American F-35 could become part of an African customer’s fleet
Multiple sources have hinted at a potential upgrade of the Moroccan Air Force. The buzz is about an interest in acquiring F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft from the United States. This comes as Morocco’s largely third-generation fleet experiences a dip in its standing due to Algeria’s rapidly growing air warfare capabilities.
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Since 2011, Algeria has been investing in fighters and ground-based air defenses, primarily to deter a Libya-style Western assault. This defensive stance comes as the United States and its allies show signs of training simulations for an assault on the African state. This development adds an interesting twist to the already tense relationship between Rabat and Algiers, particularly over the contentious issue of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is Morocco’s close military integration with NATO. Morocco, along with Jordan, is one of the only two Arab states that has provided military equipment to Ukraine for its ongoing war with Russia. This has intensified the security challenges perceived by both Rabat and Algiers.
Algeria is more advanced
However, the Moroccan Air Force currently falls short in countering Algerian air power. This is not only due to its limited ground-based air defenses, where Algeria’s are amongst the world’s most advanced, but also its limited fighter capabilities.
Algeria’s multirole fighter units are predominantly composed of advanced ‘4+ generation’ aircraft, such as the Su-30MKA and MiG-29M/M2. These heavyweight beasts are supplemented by mid-weight MiGs. In stark contrast, the Moroccan fleet is less advanced and falls into the lightweight or ‘very light’ categories. This includes 23 fourth-generation- F16C/D fighters, which, despite being fourth-generation jets, utilize mechanically scanned radars – technology now deemed antiquated. Morocco’s fleet also includes 22 F-5E/F and 26 Mirage F1 fighters – both lightweight third-generation designs that have long been considered obsolete.
The Su-57 is also a factor
There are rumblings that Morocco might procure second-hand Mirage 2000 fighters from the United Arab Emirates. However, these aircraft are comparable in size and performance to older F-16s and would still fall short of Algeria’s high-performing Su-30MKAs or MiG-29Ms. The Moroccan jets’ limited electronic warfare capabilities and access to standoff weapons, coupled with their lack of stealth, would leave them highly susceptible to Algerian ground-based air defenses.
Adding fuel to the fire, there are growing indications that Algeria might acquire Su-57 fifth-generation fighters from Russia. If this happens, it could further tip the scales, strengthening Algeria’s dominance in the skies.
Help from Israel?
There’s a rising chorus within Morocco advocating for the country to leverage its relationship with Israel to gain access to the exclusive F-35 fighter jet. So far, the jet has only been sold to four non-western countries, namely South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Israel itself.
In November 2021, a pivotal meeting took place between Israeli Defence Minister Benny Ganz and his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi. During this meeting, the two nations furthered their defense agreements, spurred on by Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s interest in acquiring F-35s with Israel’s assistance.
This meeting happened around the same time as the United Arab Emirates was making strides towards acquiring permission to purchase F-35s, largely due to its expanding ties with Israel. The recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by Israel announced on July 17, has only served to strengthen the bond between these two nations.
Israel’s influence in the United States also plays a significant role in influencing arms export policies to the Arab world. It’s worth noting that Israel and Algeria have a conflict-ridden past, with Israel nearly launching air strikes on the African state in the 1980s, only to be deterred by Algeria’s deployment of top-end interceptors for patrols.
Morocco, along with Jordan, holds one of the longest records of strategic cooperation with Israel among Arab states. This collaboration included the sharing of sensitive intelligence under the directive of Moroccan King Hassan II, which greatly contributed to the outcome of the Six-Day War, resulting in the defeat of Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria.
The former Israeli military intelligence chief, Major General Shlomo Gazit, revealed in 2016 that the King had shared intelligence recordings of private meetings among Arab leaders discussing their war strategies. This intelligence was instrumental in helping Israel understand the Arab states’ lack of war preparedness, allowing Israel to launch attacks on June 5.
In search of allies
While it remains uncertain whether Morocco can afford the F-35, the potential for this fighter jet to be exported more broadly to third-world states is a significant consideration as we move into the 2030s. As the demand from America’s NATO allies and Pacific partners is largely met, sales to Morocco could prove advantageous to Western interests. This could provide greater access to intelligence on Algeria’s borders due to the global connection of all F-35s, generate further revenues for the program, and put additional pressure on Algerian defenses.
However, it’s important to note that fighters sold to third-world nations are not only consistently downgraded, but also strictly controlled in terms of operational parameters, including deployment and flight locations. Consequently, Moroccan use of the F-35 is not expected to undermine Western Bloc interests.
However, considering the fighter’s cost, vulnerabilities, and the assets Algeria already has to potentially counter stealth aircraft, acquisitions in small numbers are unlikely to significantly alter the military balance in Northwest Africa.
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