world wide weapons

Morocco looks beyond US, France in arms race with Algeria

By Achraf Tijani

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Posted on August 11, 2023 10:20

jad20230731-mmo-maroc-armement-01-1256×628-1690976597 Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) and US Army vehicles in the province of Tan-Tan (southwest Morocco) on 30 June 2022, during the 18th annual African Lion military exercise © FADEL SENNA/AFP
Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) and US Army vehicles in the province of Tan-Tan (southwest Morocco) on 30 June 2022, during the 18th annual African Lion military exercise © FADEL SENNA/AFP

While Western arms still dominate the Moroccan military arsenal, Rabat is looking to new competitors such as China and India for cheaper weapons.

The Royal Palace in Rabat may insist that relations between Morocco and France are currently “neither friendly nor good,” but you wouldn’t know if from looking at the kingdom’s arms purchases.

Although orders have fallen sharply – down from $470m in 2020 to $105m in 2021 – Morocco remains the leading importer of French arms in North Africa. Currently, Rabat is awaiting delivery of 36 Sherpa-type military vehicles from France’s Arquus.

Tactical top-up

The multi-purpose tactical vehicles can carry a crew of five, travel at speeds of up to 115km per hour and cross water obstacles 1.5m deep. The order is part of a contract signed between Morocco and France in 2020.

And just last month, the military posted a video on its Facebook page, FAR-Maroc, touting the French DT26 E unmanned aerial vehicle (see below). Rabat relies on tactical drones to secure sensitive areas over large distances and combat the smuggling of goods and drugs, as well as illegal migrants.

According to Spanish specialist news site Infodefensa, the drones will be equipped with the Mistral Atlas RC air defence system, the most advanced version of the missiles produced by French-based European arms manufacturer MBDA.

Morocco is diversifying its international partners

Designed for low-altitude targets, the system boasts a 95% success rate and can hit other missiles as well as drones and helicopters.

The Americans, special partners

Geopolitical analyst Pascal Le Pautremat told us in December that “Morocco is keen to be a regional player with a strategy of diversifying its international partners”.

However, among the partners, one still seems to have a huge lead – the US. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US provided 76% of Morocco’s military arsenal between 2018 and 2022.

In April, Washington and Rabat struck a major deal. The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency in principle agreed to the sale to Morocco of JSOW-guided glide bombs and 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, with a range of about 320km.

The JSOW bombs, which can hit mobile or static targets within a 130km radius, are sold only to NATO members and key allies. The total cost of the package was $774m.

Morocco is expected to remain a good customer for US defence contractors as Rabat has committed to military cooperation with Washington until 2030.

Israeli suicide drones

The arms deals come as Morocco has increased its defence budget for 2023 to $10.9bn, up from $10.53bn in 2022. Meanwhile, neighbouring Algeria has doubled its budget, to more than $22bn.

The tense regional situation is a key factor in the escalation of weapons accruement.

“The territorial dispute between the two countries, linked to Western Sahara, exerts a major influence on their military spending policies,” SIPRI points out.

Israel’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara on 18 July, deepening ties between the two countries, was slated by Algeria.

We learned from leaked Pentagon documents in April that Israel was planning to deliver its Barak-MX anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence system to Morocco. The defensive system can intercept ballistic and cruise missiles within a 150km radius.

In June, Morocco’s royal forces reportedly took delivery of Israel’s SpyX kamikaze drones, also called suicide drones, which can travel at speeds of almost 260km per hour.

Major contracts with Beijing, Ankara, Delhi, Brasília… 

China is also deepening ties, landing 6.8% of the Moroccan arms market between 2018 and 2022. At the beginning of 2023, China was negotiating with Morocco to purchase sophisticated weapons through the defence company China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, according to the Tactical Report, an online media specialising in defence matters.

Chinese equipment is considered to be good value for money.

The cost advantage is also available to other suppliers who may be less talked about but are also hoping to gain a share of the Moroccan market. In addition to Turkey and its famous Bayraktar drones, which have seen phenomenal success in Ukraine, India is also in the midst of a seduction operation aimed at Morocco.

In March 2022, Mohcine Jazouli, the Moroccan minister delegate in charge of investment, convergence and the evaluation of public policies, said that the Moroccan government had “signed an agreement with Indian companies for the construction of Indian vehicles, which [would] be supplied to the Moroccan army”.

In January, the royal armed forces took delivery of 92 highly mobile multi-axle trucks from Indian manufacturer Tata.

Like New Delhi, Brasília is also interested in the Moroccan market. A 26 May defence framework agreement between the two countries provides, among other things, for the acquisition of defence equipment made in Brazil.

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