Neighbourhood watch...

An arms race is developing in north Africa as both Algeria and Morocco make future fighter plans.

Going nowhere: Algeria’s plans to acquire the Su-35 appear to have been abandoned. Picture: UAC.

Relations between North African francophone neighbours, Morocco and Algeria, have been strained for decades, and have only worsened in recent years, with ongoing disagreement over the political status of Western Sahara and with Algeria condemning the signing of the Israel-Morocco normalisation agreement (part of Abraham Accords) in 2020.

On August 24 last year Algeria formally severed ties with Morocco.

The two countries have gone to war twice – first in 1963 with the so-called Sand War, and then during the long-running Western Sahara War of 1975-1991. Algeria continues to back the nationalist Polisario Front’s claims on the territory.

In November 2020, Morocco launched a military operation in the United Nations-controlled buffer zone in Western Sahara, claiming that this was in response to weeks of ‘provocations’ from the Polisario Front. This incursion into the Guerguerat zone aggravated tensions and entrenched Algeria’s view that the region has a right to self-determination, while US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara led to a further deterioration in relations. 

This has all led to something of an arms race between the two nations.

Algeria’s military spending of $9.7 billion in 2020 actually represented a slight (3.4%) reduction compared to 2019, but it remained by far the largest defence budget in Africa, while Morocco has progressively ramped up defence spending, allocating $4.8 billion in 2020 (a 29% increase on 2019 and a 54% increase compared to 2011).

Much of this spending has been devoted to the air domain, and the two nations are currently upgrading and recapitalising their fighter arms, and are seeking to acquire fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Morocco’s fighter arm currently consists of 15 Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16Cs and eight two-seat F-16Ds, assigned to Escadrons de Chasse ‘Viper’, ‘Falcon’ and ‘Spark’ at Ben Guerir Air Base.

These are augmented by about 22 surviving F-5Es, and four two-seat F-5Fs with Escadrons de Chasse ‘Chahine’ and ‘Borak’ at Meknes-Bassatine, and about 26 Mirage F1CH, F1EH and probe-equipped F1EH-200s, upgraded to a common MF2000 configuration, serving with Escadrons de Chasse ‘Assad’ and ‘Iguider’ at Sidi Slimane.

Thus, around 75 aircraft serve with eight small squadrons.

In future, the Royal Moroccan Air Force fighter element will be built around advanced variants of the F-16.

The US approved the sale of 25 Block 72 F-16C/D aircraft to Morocco in March 2019, and the surviving Block 52s will be upgraded to the near-identical F-16V standard under the same contract. The expansion in F-16 numbers will allow the retirement of the now obsolescent F-5E/Fs.

In the slightly longer term, Morocco plans to acquire the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II  joint strike fighter to replace the Mirage F1s. It has been reported that Abdellatif Loudiyi, the Moroccan Minister of Defence, has asked for Israel’s help in ‘convincing the Biden administration in the US to authorise the sale of the F-35 to Morocco and in obtaining more advanced weaponry’.

Algeria has always been able to field a bigger fighter arm than its neighbour, and currently has some 150 fast jets in service with about 12 squadrons, though its Soviet- and Russian-supplied aircraft are probably less serviceable and less available than Morocco’s western types, leaving the two air forces more balanced than ‘headline’ numbers might suggest.

The backbone of the force is provided by 57 Su-30MKAs (with 16 more on order), parented by the 12ème Escadre de Defense Aerienne at Ouargla, but with individual escadrons operating from Aïn Beida, Ouargla, Tamanrasset, and Reggan.

These are augmented by the 45-or-so MiG-29s of the 3ème Escadre de Défense Aérienne’s 193ème Escadron de Chasse at Bou Sfer, with a detachment at Béchar.

Algeria’s dwindling number of about a dozen MiG-25s may still include a handful of MiG-25PD interceptors, as well as MiG-25RB reconnaissance variants. These all serve with the 5ème Escadre de Reconnasissance et de Guerre Electronique at Aïn Oussera, alongside the Su-24MPK and Su-24MRK.

Most of Algeria’s 22-or-so Su-24 ‘Fencers’ are Su-24MK2 interdictors assigned to three squadrons of the 4ème Escadre d'Appuis Pénétration at Laghouat.

Algeria reportedly signed a contract for 14 Sukhoi Su-35s (or 18, according to some sources) and 14 Su-34s in December 2019, with options on 14 more of each type. But these orders were subsequently cancelled, perhaps due to the Su-35’s reliance on older PESA radar technology, or more likely due to concerns over the potential impact of US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) regulations.

Instead, Algeria now looks set to upgrade its Su-30MKAs with technologies from the Su-35, while waiting to acquire the more advanced Su-57, which will be available for export from the late 2020s.

Algeria announced its intention to order 14 Su-57s in November 2020, and since then has been identified as a potential customer for the T-75 Checkmate.

Some have suggested that Algeria could turn away from Russia for its next fighter – perhaps looking to Italy or France.

Morocco F-16
While Morocco will upgrade its existing F-16C/Ds to F-16V standards and acquire new-build Block 70 aircraft to replace its ageing Northrop F-5E/Fs, it also has a medium term requirement to replace its fleet of Mirage F1s. Picture: Lockheed Martin.

As well as fighters, both nations have sought to bolster their ground-based air defence (GBAD) capabilities.

Morocco has reportedly begun negotiations to acquire Israel’s Iron Dome system.

Designed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries (with some US support) Iron Dome uses radar to differentiate between targets that will hit built-up areas and non-built-up areas and prioritise accordingly. It has a claimed success rate of more than 90%.

Morocco has also received US approval to receive the Patriot air defence missile system.

Meanwhile, Algeria, already an operator of Russia’s S-400 Triumph air defence system, has reportedly expressed interest in Russia’s new S-500 Prometheus long-range air defence system, which is designed to intercept and destroy a wide range of targets, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles.

However, the new system will not be available to the export market until 2030, and Algeria may find itself having to wait behind India and Turkey for the weapon.

Algeria has also made efforts to improve its electronic attack capabilities, and has acquired a new Chinese electronic warfare system, receiving an undisclosed number of vehicle-mounted systems made by ELINC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Electronics Corporation (CEC), and the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC). These could be used to disrupt Moroccan communications and radar systems.


Jon Lake

Jon Lake

Jon is defence editor for both Arabian and African Aerospace magazines.