In the face of an armed conflict between Spain and Morocco: we win in the air and sea, draw on land

Tags : Spain, Morocco, war, army, arms, conflict, Ceuta, Melilla, Canary Islands, Western Sahara, Algeria,

In the face of an armed conflict between Spain and Morocco: we win in the air and sea, draw on land
Expert speaks after the claim of Canary Islands waters. Moroccan Abrams tanks, artillery, and F-16 fighters pose the greatest threats

Morocco maintains its intention to expand the waters it claims under its sovereignty, extending to the Canary Sea. The project, launched in December, was approved through two laws in the Moroccan parliament ten days ago. The ratification of the norms by the Senate and the king’s signature are still pending, so final approval will take a few more months.

This move by Morocco has raised concerns for the Spanish government, as the project could overlap Moroccan territorial waters with the waters of the Canary Islands.

Spain’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, traveled to Morocco and assured that the government of Pedro Sánchez is determined to dialogue with the authorities of the Alaouite kingdom, but in any case with a firm defense of Spanish territorial waters in the Canary Islands.

F-18s over the waters of the Canary Islands

Morocco’s initial announcement in December was followed by the Spanish Air Force’s release of the flight of two F-18 fighter-bombers over Canary waters, as reported here. The detail has also been reported in the Moroccan press.

This maritime sovereignty challenge has drawn attention to Morocco’s military capability, and even to evaluating the balance of power currently between Morocco and Spain in the military realm, in the event of a hypothetical conflict between the two countries.

Confidencial Digital consulted the current state of the Spanish armed forces and those of its southern neighbor with Josep Baqués, professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona, founding member of the Group of Studies in International Security, and collaborator of the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies (IEEE, the Ministry of Defense’s think tank) and the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (MADOC).

In recent years, Baqués has published in-depth analyses of the state and evolution of Morocco’s military power on land, sea, and air, especially in light of periodic news about the purchase of significant weapons systems (tanks, fighter-bombers, attack helicopters, etc.) by the armed forces of Mohamed VI.

Ceuta and Melilla demographics

This expert starts by considering the possibility of an armed conflict between Spain and Morocco as remote, especially regarding Moroccan ambitions over Ceuta and Melilla.

He believes that Moroccan authorities may instead rely on the passage of time: that is, demographic trends may lead to a predominantly Muslim and pro-Moroccan population in Ceuta and (especially) Melilla, forcing a change in the sovereignty of these two Spanish cities in North Africa. In that sense, he foresees that in a few decades, if these trends persist, some sort of Spanish-Moroccan co-sovereignty agreement over Ceuta and Melilla may be necessary.

Beyond Morocco’s long-term strategy to achieve that goal, Josep Baqués analyzes in detail the situation of the armed forces of both neighboring countries in the three areas of land, sea, and air.

Morocco goes shopping

In recent years, as indicated, Morocco has made significant investments in arms programs and has also received substantial military aid from the United States and Saudi Arabia, among other allied countries.

For example, between 2011 and 2012, it acquired 24 American F-16 fighter-bombers for $2.4 billion. Another 25 were authorized for sale to Morocco by the US State Department in March 2019.

In 2018, Moroccan land forces made a leap in quality with the incorporation of 162 M1A1 Abrams tanks, also acquired through the US surplus program.

More recently, the news was that (again) US authorities had given the green light for the sale of 36 Apache helicopters to Morocco. Also notable are the acquisitions of frigates to build a genuine navy.

Some analyses published by the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies agree with Josep Baqués in pointing out that each time a significant arms purchase by Morocco is announced, the recipient of this show of strength is Algeria, with which it has a strong regional rivalry, and the Polisario Front, its enemy in Western Sahara.

Moroccan victory in armored tanks

With all these precautions, Baqués explains to ECD the details of both armed forces, Spain’s and Morocco’s, in the three main military areas.

“The most evenly matched army between Spain and Morocco is the land army,” summarizes this expert, even suggesting that in a hypothetical war between the two countries, Spain “could suffer due to the manpower reduction it is experiencing.”

Josep Baqués analyzes, within the land forces, which army has better means and conditions in different categories.

