The GCCC/Canarias FIR has issued a new airspace warning this week for an emerging conflict zone in Western Sahara – a remote territory in the Northwest of Africa. Although the conflict has been escalating for a couple of weeks, it is the first ‘official’ warning:

B7433/20 – OPERATORS ARE REQ TO EXERCISE PARTICULAR CAUTION DURING FLT OPERATIONS IN WESTERN SAHARA AS PART OF FIR CANARIAS. IT IS RECOMMENDED TO AVOID OVERFLIGHT AT FLT LEVELS BLW FL200 ON THE FOLLOWING ROUTES: UY601, UN728 AND UT975. 25 NOV 18:18 2020 UNTIL 09 DEC 18:15 2020 ESTIMATED. CREATED: 25 NOV 18:18 2020

Not much of a warning – just a recommendation that you don’t fly too low on some airways. What’s really important is exactly what is missing: why.

Because the airways are over an active conflict zone, with a known threat of anti-aircraft fire.

Wait, there’s a new conflict zone?

There sure is. It’s in Western Sahara – a disputed territory bordering Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the east – a stone’s throw from the Canary Islands.

Western Sahara is effectively divided straight down the middle, literally by a wall. Morocco controls one side, while the region’s independence movement (the Polisario) controls the other. The Polisario made headlines last week when they declared war on Morocco.

So why do they want to fight?

The two have never gotten along. The Polisario want independence and were at war with the Moroccan Government for a very long time, until a fragile ceasefire agreement in 1991. Since then there has always been tension.

Recently a Polisario protest blocked a whole bunch of Moroccan truck drivers at the border with Mauritania, shutting down an essential route that connects Morocco to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco weren’t happy, and breached the ceasefire agreement by sending forces into the demilitarized zone to remove them.

The Polisario immediately declared war on Morocco, and clashes began straight away.

Why does it matter?

The FAA were onto it when they immediately carried out a risk assessment and published a notice. The big deal is that the Polisario are likely to have access to anti-aircraft weaponry left over from the previous war. This includes man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and surface-to-air missiles. The weapons present a risk to aircraft as high as 12,000 feet.

Example of a MANPAD system in action.

To make matters worse, they are suspicious that Morocco are flying drones over their territory – something that has been denied by Morocco. It wouldn’t be the first time an aircraft has been shot down there either – the Polisario downed two DC-7 airliners with missiles back in 1988.

What about airspace?

The sky over Western Sahara airspace is split between two FIRs –GCCC/Canarias and GOOO/Dakar. If the conflict escalates further, this is likely to complicate things.

So far there has been only one warning from the Canarias side – the NOTAM above. Nothing from Dakar yet.

There are currently three major airways affected. Two of them (UY601 and UT975) run the length of the region in a south westerly direction – likely to be used by aircraft transiting some routes between Europe and South America. The other airway, UN728 is a direct track from the coast to GCTS/Tenerife which may be used by smaller aircraft or those doing tech stops in the Canary Islands.

Worryingly, there is a whole bunch of similar airways in the conflict zone that are controlled by the Dakar FIR which have no warnings yet. If you’re operating in the area, pay close attention to the risks involved.

So where to from here?

Like all conflicts, your guess is as good as ours. Right now it is escalating and shots are being fired. Algeria support the Polisario, so the conflict has potential to grow beyond borders. The Polisario themselves want the fight to escalate which should be a warning sign for those in airplanes above them.

Continue to monitor Safeairspace.net as this situation develops.

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