The growth of the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) stems from partially economic and mostly strategic reasons, whose nature is defensive and tied to the preservation of stability and military balance in the region.
In 2020 and 2021, Morocco’s military expenditure reached a proportion of the GDP never approached since Hassan II’s reign. The last months of 2020 also saw the end of the ceasefire unilaterally declared by the Polisario Front, and the normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel. Since then, the two countries have held several meetings and signed partnerships in the fields of defense and security. This rapprochement is benefitting Morocco on a strategic level in the Western Sahara region, where the unpredictability of the threat and the harsh environmental conditions of hundreds of kilometers of the desert make drones the most effective means for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance). Indeed, Morocco is expanding its fleet of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for ISR and potential combat purposes, while also developing its own capacities to produce similar systems. Morocco’s jet fighters are also undergoing a modernization and enlargement process with deterrence as its core objective, which can be better understood by looking beyond Morocco’s borders. This policy paper will attempt to explain the rationale behind the strengthening of the Moroccan air force and assess to what extent the country benefits from it in terms of regional air space control and supremacy.
Regional challenges and major security partnerships
The regional context surrounding Morocco is characterized by a number of crises, adding up to the internal challenges of the Kingdom. Among these external challenges are the dispute in the Western Sahara region; the civil war in Libya, also aggravated by the resurgence of armed clashes; security and military instability in Mali, with the rising terror threatand the changing of external players. Neighbouring countries’ military spending also push Morocco to keep improving its armed forces. For instance, since 2014, Algeria’s military expenditure as a proportion of GDP has never been less than 5.5%. In 2015, Algeria’s military expenditure became the highest in North Africa, hitting 6.7% in 2020 compared to Morocco’s 4.3%. As of September 2022, diplomatic ties between the two countries are severed amidst occasionally escalating tensions. However, Morocco’s King Mohammad VI’s speech for the 2022 Throne Day pleads for the normalisation of relations with Algeria, giving hope for a rapprochement marked by a sentiment of fraternity and future cooperation in multiple fields, despite the current closure from the Algerian side. The King’s overture should not come as a surprise — from Sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia to Europe, the Kingdom’s foreign policy is denoted by peaceful interactions with the widest range of actors. For instance, political divergences with Spain have existed despite the strong cooperation between Spanish and Moroccan security forces in the field of migration. After Spain’s acknowledgement of Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara region as the most realistic solution, however, a roadmap for cooperation was signed by the two governments in April 2022.
Another noteworthy, recent development in Morocco’s relations has been with Israel, with which only informal contacts were maintained until December 22nd, 2020, when the Joint Declaration part of the Abraham Accords was signed by Morocco, the US, and Israel. The Accords may represent an epochal turning point in the usually complex interplay between Israel and Arab countries. With the United States redirecting its diplomatic, military and intelligence resources towards Asia, the creation in Congress of a bipartisan committee to expand the Abraham System demonstrates the American willingness to partially disengage from the Middle East. Furthermore, Morocco can play a significant role in shaping a new Middle East. This would be possible thanks to Morocco’s long-standing relations with both the US and Israel and its peaceful diplomatic approach, which has enabled Morocco to strengthen ties with Israel while maintaining its decades-old stance on the Palestinian cause. Morocco is indeed favourable to the two-State solution based on the June 4th, 1967’s frontiers.
The enduring relations between Morocco and the United States, dating back to Morocco’s recognition of the independence of the United States in 1786, have witnessed close collaboration in security fields in recent years. In fact, the Kingdom’s endeavours against terrorism after 9/11 earned Morocco the status of Major Non-NATO Ally in 2004. The growth of Morocco’s military capabilities is indeed also connected to the United States’ Foreign Military Sales policy, aimed at improving national security through the enhancement of allies’ capabilities. The two allies work together to support each other’s national security and, along with other countries, they engage in joint military trainings such as the African Lion, which in 2022 took place in Morocco’s cities Agadir, Ben Guerir, Kenitra, Tan Tan, Taroudant and Al Mahbes.
Crucial in this context was the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara territories on December 10th, 2020, a period when other countries, like the United Arab Emirates, were opening diplomatic posts in the region.
The latest acquisitions
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that the US is Morocco’s main arms supplier, totalling 76% of its total arms import in the period 2017-2021. According to SIPRI, the US is the only country from which Morocco has acquired arms every year since 2009. The trend of collaboration between the two countries and Morocco’s army’s ongoing modernization does not seem likely to cease in the near future. After a noteworthy decrease of arms imports in 2019 (48 million USD total) and 2020 (12 million USD total), in 2021 Morocco acquired arms for a total value of 203 million USD from the US only (on a total expenditure of 225 million USD). The majority of Morocco’s pending and past acquisitions, both in terms of expenses and quantity of systems, are made from the United States, showing a cautious degree of diversification.
