The two neighbouring countries strengthen relations with their partners while the situation in the Sahel and the violence of the Polisario Front in the Sahara intensify

Marruecos, Argelia y su particular rearme a contrarreloj

Sistema antimisiles HIMARS - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
AP/AARON FAVILA - US M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) fires a missile during a joint US-Philippine military drill

The escalation of tension following Russia's invasion of Ukraine is also being measured in the Maghreb. 

Doubts in the rankings have been dispelled. Abdelfatah El Sisi's Egypt remains Africa's leading military power, according to the ranking of the world's armies by the US-based Global Fire Power (GFP). But the biggest arms race on the continent is in the Maghreb. 

Budget allocations in Morocco and Algeria have skyrocketed in 2023. Abdelmadjid Tebboune's regime has allocated 23 billion US dollars to the arms and defence sector, 130% more than the previous year, and a stratospheric 15% of GDP compared to 5.5% in 2022. This is an unprecedented budget for the armed forces.


The undoubted benefits for Algeria's purchasing power of Europe's gas purchases, due to the boycott and sanctions against Moscow, have provided Algiers with a sufficiently wide budget window that could have been used to heal the country's socio-economic crisis. However, priorities have been different.  

Extraordinary oil and gas revenues have been focused on increasing the military structure and elevating the struggle with Morocco to become the main military power in North Africa. A race against time to counter the strategic alliance between Rabat and Washington and to secure Russia's influence in the Maghreb. On the energy scene, a paradox is created for Europe by the Kremlin's omnipresent hand: buying energy from the one who is Russia's gateway to Africa. 

The Algerian regime's rearmament does not admit of political discussion either. As Tebboune has decided, the army's budget is excluded from any parliamentary debate. 

Anchored in the old scheme of quantity 

Algeria has the second largest armed forces in Africa. The North African republic currently has 130,000 soldiers, almost 1,000 tanks, 133 fighters, 48 ships and six submarines. But the figures do not reveal the real military strength of the country. The vast majority of the devices are nothing more than "scrap metal" provided by Moscow. Tebboune cannot afford to invest in quantity rather than quality if it wants to surpass Morocco. 

The first step is to renew requests to Russia, its main supplier of armaments and military systems. Tebboune will do this during a state visit to Moscow in May, a date yet to be set.


Also aware of Russia's priority in its invasion of Ukraine, the Algerian regime is making a bid to diversify its export of military material. It is on this stage that Iran and its functional drone production appear, a "direct threat" to the stability of the region, as columnist Llewelling King has defined it. This is because these Iranian-made drones are supplied by Algeria to the Polisario Front in service to the demands of its leader, Brahim Ghali, to intensify the armed struggle and the use of drones against Morocco.  

However, everything comes at a price for the Ayatollahs' regime and also for Russia. In exchange for the weapons, they are asking for military bases in Western Sahara to reach the Atlantic and to exert more and more influence in the Maghreb and the Sahel. For both the United States and the European Union, Algeria was directly responsible for the entry of the Russian mercenary group Wagner into Africa.

Morocco and the goal of becoming a military power by 2030 

Rabat's horizon is much more enlightening than Algiers'. The budget for the Royal Armed Forces in the new Finance Law is 17 billion US dollars, about 3.5% of GDP. A budget increase that includes for the first time Morocco's willingness to allocate funds to defence industries in addition to procuring arms abroad. 

And it is doing so. Morocco is engaged in a process of modernising its armed forces by procuring the latest modernised F-16 fighters, Abrahams armoured cars, Predator drones and, now, HIMARS. Highly mobile artillery rocket systems that have become famous in Ukraine as one of the most effective weapons against the Russian advance. The same ones that the Alawite Kingdom's great ally, the United States, will supply to Morocco: The United States. 

Washington has always collaborated with Rabat to confront threats in the region. Indeed, following the approval of the 18 HIMARS systems to Morocco, the Pentagon noted that the Royal Armed Forces routinely conduct exercises with US forces to combat terrorism and Violent Extremist Organisations in the Maghreb and Sahel region. 


In the words of the State Department, these missile launcher systems "will enhance Morocco's ability to meet current and future threats, and contribute to the maintenance of regional stability and security". This is the same objective that NATO first projected at the Madrid summit when it included the southern flank in its new Strategic Concept. 

The terrorist threat in the Maghreb and Sahel remains latent, but so does the Kremlin's influence through Wagner's mercenaries. These are destabilising activities that Morocco, the non-NATO ally, intends to counter with US HIMARS

However, several Spanish media outlets have made a somewhat different reading to the official one conveyed by the Moroccan and US governments. They link the purchase of the latest launchers with the threat they could pose to several Spanish cities, such as Granada, Cordoba and Seville. These objectives are far removed from reality for the US and Moroccan targets. 

More than just HIMARS systems 

The largest military manoeuvres on the entire African continent take place in Morocco. This is African Lion, an operation that seals the strategic relationship between Washington and Rabat every year, and which is in its 19th edition in 2023. A total of 6,000 soldiers from twenty international African countries and 27 observer nations will participate in the joint exercises that will take place between 16 and 22 June. 


The preparation is based on the latest advances in military technology. The exercises include training on decontamination of CBRN (nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical) hazards in operational areas and land, air and sea exercises. 

"African Lion is an unmissable event that contributes to consolidating Moroccan-US military cooperation and reinforcing exchanges between the armed forces of different countries to promote security and stability in the region," published a communiqué from the General Staff of the Royal Armed Forces (FAR), following a meeting between representatives of the two armies. 

The Abraham Accords, a revolution for North Africa 

Since normalising relations, Rabat and Tel Aviv have signed military cooperation agreements that are unprecedented in the Arab world. Last summer's visit to Morocco by the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army made history as the first time an Israeli army chief had visited the Kingdom.


General Aviv Kohavi was responsible for initiating an intelligence and defence industry engagement that has been accelerating in Morocco's rearmament project. Last February, the Major General of the Royal Armed Forces (FAR), Mohamed Benawali, also made an unprecedented visit to Israel, where he observed the latest strategic and technical developments in the field of artillery, which soon had an effect on the Moroccan army. 

Benawali took it upon himself to add to the list of armament requests to Israel. The Israeli PULS rocket launcher, capable of firing at 300 km, was the acquisition that, in the general's view, will meet "the needs of modern battlefield scenarios". 

Just a few weeks ago, the controversial leak of Pentagon documents revealed that Israel will sell its "Barak MX" anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence system to the North African country for $500 million. The system is capable of shooting down any aircraft or missile within 150 km and is supported by radar and several launchers. Another new acquisition in the fruitful relationship with the Hebrew state. 

The Maghreb, another temperature rise vis-à-vis Russia 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced all countries to position themselves in the new and tense international scenario. Either on the side of the invader or the invaded. Since the beginning of the invasion, Rabat had maintained a neutral position and abstained in the UN vote in March 2022. Morocco justified its position in a bid to 'respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and national unity of all UN member states'. However, pressure from Washington changed the position. 

In January Morocco became the first African country to send military aid to Ukraine. Some 20 T-72B tanks were sent to the Ukrainian armed forces out of a total of 148 T-72, 136 T-72B and 12 T-72BK tanks that the Moroccan army had purchased from Belarus in two batches in 1999 and 2000. 

As Rabat moves closer to NATO, the more Algiers distances itself with its unconditional support for the Kremlin. The shadows of Russia's invasion of Ukraine are already spreading to all corners of the globe and are taking hold in North Africa, which, like European countries, is embarking on a counter-clockwise rearmament process with the highest military spending since the Cold War years.