This confluence of social, economic, and health crises may be a turning point in the regional arms race.
For decades, Algeria has held a military advantage over the neighboring kingdom of Morocco. Superior air forces along with a better-equipped army have largely contributed to the preservation of this military superiority over the years.
The advent of COVID-19 in addition to Algeria’s ongoing economic and social crises may be providing Morocco with a window to close this gap, however, and in doing so, position itself as the leading power in North Africa.
In 2017, Morocco established a five-year plan, backed by nearly $20 billion in funding, to achieve “regional supremacy” in North Africa through the modernization of equipment in all three branches of its military. Since then, Morocco has made good on its commitment to military expansion, including a recent move to purchase patrol boats from Spain in late 2019. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these efforts have picked up dramatically.
The health crisis has had a notable impact on the defense industry. Disrupted supply chains, decreases in the demand for defense equipment, and stock price declines have led to dwindling prices throughout the sector.
While some countries have seen their military spending decrease as a result of this pandemic, driving these aforementioned trends in the defense industry, Morocco has taken advantage of this heavily burdened production.
In early May, the United States delivered 21 Toyota Land Cruisers, worth an estimated $1 million, to Morocco’s Special Forces. The sale, part of a larger military cooperation effort between the two nations, was aimed at strengthening Morocco’s special operations capabilities, including border management.
Then, weeks later, Morocco signed an export loan agreement with BNP Paribas in France for a new ground-based air defense system totaling roughly $211 million. While details of the specific system are not yet clear, the acquisition is also a move to modernize Morocco’s military arsenal.
French media have suggested the system in question is a VL MICA system, which is comprised of “truck-mounted elements, including a tactical operations center, Sagem SIGMA 30 radar, and launcher vehicles that can carry between three and six multi-round launchers with the missiles in clusters of four rounds.”
Now, in early June, it was reported that Lockheed Martin is producing 25 F16 fighter jets and 36 Apache attack helicopters for the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces, a deal worth $9 billion. This purchase, while a big step towards fulfilling Morocco’s 2022 ambitions, is also part of a larger plan to have 48 F16 jets by 2028.
Bridging the military gap
These recent military moves have been enabled by the effects the coronavirus has had on the defense industry, making the purchases more practical in such a short time frame. But the pandemic has not been the only catalyst for Morocco’s uptick in military spending. Algeria’s economic and social plights preceding the pandemic also provided Morocco with a window of opportunity in these past few months.
On top of unrest driven by hits to Algeria’s oil-driven economy and political instability, new factors have arisen recently which stand to exacerbate the ongoing tensions in the country.
Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who launched a military campaign in April to capture Libya’s capital, Tripoli, has put greater pressure on Algeria’s ability to devise a diplomatic solution to the issues Libya faces. Inaction will only lead to greater instability at the Algeria-Libya border, but action will require resources that Algeria may not have the ability to draw on at the current moment.
Morocco’s geographic insulation to this conflict will only raise its chances of leveling the military playing field, if not superseding Algeria’s military capabilities, by 2022. This is why, in early May, Morocco reportedly turned down an offer from the UAE to provide support to Haftar, maintaining a position of neutrality in the issue.
Morocco and Algeria have competed for arms supremacy for a long time, with Algeria often finding dominance in that area of statecraft. This confluence of crises, however, may be a turning point in this regional arms race. As Algeria is forced to deal with its issues — economic, political, and social — Morocco may very well become the regional leader as it continues to align itself closer with its Western allies.
Morocco’s ascent in the Maghreb will also stand to have a large impact on the situation in Western Sahara, where Morocco and Algeria have battled for influence.
Morocco may be able to compound on its current momentum and create a drastic gap between itself and its neighboring rivals in the coming years, which will not only bolster the country’s economic development efforts but give it more relevance on the international stage.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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