisticated and ambitious ISR requirement to keep ahead of the poor internal security situation. A civil war between the Algerian Government and an increasing radical Islamist insurgency, which today would be called terrorists, was claiming the lives of thousands of people.
The Algerian military started to introduce synthetic aperture radar (SAR), electro optical/infrared (EO/IR) systems and datalink capabilities, which at that time was unheard of in Africa – with the exception of Morocco and its EC-130Hs, of course.
In 1998, Northrop Grumman received the go-ahead from the US State Department to export a new ISR system based on the modification of six Beech-1900D regional airliners.
The $207 million contract included the Raytheon high integrated synthetic aperture radar (HISAR) ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar and a WDS-16 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, integrated with an L-3 tactical common data link (TCDL) and some mobile ground stations. It was an extremely expensive deal but Algeria needed the capability urgently.
However, it was plagued by problems, which started during the definition phase when it became obvious the aircraft was ill-suited for long ISR missions.
The Beech-1900D was originally designed as a small regional airliner, so the multi-mission surveillance (MMSA) version did not have the range, with all the new kit, to carry out long flights.
The Algerians did not have any coherent approach and the selection of the aircraft had nothing to do with a robust system definition, but aimed at pleasing certain commercial interests.
Algerian Air Force intelligence suffered because the Beech-1900D could not stay airborne for more than two-and-a-half hours, even though the length of the mission should have been considered the prime factor in the selection process.
Most of the missions required only the use of the EO FLIR. The SAR GMTI HISAR radar was rarely needed because SAR was developed for use in countries with bad weather where EO/IR system are inoperative – clearly not the case in Algeria!
Also, insurgents in the mountains didn’t rely on specialised vehicles to move around, rendering the use of GMTI marginal, to say the least.
Border surveillance missions requiring the GMTI radar capability were hampered by the very short range of the aircraft mission profile.
During 2014, the Beech 1900s are known to have been upgraded with the L3 Wescam MX-15 EO/IR systems.
In July 2016, Leonardo announced it had been selected to supply two Beechcraft King Air 350ERs with the airborne tactical observation system (ATOS) to an ‘African country’ (known to be Algeria). According to Leonardo, it is geared towards a growing demand for wide area surveillance and patrolling, targeted surveillance, environmental and disaster control, integrating a wide number of sensors and subsystems in a highly modular design.
Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) had already upgraded one of Algeria’s aircraft to a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) variant in 2012. It was modified by the French company BCA, with the installation of SELEX Galileo’s Gabbiano radar as part of the airborne tactical observation and surveillance system (ATOS).
The Algerian Air Force is thought to operate six reconnaissance-configured Beech King Air 350ERs, which were delivered a couple of years ago. They all wear civilian colours and are devoid of any national markings.
A series of measures was taken in 2014 to either modernise existing capabilities or add new strategic and tactical ISR programmes. These included:
• Modernisation of six existing Beech-1900D MMSAs;
• Transformation of four existing Beech-1900D liaison aircraft to MMSA next generation aircraft;
• Acquisition of five reconnaissance and surveillance tactical ISR aircraft; and
• Acquisition of three multi-mission strategic aircraft ISR business jets.
The strategic ISR solution was given to the Air Force Command Electronic Warfare and Reconnaissance Division. It awarded a $1.1 billion contract to Raytheon Systems for three significantly modified Gulfstream 550s in 2015, allegedly without any serious or robust analysis of the requirement.
Basically, the Algerians required a business jet that could do tactical and strategic missions at the same time, without any differentiation between passive sensors and active ones.
The aircraft was required to carry a SAR radar for a signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability, which normally would be two different segments of the ISR spectrum. Israel, for example, uses a specific version of the Gulfstream (Nachson) for passive electronic intelligence/ communications intelligence (ELINT/COMINT), while another Gulfstream operates with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar sensor.
Algeria, probably due to a lack of expertise, relied too heavily on Raytheon, which is a very capable sensor design and manufacturing company but is not renowned as a platform integrator. Unfortunately, Raytheon didn’t understand soon enough that a Gulfstream does not generate enough power to feed all the sensors that Algeria required for its radar – SIGINT, COMINT and dual EO systems etc.
Raytheon subcontracted the whole job of integration to a company based in Oklahoma City with little knowledge of the Gulfstream environment and structure. The US aerospace giant subsequently discovered that the aircraft electrical generation was largely insufficient to power all the sensors required.
In reality, the Algerian Air Force should have opted for a larger Boeing-737 or Airbus-320 size aircraft to fulfil its requirement.
The Algerian Air Force does not appear to have learnt from the Beech-1900D MMSA saga and no one knows, three years on, when the aircraft will be delivered. They will be massively obsolete, since the aircraft do not encompass modern technology due to the heavy limitations imposed by the US State Department.
In 2014, Algeria launched a request for information (RFI) for the acquisition of five tactical ISR aircraft with provision to weaponise them. The intent was to use them in a tactical ISR role, where the target of opportunity could be engagement in an autonomous way.
This constituted an improvement tactically. Previously, ISR aircraft had been obliged to transmit all their data to a ground station without the possibility of engaging a time-critical target.
The Algerian MoD selected the Alenia MC-27J, which is a weaponised version of the tactical Transport C-27J operating with an ATK palletized 30mm gun. The C-27J has already been adopted by Morocco and Chad in its transport version.
However, according to one insider: “Algeria doesn’t look to be benefitting from an advanced system in a net centric environment. It really needs an ISR platform that can provide, via a tactical datalink, an overview of the battlefield and a target cueing system for off-board weapon systems, like the newly acquired Mi-28NE Attack helicopter, for example.
“There is also no provision to have the ISR platform to work in an increasingly complex environment where manned and unmanned platforms operate together and share the same battle space.”
Algeria clearly does not understand the benefits of real-time digital information exchange. Morocco, on the other hand, has adopted a Link-16 datalink system as the backbone to its current and future joint force operations.
Morocco is known to be reviewing its needs for its next generation of ISR aircraft, taking into account the threat posed by anti-access aerial denial (A2/AD) system – the S-400 SAM which its neighbour is looking to acquire.
Morocco now relies on a set of two reconnaissance satellites, provided by Astrium France, which can image any point in Algeria every two hours. This provides the RMAF with a huge targeting tool that can’t be challenged by the Algerians, which means they can spy and designate a target in their neighbour’s territory at ease – a tool much more powerful than putting an expensive radar with limited side views on a Gulfstream.
The difference between the two African foes is Morocco is completely focused on doing what is best for the defence of its country, while Algeria appears to be distracted by its commercial interests and not keeping up-to-date with the latest in military technologies.

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