After US State Department’s clearance in 2019, Morocco is very likely to acquire twenty-five F-16C/D Block 72 jet fighters, together with upgrades to the twenty-three F‑16s it currently operates to the more recent F‑16V configuration. In line with these acquisitions, a few months later, the US State Department also approved the sale of F-16 ammunition for roughly 209 million USD, and in July 2021 the American company Raytheon Technologies was awarded the supply to Morocco of an indefinite number of F-100 install engines to be used on F-16 fighters. Moreover, in 2020 Morocco ordered twenty-four (plus twelve optional) AH-64E Apache attack helicopters from the American company Boeing, as part of a 4.25 billion USD deal; these deliveries are expected to begin in 2024. In the same year, Morocco has been negotiating with the US the sale of about four MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs — along with Paveway laser-guided and JDAM GPS-guided munitions. Despite the sale being blocked by members of the Congress after former President Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara region, President Biden’s arms sales policy gives hope to the FAR (Royal Armed Forces) that the sale might still be considered by the United States. Thanks to their ISR and warfare pods, among other features, the General Atomics’ SeaGuardian drones would strengthen Moroccan capabilities in the Western Sahara region conflict. Moreover, considering its maritime-focused capabilities, the SeaGuardian may be deployed in a wide range of missions above the Ocean — from surveillance to armed missions to the deployment of sonobuoys for both the research and tracking of submarines.
Algeria’s long-term relations with Russia might lead Morocco’s neighbour to buy Russian fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters along with Su-34s and Su-35s. However, the aviation cluster’s industrial director of Rostec, the producer of Su-57s, stated in 2020 that exports of the fighter jet would have been considered only after the delivery to the Russian army was completed, that is, probably not before 2028. In addition, although to date there have been no official proofs of the use of Su-57s by Russia in the War in Ukraine, the conflict is likely to slow down the possible sale, production, and delivery of the stealth fighters to Algeria. Either way, such move would outclass even the Moroccan upgraded F-16Vs, once again pushing Morocco to strengthen its fleet most probably with the fifth generation Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters, which would rebalance the North-African skies. Indeed, Morocco seems to be lobbying the United States in order to obtain an approval to acquire F-35 aircraft. Despite the sale not seeing any official concretization to date, Morocco is more likely to have its demands met by the United States thanks to the renewed relations with Israel, which could have a considerable impact in the lobbying process. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates offered to cover the cost for the F-35, according to Jafaj.
Morocco’s recent contacts with Israel in the field do not only concern American-built aircraft, but also Israeli systems. After the 2020 Abraham Accords, official ties with Israel have been resumed in multiple fields including security. In this sphere, in November 2021, Israeli and Moroccan Defence Ministers Benny Gantz and Abdellatif Loudiyi signed a Memorandum of Understanding laying the foundation for defence and intelligence cooperation between the two States. On the grounds of this agreement and of the long-standing security cooperation between the two countries, this year a deal was signed for the provision to Morocco of Barak MX air and missile defence system produced by IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries), which enables ground-to-air defence from a variety of threats. The drones’ sphere is also witnessing remarkable interactions. In 2020 Morocco received three Heron drones ordered six years earlier, which are likely being employed in the Western Sahara region for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) purposes only. Moreover, a new deal was signed between Morocco and IAI on Harop loitering munitions, also known as “kamikaze drones”. This deal would involve the acquisition by the Kingdom of Harop UAVs and the production of such systems in Morocco. The recurring deals, meetings, and official statements delivered by both parties suggest that the military-security industries are among the major ones for partnerships, and that these sectors will witness an increasing number of agreements and collaborations in the near future.
Staying in the Abraham system – that is, the structure of the Abraham Accords as a whole, and not only in relation to the Morocco-US-Israel agreement –, the United Arab Emirates recently acquired Rafale aircraft from France and is dealing for Chinese trainer jets in order to replace its old fleet of over fifty Dassault Mirage 200-9s. Morocco and UAE’s strong partnerships and shared alliances, among other factors, make the Kingdom very likely to receive part of the Mirage fleet from the Gulf State.
