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Morocco: the Maghreb's new military powerhouse

Rabat is rapidly modernising its army, moving ever closer to Western standards and matching Algerian capabilities
PHOTO/SELMAOUI via AP  -   Fotografía de archivo. Soldados del Ejército marroquí desfilan durante las celebraciones del 50 aniversario de las Fuerzas Armadas Reales Marroquíes

PHOTO/SELMAOUI via AP  -   File photo. Moroccan Army soldiers parade during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces.

The Alawi kingdom boosts its armed forces.

2021 has been a busy year for Moroccan military planners. The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces' (FAR) procurement list included 1,000 anti-tank launchers and missiles, T-72M battle tanks and ammunition for its brand new Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, according to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.

These new acquisitions complement Rabat's efforts to modernise its FAR in order to weather the geopolitical storm in North Africa and confront its great regional rival in the Maghreb: Algeria. To this end, the Alawi kingdom has been increasing its military spending, acquiring increasingly modern equipment and boosting military exercises with partners such as the United States.

An increasingly modern army

Rabat is, along with Algiers and Cairo, Africa's largest arms buyer, and is considered to have the fifth best army on the continent and the second best in the Maghreb. Here, Rabat has relied on a number of partners, but mainly the US and France, bringing it ever closer to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) standards.

In this regard, Morocco has received the US designation of 'Major Non-NATO Ally', which Washington grants to countries outside the Atlantic Alliance with which it has a closer security relationship, and is one of only three countries on the continent to do so (along with Tunisia and Egypt).

Moreover, the normalisation of relations with Israel in 2020, in addition to the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and the strengthening of relations with Washington, has also opened the door of the Kingdom to the powerful Israeli military industry, as well as bringing closer relations with the United Arab Emirates, a country sometimes called the 'little Sparta' due to its strong military potential. In this way, Rabat has been acquiring modern equipment in recent years that aims to make the Kingdom a military power in various domains

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   Miembros del Ejército marroquí
PHOTO/FILE - Rabat is, along with Algiers and Cairo, the main buyer of armaments in Africa, and is considered the fifth best army on the continent and the second best in the Maghreb.

In 2008, the FAR's air force took a great leap forward with the acquisition of more than twenty US F-16C/D Block 52+ fighter-bombers, received in 2011, which have since been modernised and have already been used in combat in the context of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and the international coalition against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. In addition, in 2019, the Kingdom confirmed the purchase of another 25 F-16 Viper Block 70/72 - the latest model in this series - and, in 2021, Washington is said to have approved the sale to the Arab country of the powerful MIM-104F (PAC-3) Patriot anti-aircraft system.

As for the army, Rabat also purchased 222 M1A1 Abrams tanks in 2012, and is expected to receive another 162 M1A2 Abrams tanks in the near future. This American tank is considered one of the most advanced in the world, and has been used successfully by Washington in the two Gulf wars, in desert conditions, the same conditions that are found on much of the Algerian-Moroccan border and in Western Sahara, potential theatres of conflict for Rabat.

The Kingdom has also obtained or will soon obtain other US weaponry, such as AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and MQ-9B Sea Guardian naval drones (the latter sold in the context of the Abraham Accords). Recently, Rabat has also acquired French-Israeli Harfand suicide drones, and the famous Turkish Bayraktar TB2, the latter being key to Azerbaijan's victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 and now used by Ukraine in its defence against Russian troops. The Kingdom will also soon receive 36 French CAESAR 155mm guns, an artillery system with a range of 40 kilometres. 

At the same time, Rabat is committed to modernising its naval forces, moving from a 'green water' fleet (focused on coastal defence) to a 'blue water' fleet (with projection capabilities), with the aim of establishing the North African country as one of the main naval players in the Western Mediterranean.

King Mohammed VI, in a speech to the FAR on the 66th anniversary of its creation, insisted on the goal of rearming the country, reinforcing and modernising the armed forces through the development of the local military industry and collaboration with its partners. "We will continue to prioritise the plan to equip and develop the Royal Armed Forces, according to integrated programmes, based in particular on the establishment of military industries and the development of scientific research [...] with the aim of developing the self-equipment of our Armed Forces in various fields," the monarch said. 

