Countering Algerian Air Power: Are Strengthening Defence Ties With Israel Morocco’s Path to Acquiring F-35 Stealth Fighters?

The Moroccan Air Force has been reported by multiple sources to be interested in acquiring F-35 fifth generation fighter aircraft from the United States, as the country’s largely third generation fleet sees its standing continue to diminish in the face of neighbouring Algeria’s rapidly expanding aerial warfare capabilities. Algerian investments in fighters and ground based air defences have been made since 2011 largely with deterring a Libya-style Western assault in mind, and as the United States and its allies have shown some signs of training simulating an assault on the African state. Rabat’s relations with Algiers have often been highly tense, however, particularly over the issue of Moroccan claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara. The fact that Morocco’s armed forces are closely integrated with those of NATO, with the country alongside Jordan being one of just two Arab states to have provided military equipment to Ukraine for its ongoing war with Russia, has added further dimensions to the security challenges both Rabat and Algiers see in one another. The Moroccan Air Force, however, is largely obsolete to counter Algerian air power, not only due to its very limited ground based air defences, where Algeria’s are among the world’s most capable, but also due to its limited fighter capabilities.  

Where the large majority of Algerian multirole fighter units are made up of advanced ‘4+ generation’ aircraft such as the Su-30MKA and MiG-29M/M2, with most being heavyweight aircraft supported by medium weight MiGs, the much smaller Moroccan fleet is comprised entirely of less advanced aircraft which would fall into lightweight or ‘very light’ categories. Alongside 23 fourth generation F-16C/D fighters, which are relatively baseline fourth generation jets that use mechanically scanned radars today considered obsolete, Morocco fields 22 F-5E/F and 26 Mirage F1 fighters, which are both very light third generation designs that have for decades been considered obsolete. Although Morocco is speculated to be set to receive Mirage 2000 fighters second hand from the United Arab Emirates, these are comparable in their sizes and performances to older F-16s and would still not match Algeria’s first tier Su-30MKAs or second tier MiG-29Ms in performance. Their very limited electronic warfare capabilities and access to standoff weapons, as well as a lack of stealth, would also leave the Moroccan jets highly vulnerable to Algerian ground based air defences. Growing signs that Algeria will acquire Su-57 fifth generation fighters from Russia have the potential to only make its advantage even more overwhelming. 

A growing number of Moroccan sources have called for the country to seek to leverage its ties with Israel to gain access to the F-35, which has only been sold to four non Western countries including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Israel itself. In November 2021 a meeting between Israeli Defence Minister Benny Ganz and his Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi saw the two further defence agreements, and reportedly followed expressions of interest by Moroccan King Mohammed VI in acquiring F-35s with Israel’s help. These meetings came at a time when the United Arab Emirates had made progress towards gaining permission to acquire F-35s in part through its expansion of ties with Israel. Israel’s more recent recognition of Moroccan claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara, reported on July 17, have further cemented ties between the two states, while its influence in the United States has been an important factor influencing arms export policies to the Arab world. Israel and Algeria have a long history of conflict, with the former having come close to launching air strikes on the African state in the 1980s but being successfully deterred by the latter’s deployment of top end interceptors for patrols.

Morocco itself, alongside Jordan, has one of the longest histories of strategic cooperation with Israel among Arab states, which included the passing of sensitive intelligence under the orders of Moroccan King Hassan II preceding the Six Day War which helped facilitate the defeat of Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria. Former Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Shlomo Gazit revealed in 2016 that the king had passed to Israel intelligence recordings of highly sensitive meetings among Arab leaders discussing their war plans, which were key to shaping an Israeli understanding that the Arab states were ill prepared for war – allowing Israel to call what appeared to be an Arab bluff by launching attacks on June 5.

While the affordability of the F-35 for Morocco remains highly uncertain, the possibility that the fighter will be more widely exported to third world states remains significant moving into the 2030s as the demand of America’s NATO allies and Pacific partners are largely met. Sales to Morocco could be highly beneficial to Western interests, providing greater access to intelligence on Algeria’s borders due to the connection of all F-35s globally, generating further revenues for the program, and placing further pressure on Algerian defences. American fighters sold to the third world in particular are not only consistently downgraded, but also very strictly controlled in how they can operate including which bases they can deploy to and where they are allowed to fly, ensuing Moroccan use of the F-35 will not in any way undermine Western Bloc interests. Due to the fighter class’ cost and multiple vulnerabilities, however, acquisitions in inevitably very small numbers are not expected to significantly alter the military balance in Northwest Africa particularly when considering the kinds of assets Algeria already deploys to potentially counter stealth aircraft.