French aircraft has also been ordered in July 2022, as Airbus will provide Morocco with a fleet of H135 helicopters, especially for training missions purposes. Reports also indicate that Morocco acquired VL MICA surface-to-air defence systems as part of the 192-million-euro deal signed in 2020 with the French company MBDA. A similar system deployed in Morocco in 2021 to counter long range air threats is the FD-2000 produced by the Chinese CPMIEC.
The Kingdom is strengthening its drone capabilities thanks to the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2 from Turkey’s Baykar too — thirteen UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were delivered in September 2021, and it was reported that six more drones have been ordered. According to Oryx, one of the Bayraktar TB2s was sighted in the Western Sahara region less than two months after the delivery. The long endurance Turkish aircraft’s technologies might contribute to the Heron’s ISR missions and help support it and the Royal Air Forces in case of combat.
Lastly, aware of the increasing use of UAVs by other powers in the region, in 2019 Morocco acquired the Bukovel-AD drone detection and jamming system from Ukraine and the Ground Master 400 radar for UAV long range detection from French company Thales.
The reasons behind
As aforementioned, Morocco aims at using its military capabilities for defence purposes and deterrence to keep military stability in the area, in addition to the regional supremacy outlined in the five-year plan of 2017. The defence purposes should be looked at in a perspective that does not only encompass Morocco’s internal security, but that of its allies as well — the United States above all. The US is indeed concerned by the threat of attacks by Iranian missiles and UAVs in Morocco, Sudan, and its Middle Eastern and Gulf allied countries. As seen in the US Explanatory Statement for State and Foreign Operations of 2023 and the DEFEND Act of 2022 introduced in US Senate in June this year, the US is keen to address funds to the strengthening of these countries’ air capabilities. The latest acquisitions of systems such as the Israeli Barak MX, French VL MICA, Chinese CPMIEC and Ukrainian Bukovel-AD shall be well seen by Morocco’s allies as they are purely defensive and aimed at protecting not only military posts but also people and infrastructures from air threats. Indeed, the newest air defence base built in Sidi Yahya El Gharb, just around 60 km north-east of the capital city Rabat, has the purpose of securitizing the centre of the country. Coming to US-Morocco relations only, the Roadmap for Defence Cooperation 2020-2030 is the foundation of the current partnership in the security field. As stated in the Integrated Country Strategy (ICS) approved in April 2022, among the objectives of the partnership are Morocco’s military modernization and air force readiness, in order to maintain regional stability and timely respond to threats. The US considers Morocco’s role in Africa of primary importance to preserve such objectives, and the sales mentioned in the previous chapter prove the US’s reliance on its North African ally. Doubts concerning the tie between American trust and sales to Morocco may arise when it comes to the F-35 stealth fighters. Yet, it should not be forgotten that the fifth-generation American aircraft is considered one of the most powerful fighter jets in the world. As the aim of the military modernization is also a military balance in the region, the acquisition of the F-35 would tip the scales on Morocco’s side and would not represent a response to a neighbour’s acquisition. This move, instead, could be the first to push other countries to reinforce their fleets. However, if Algeria’s purchase of the Su-57 from Russia starts to see some kind of concretization, the F-35 should not be seen as a preventive measure but as a consequence of the eastern neighbour’s acquisition, again to rebalance skies in a constant game of deterrence.
In the Western Sahara region, Morocco’s confrontation with the Algeria-backed insurgent group Polisario Front is different. After the end of the ceasefire, unliterally declared by Polisario in November 2020, the threat of armed attacks by the group to the Moroccan army in the area increased, and the Kingdom’s acquisitions show its willingness to monitor the region more extensively in terms of land and time. In this state of affairs, Morocco’s interest in the MQ-9B SeaGuardian drone appears somewhat natural, as the American UAV is focused on ISR and can fly for over twenty-four hours at a considerable distance from its base. As already said, the main focus of these drones is ISR; yet, they might come in handy if the necessity arises to neutralise a threat. The SeaGuardian would also bolster the country’s fleet of UCAVs, as the current issue for Morocco is that only the Bayraktar TB2 and the Harop have combat capabilities, whereas the Heron is designed exclusively for ISTAR missions. The single use that can be done of the Harop loitering munitions explains Morocco’s intention to manufacture such drones on its territory. The internal production and the relatively lower costs will also allow Morocco to export such systems. This move well reflects the new positioning that the Kingdom is trying to obtain in the military industrial field.
