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Polisario Front: What weapons and military capacity does the SPLA have?

Analyst Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana sheds light on the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army's arsenal
 Varias pick-up del Polisario equipadas de cañones antiaéreos

AP/Bernat Armangue  -   Several Polisario pick-up trucks equipped with anti-aircraft guns

The so-called war reports of the Ministry of Defence of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), published regularly, suggest that the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army (SPLA) still has a significant military arsenal. 

Several OSINT sources have been able to draw up an inventory of the military resources available to the Polisario. The greatest evidence of significant deployment occurs when the armed elements of the insurgent group parade in Tindouf. At such events, one can see rows of Soviet-era tanks, mainly T-55A or T-62, as well as numerous infantry fighting vehicles or personnel carriers BMP-1, EE-9, BRDM-2 or BTR-60PB. 

However, the lack of recorded images to accompany the war reports, in an era in which every armed group floods the networks with propaganda videos, casts doubt on the real capabilities of the SPLA. In the digital age, while videos of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are constantly pouring in, the Polisario Front claims it does not disseminate images for fear of revealing the positions of its armed elements. 

"They say that if they record or upload to social networks, the enemy can geolocate them and that this would endanger their troops", explains security and defence analyst Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana, author of the blog Flanco Sur. 

PHOTO AP/ BERNAT ARMANGUE - Desfile de las fuerzas armadas de la RASD en el campamento de Tinduf
PHOTO AP/ BERNAT ARMANGUE - SADR armed forces parade in Tindouf camp

Armed essentially by Algeria, Cuba and Libya during the 1970s and 1980s, the SADR forces are described by Pérez Triana as pioneers in a mode of warfare that mixes guerrilla warfare with heavy weaponry. "Long before Hezbollah and before terms such as 'hybrid warfare' became popular. They received cutting-edge weaponry from countries of the socialist bloc", Pérez Triana recounts. 

With the end of the Cold War and the change of side of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, the supply of arms to the Polisario was interrupted, and its arsenal came to a standstill. "There is no record that they have continued to obtain military material in the same quantity and quality as in the 1980s", Pérez Triana states. 

From that golden age, the ELPS obtained the arsenal that Dutch analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans list in the OSINT Oryxs blog, along with a few other possible acquisitions from the 2010s that are attributed to Algeria. 

Oliemans and Mitzer estimate that the SPLA owns around 100 tanks, mostly T-55A and to a lesser extent T-62 Obr.72, donated by Libya. The T-55 is the main Soviet tank from its entry into service in 1946 until the 1960s. Along with its replacement, the T-62, it was one of the most widely produced tanks in history.

AP PHOTO/ BERNAT ARMANGUE - Pick-up con cañones antiaéreos en el desierto del Sahara
AP PHOTO/ BERNAT ARMANGUE - Pick-up with anti-aircraft guns in the Sahara desert

In the category of infantry fighting vehicles and personnel carriers, the inventory estimates the number of these vehicles at 81, with the 1966 Soviet BMP-1 being the most common of all. It is accompanied by some rare Brazilian EE-9 Cascavel from the Engesa company, a 6-wheeled armoured vehicle also on loan from Libya, which operated up to 380 of them. 

On the artillery side, Dutch analysts believe that the ELPS has an imprecise number of 122mm towed artillery pieces in addition to numerous Grad and Grad-P missile launchers. 

Anti-aircraft assets are an important part of the ELPS arsenal. They are mainly SA-6, SA-8 and SA-9 missile systems, in their NATO designations. According to Pérez Triana, these missiles were key to the SPLA forces in their confrontation with Morocco in the last century, "They made it possible to shoot down several Mirage F1s in their day".

All this arsenal would be totally obsolete in the face of the modernisations that the Moroccan armed forces have undergone, in their military escalation with Algeria, which allow the Maghreb kingdom to move ever closer to NATO standards and which have earned it the rank of "Major Non-Nato Ally". 

"The SA-8 systems, for example, we have seen in the hands of Armenian forces in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war - modernised with some digital additions - and they could not do much against the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones flown by the Azeri air force," explains Pérez Triana, exemplifying the obsolescence of the SPLA's equipment. In Syria and Libya, the Soviet teams were also unable to do anything against the new drones, which are off the radars of the SA-6, 7 and 8. 

REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Viaje munición explosiva en el desierto del Sahara
REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Old explosive ammunition in the Sahara desert

"A Polish twitterer, who had to do military service in his day, published information from the instruction manual of the SA-8 missiles and revealed that the missile system discriminates targets below a certain speed and distance. A speed and distance at which the Bayraktar TB2 can already strike effectively with its armament. We are seeing it in Ukraine as well, drones are escaping from radars," adds the defence expert. 

Because of this clear inability to defend itself with air assets, Pérez Triana explains that the SPLA would not have the capacity to deploy its heavy or even medium ground assets today. "Without air cover, you can't deploy your armoured assets without them being openly exposed". It is therefore concluded that the SPLA arsenal is doomed to remain in the hangars and garages of SPLA bases, ageing. "It is unviable to use them. They cannot pose a mechanised war at the moment. Without a combined arms plan, it is not possible". 

The SPLA's military incapacity forces it to reduce its military activity, as has been the case for 20 years, and forces the Polisario to restructure its strategy. Weapons are no longer an option for the insurgent movement, which can now only resort to the tactic of weakly striking and disappearing in a pick-up vehicle. It remains to be hoped that, in a hypothetical end to the conflict, the desert arsenal will no longer fuel the instability in the Sahel, a few kilometres south of Tindouf.