The aspect already mentioned and most striking is the purchase of Abrams armored tanks. “Morocco doubles us in armored tanks,” he asserts, as the southern neighbor has around 400 Abrams compared to the 219 Leopard tanks in the Spanish Army.

The Abrams are not the only armored tanks in Morocco’s arsenal; it has also acquired a significant amount of Chinese equipment. According to Baqués, it has at least fifty VT-1 Chinese tanks, an adaptation of the Russian T90.

This expert highlights a circumstance in the realm of tanks: in Ceuta and Melilla, the Armed Forces have Leopard tanks, but not modernized models like those in bases on the Iberian Peninsula, which represents another disadvantage against Morocco.

That’s regarding tracked vehicles, because in terms of wheeled vehicles, Spain has 84 Centauro armored combat vehicles, with similar power to the Leopards but more vulnerable. In contrast, Morocco has AMX-10 tank destroyers, but they are more aged.

So Morocco’s notable superiority in the number of armored tanks remains a draw in combat vehicles and cavalry vehicles, such as the Cavalry Reconnaissance Vehicles (VEC), which are to be replaced by future 8×8 vehicles.

There is disparity in infantry transport units. Spain has two hundred Pizarro vehicles, capable of combat from within the vehicles, while Morocco does not have any similar models.

It is true that the Moroccan army would significantly outnumber the Spanish in tracked infantry transport vehicles, with over a thousand M-113 (known as TOA, Armored Tracked Transports).

However, it has many fewer Front Armored Vehicles (VAB, in French initials) for infantry transport, around 150, compared to Spain’s BMRs (also to be replaced by 8x8s), which number around 450.

So, beyond Morocco’s theoretical ‘victory’ in armored tanks, the situation is very evenly matched in land vehicles.

Artillery problems for Spain

The situation in artillery is very different. “In artillery, Morocco doubles Spain because Spain has lagged behind in recent years. We are very weak in that sense,” says the expert from the Group of Studies in International Security.

The Alaouite kingdom has self-propelled 155mm howitzers, the M-109, which Spain also has alongside Integrated Field Artillery Systems (SIAC), but in smaller numbers.

“We have a problem with self-propelled rocket artillery,” notes Josep Baqués, as Morocco has reinforced itself, especially with a lot of Chinese material, such as the MRLS (Multi Rocket Launcher System), multiple, self-propelled, armored rocket launchers that also “quadruple the range of Spanish artillery.”

This professor consulted by ECD suggests as a possible explanation that in the international missions in which Spain has participated in recent decades, artillery has not been used, and perhaps that is why it has not received as much attention.

Helicopters: Apache vs. Tiger

Regarding the ground aeromobile forces, the arrival of the Apache to the Moroccan army would cover the deficit it would have compared to the capabilities of the Spanish Tiger helicopters.

Considering all these variables, which are some of those that allow analyzing the two armies, Baqués concludes that Spain and Morocco would be very evenly matched in terms of ground forces, although the North African country has advantages in very important points such as armored tanks.

Morocco advances in the air: the F-16s

The balance, balanced on the ground, would become unbalanced in the air and especially at sea, in both cases in favor of Spain. The problem, focusing on the threats to Spain, is that Morocco is making notable progress in both areas.

“The advantage that Spain had in the air against Morocco was very great, but the F-16s, with very good radars and missiles, have partly covered that difference,” explains the professor from the University of Barcelona.

As already indicated before, and as Baqués points out, “Morocco has 23 very well-equipped F-16s, and plans to incorporate 25 more.”

In total numbers, Spain would enjoy a wide advantage: about 130 Spanish fighters (60 F-18s and 70 Eurofighters) compared to fewer than 50 Moroccans, not counting the Spanish (and also Moroccan) F-5s and the inferior-level Moroccan Mirage F-1s.

The key point is that the comparison is not as unbalancing in the Canary Islands, where the fleet of F-18s has been at a minimum, although the Air Force tries to maintain and even revive the maximum number of aircraft in operational condition. Additionally, at any given moment, Eurofighters could be sent from the Peninsula to bases like Gando (Gran Canaria) in a matter of hours.

The important thing is that, although a few years ago the Spanish air superiority would not even be discussed, now the F-16s that Morocco has bought from the United States do question that superiority.