Morocco aims at gaining partial independence for the production and maintenance of its aerial armed forces through the creation and expansion of specialised facilities. New facilities will be constructed in Sid i Slimane and Ben Guerir, the country’s fifth and sixth Air Bases, respectively, probably for the storage of the F-16s that Morocco may receive. Furthermore, April 2022 saw the signing of a strategic partnership between Morocco, Lockheed Martin, and Sabena Aerospace and SABCA, specialised in the production of components and MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) of military aircraft, both part of the Blueberry Group. The 15.000 sqm facility is being built at Benslimane Airport, near Casablanca. SABCA has had a subsidiary in Morocco since 2012, SABCA Maroc, which has already assisted in the maintenance of Morocco’s Dassualt Falcon jets and is expanding its facilities around Casablanca’s airport. SABCA operates among other production sites like Safran Electronics & Defense, which, in June 2022, also inaugurated the extension of its site. The involvement of Lockheed Martin in the partnership is due to the fact that the scope of the facility is to operate MRO&U (Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade) mainly on C-130 Hercules and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, both produced by the American colossus and operated by the Moroccan Kingdom’s Air Force. Again, having such facilities domestically will benefit the country under numerous aspects. Prices and times for the MRO of its own aircraft will be considerably reduced, as Morocco will be able to prioritise the MRO of its fleet without having to rely anymore on foreign assistance. For example, once Morocco will have received F-16V configuration upgrades, they are likely to be installed in the Benslimane facility. Concomitantly, the Kingdom itself will become an attraction pole for foreign customers in the region seeking for sustainment for certain aircraft, functioning as a weighty source of income for Morocco. Another relevant aspect of these enlargements involves the Moroccan society. This new facility launched by the Morocco-Blueberry-Lockheed Martin partnership will require up to 300 workers, most of which will be employed in specialised high-tech jobs, for which they will also receive training. This is one additional step in advancing Morocco’s expertise in the growing defence industry.
In regard to the military air balances, what emerges from this research is that Morocco is investing significant resources to safeguard itself maintaining its air space secure, preventing the emergence of a military inferiority scenario that would threaten the country. Morocco is one of the most important military actors in the north-African skies, but its latest acquisitions will strengthen it to a level that no other country or group in the region will be able to match in the short to medium term, assuming that the historical and current balance of alliances will not alter – which appears improbable. Specifically, the Kingdom operates a fleet that, despite the relatively large size and the recent acquisitions, is not great in number, compared to that of Algeria, for instance. Yet, the process that Morocco’s air force is undergoing is primarily one of modernisation and not enlargement. Indeed, outclassing neighbours’ air powers, along with Morocco’s strong alliances, would likely discourage them from military activities against the Kingdom.
Aware of the diverse threats posed by a number of actors, Morocco is increasing the deterrent capacity of its armed forces, especially the Moroccan Royal Air Force, where diplomacy is not welcomed. Consequently, the growing military expenditure will subtract resources from vital sectors such as healthcare, where inefficiencies have been evident in the past few years and about which citizens are largely dissatisfied. Indeed, Morocco’s healthcare expenditure as a proportion of GDP in 2019 was 4.5% lower than the global average and 7.2% lower than high income countries. Increasing investments in weaker sectors will be contingent on Morocco’s geopolitical surroundings as well. As long as the Kingdom’s efforts to build peaceful connections with its neighbours and beyond are not reciprocated by all of its counterparts, the decrease rate of military modernization might be insufficient, and growing militarization a logical measure. In any case, the military sector continues to thrive, and Morocco aspires to strengthen the MRO and aircraft – notably UAVs – production businesses in order to increase the country’s appeal to foreign clients and reduce its reliance on imports.
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Approximate coordinates: 34°17’49.91″N, 6°17’0.82″W.
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 Blueberry. 2022. Blueberry Group announces strategic partnership with the Kingdom of Moroccohttps://www.sabca.be/sites/default/files/Press%20Release%20MAM%20_0.pdf
SABCA. 2018. ASM AÉRO becomes SABCA MAROC
 Safran. 2022. Safran inaugurates the extension of its aircraft nacelle site in Casablanca https://www.safran-group.com/pressroom/safran-inaugurates-extension-its-aircraft-nacelle-site-casablanca-2022-06-21
 Supra note 59.
 Author’s calculations. The World Bank Group. 2022. https://databank.worldbank.org/reports.aspx?source=2&series=NY.GDP.MKTP.PP.CD&country=MAR#advancedDownloadOptions
Francesco Macci holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and is pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies at University of Glasgow, University of Trento, and Charles University Prague. He is a researcher at the Security and Defense working group of the European Student Think Tank (EST).