PHOTO/FAR - Rabat ha adquirido 25 nuevos cazas F-16 y va a modernizar los 23 de su flota actual en un contrato por un valor estimado de 4.747,2 millones de dólares, la mayor compra militar del país
PHOTO/FAR - Rabat has acquired new F-16 fighters

"We have advocated strengthening cooperation between our Royal Armed Forces and their counterparts in brotherly and friendly countries, a choice that has yielded commendable results and contributed to consolidating the influence of our army and its international presence," the Moroccan leader added, referring to the strengthening of Rabat on the basis of collaboration with its partners.

Here, it is worth mentioning the African Lion military exercises, held every year in the Alawi kingdom with the participation of several countries, notably the US, which allows Morocco to continue modernising its armed forces in the image of Western armies. In the latest edition, which ended on 30 June, some 7,500 soldiers from the Kingdom and several partners took part in the largest exercises on the continent, which included joint land, air and maritime manoeuvres. In a sign of the closeness of relations between Washington and Rabat, these manoeuvres took place for the second time in their history close to Western Sahara, and 50 kilometres from the Tindouf refugee camps (in Algeria), headquarters of the Polisario Front.  

AFP/ WILLIAM WEST - Carro de combate principal M1A1 Abrams disparando a un objetivo durante una demostración de fuego real. Rabat ha adquirido 200 de ellos recientemente
AFP/ WILLIAM WEST - M1A1 Abrams main battle tank firing at a target during a live-fire demonstration. Rabat has recently acquired 200 of them
Closer and closer to Algeria

With this rapid modernisation, Rabat aims to move closer to the capabilities of its Algerian rival, traditionally considered the leading military power in the Maghreb. Bilateral relations between the two countries have been difficult since their independence, when they fought a brief conflict known as the Sands War. Since then, Rabat and Algiers have disputed regional preponderance, with Western Sahara as one of the hot spots in their bilateral relations, and the border has been closed since 1994.

Although both have tried in the past to ease bilateral ties, in recent months the relationship has deteriorated rapidly, after Algeria cut off gas supplies to the Alawi kingdom and broke off diplomatic relations, in the context of the breakdown of the ceasefire with the Polisario Front in Western Sahara and the reception of support from several countries, such as the US, Spain, the UAE and Israel, for Rabat's autonomy proposal. 

mohamed vi
PHOTO/FILE - King Mohammed VI

In terms of military potential, Morocco has risen to 56th place in the Global Firepower ranking, an index that measures the military power of 142 of the world's armies. Algeria, meanwhile, is ranked 31st. Rabat has benefited from Western armaments and cooperation, but Algiers has benefited from Moscow, which has a deep and historic security relationship with the Eurasian power, its main arms supplier. And the Arab Republic is also rapidly rearming, giving rise to a growing arms race in the Maghreb.

If Morocco now has the powerful F-16s, Algeria has the Sukhoi Su-30s (and Algeria has reportedly bought Sukhoi Su-34s), the Moroccan Abrams are facing the Algerian T-90S and the Patriot anti-aircraft system is being countered by the S-400 Triumf

leon africano
PHOTO/FILE -Morocco cooperates militarily with the United States through the African Lion exercises.

In addition, Algiers has an advantage in the maritime domain, where, for example, it has up to six submarines deployed, to Morocco's none (although there are rumours that the Alawi kingdom plans to acquire such vessels soon), and, in quantitative terms, it has, in general, more equipment deployed than its neighbour.

Qualitatively, however, Rabat has seen a significant improvement in many domains, narrowing the gap between the two countries year by year. At the same time, the Kingdom's diplomatic situation has improved significantly since the Abraham Accords, and the strengthening of the relationship with the US may further boost the FAR's advancement to Western standards, modernising the Kingdom's army, while a potential weakening of Russia following the invasion of Ukraine may work against Algeria. 

REUTERS/ABDELAZIZ BOUMZ  -   Soldados argelinos hacen guardia
REUTERS/ABDELAZIZ BOUMZ - Algerian soldiers stand guard

According to a report by the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies, a French think tank, the Moroccan armed forces are already well prepared for territorial defence and counter-offensive, in Algeria's key, and, when they receive all the weapons being shipped, 'they will have strong capabilities in the naval and air domains, particularly with regard to deep strikes, force projection and access denial'

In the coming years, as Rabat continues to strengthen its ties with Washington and Tel Aviv and Algeria continues to strain the relationship, the FAR will continue to develop and modernise, making Morocco a military power in the Western Mediterranean.