As recounted in these pages, and also explained by Baqués, Moroccan fighters have a longer radar range, so in a potential confrontation with the F-18s from the Canary Islands, on paper they could detect Spanish planes 300 kilometers away and would have better chances of shooting them down as they have very powerful missiles: that is, Moroccan fighters see the Spanish much earlier than vice versa.

However, Spain has also recently reinforced its air-to-air missiles, and also last November the ‘Oceansky’ exercise was held again in the Canary Islands, in which F-18 and Eurofighter pilots trained to detect, identify, intercept, and destroy or neutralize enemy aircraft or missiles trying to violate the area of operations.

“If we were in a technical tie on land, we are not in the air; Spain still wins, but Morocco is advancing,” summarizes Josep Baqués, adding that, although there is no worrying scenario for now, the air defense of the Canary Islands and the situation – and the options for replacement – of the aircraft in Gando should be taken more seriously.

Spanish dominance at sea

“In the sea, the difference is overwhelming,” concludes Baqués. It is true that Morocco has taken steps to have a true high seas navy, beyond the surveillance of its coasts.

In recent years, it has bought four frigates, three of the Sigma class and one FREEM, the latter being the only one that, according to this expert, can be considered similar to the Spanish F-100 frigates – like the ‘Blas de Lezo’, the ‘Méndez Núñez’…-.

Unlike what has been pointed out in the other two armies, the consulted professor points out that Morocco has not advanced as much as expected, and Spain has indeed tried to ‘nurture’ the Navy, at least its greatest potentialities; hence the difference remains very important.

The greatest threat would come if Morocco’s interest in acquiring one or even two submarines materializes.

“If they had submarines, Spain could indeed suffer in a conflict, since, like all NATO countries, since the fall of the USSR, we have neglected anti-submarine defense,” explains Josep Baqués. At least, he adds, the F-110 frigates under project do have better anti-submarine defense.

Spy satellites

At another level, more novel, would be the fight from space. Morocco has its own spy satellite, something that has worried the military leaders due to this new possibility of obtaining data about the Spanish military deployment.

The launch of the Spanish satellite PAZ has balanced forces in this sense, and the device already supplies the Chief of the Defense Staff with images containing all kinds of information. Its capabilities have notably reassured the commanders.

The Strait, scenario of the conflict

The scenario of an armed conflict between Spain and Morocco seems very remote, despite temporary increases in tension, or the gestures of reaffirmation of its power that the Mohamed VI regime occasionally makes, as is the case now with territorial waters.

Nevertheless, a theoretical analysis like the one carried out by this collaborator of the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies and the Training and Doctrine Command of the Army allows for some possibilities to be ventured.

That hypothetical conflict would take place in the Strait of Gibraltar, around Ceuta and Melilla, and in the Canary Islands. “The conflict would be more in their terrain, and the question is what we could deploy there,” reflects Baqués, since, as he points out, it is of little use to have many tanks or other ground means in peninsular Spain if you cannot use them to, for example, repel an aggression in Ceuta and Melilla.

Baqués imagines a scenario in which Morocco would try to create what he calls “a prohibitive zone” in the Strait and around the two autonomous cities. With its F-16s and its incipient navy, it could try to hinder transportation from the peninsula, sink some ships, shoot down some fighters… to try to win over Spain in the field of public opinion, both nationally and internationally.

Public opinion, key

“The Moroccan authorities are not conditioned like the Spanish ones, and they would try to create an unsustainable situation for the current Spanish government. If Morocco shoots down seven of your planes and makes you lose 600 million euros in a few weeks, the Spanish public opinion can force you to sit down and negotiate,” he asserts.

All of this would be framed in an armed clash very limited in time, of days or weeks, resulting from a specific spark like the Perejil islet crisis. Because, in the end, in a larger-scale war, Morocco would lose anyway: “If things were to escalate, Spain can practically destroy the entire Moroccan air force.”

But a more limited conflict would also allow Morocco to present itself to the international community as fighting against colonialism, for Ceuta and Melilla, since “Spain has never made an international effort to explain the historical reasons legitimizing Spanish sovereignty over those cities.”

He returns to the beginning of his argumentation: Morocco leans more towards a long-term strategy based on the birth rate of Muslims in Ceuta and Melilla. But it is not impossible to envision a war scenario with this southern neighbor.

Source : El Confidencial digital

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