The Moorish Wanderer

Strategic Defence Review: Contributions for Military Reforms

Posted in Flash News, Moroccanology, Morocco, Read & Heard by Zouhair ABH on December 11, 2010

Any defence review should be strategic, if it has the ambition of rethinking the existing, or indeed in trying to think outside of the orthodox box in terms of defence policy. And as far as resources are concerned, any rational decision has to be reflected on the choices of doctrines, training requirements and anything that shapes up the broad lines of defence policy. Also, the numbers I will refer to from time to time are public, widely distributed and assumed to be a fair estimation of reality.

Do major military forces still need Main Battle Tanks (MBT) for their asymmetrical wars? How useful is a tank in the mountains of Afghanistan, or the Marshes of Iraq?

Morocco enjoy relatively stable institutions, and keeps at bay from significant exogenous geopolitical threats. The Sahara dispute is monitored by the UN through its MINURSO establishment, and hosts regular peace talks between the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario representatives. Despite the regular clashes and showdowns, both parties have little incentives to go back on the warpath, and in any case these remnant of cold war legacy are likely to be cleaned up over the medium or long term. In addition, the Moroccan army is increasingly integrated to international expeditionary forces commitment, whether in Africa (Cote d’Ivoire and Congo) Europe (Kosovo) and the Middle-East (during operation Desert Shield). NATO nomenclature considers Morocco a “non-strategic partner” which, even though it does not sound exciting, means that Morocco remains involved in joint manoeuvres with NATO armies, including on the national territory, joint intelligence briefings and meetings.

The Cold War ended some two decades ago. Countries all over the world are still struggling to adapt to a major change in strategic thinking and military doctrines; the recent conflicts like in Afghanistan, Iraq or the recurrent special operations around the African horn do provide valuable empirical results for rethinking strategy and tactics, but surprisingly enough -or indeed because of financial restrictions- there are no major innovation as far as conventional weapons are concerned: the US Army and Marine Corps for instance still use M1 Abrahams, M2 Bradley, Apache and M4 rifle, all of which were either produced prior to 1991, or are upgrades of pre-existing weapon systems. Setting aside special forces, the existing weapons are not fitted for optimal asymmetrical combat configuration like their cold war predecessor, though considerable efforts were consented in terms of personnel web gears, camouflage patterns and even new hardware like the extensive use of Piranha vehicles, or new replacement for the M4 carbine. France operates the brand-new AMX Leclerc, a tank that was first designed in the late 1970’s, and by the time it was effectively in service the whole warfare doctrine that laid its requirement was long gone; As a result, this piece of art saw limited service (and is mostly used as a parade-ground toy for July 14th).  If major economic and military powers struggle to find the right arms for constantly changing battle condition, at an affordable price, what sort of hardships the Moroccan forces would be facing? It is even more pressing when one has to take into account how reliable the Moroccan army is on foreign military supplies, thus compelling decision makers to be careful in their choices.

Apart from their institutional weaknesses -and the establishment is not entirely without blame, far from it- there is a great deal to be done about the staggering heterogeneous weapon systems available to the branches of the armed forces. These problems are exacerbated by the unbalanced ratios between different classes of weapons which, in case of high intensity conflict, can lead to sever handicaps on the field, putting soldiers in harm’s way without the adequate level of hardware superiority: there is here a strong assumption that the army has a consistent combat manoeuvre tactics, involving inter-arms operability coordinating mobility, fire-power and reliable intelligence or reconnaissance into a formidable task force. The institutional shortcomings can be dealt with at the political level, with the authorities setting a comprehensive agenda for structural reforms, the only viable solution to transform a wasteful behemoth and opaque institution into an juggernaut machine devoted to efficiency and high standards for defence.

Equipment heterogeneity is mainly due to the fact that right after 1956, Morocco started expanding its army at a high pace, and as such,

Italian-Moroccan Joint Activities, SFOR outfit, Bosnia, February 2001 (Picture: NATO)

tried buying up systems of weapons from many countries east and west, not necessarily to fend off external threats (the 1963 desert war with Algeria was small scale, and against an enemy that lacked the proper structures and resources beyond an organized guerilla movement) and more into asserting a certain political balance. However, things changed resolutely after the Green March and the difficult years of semi-state of war with Algeria -now a fully fledged military power with a ‘massive fire power‘ Soviet doctrine to go-, the armed forces, especially the ground forces, expanded into an aggregate of arms from France, Germany, Italy, USA, Soviet Union and Israel to name but a few, all hurriedly bought and misused against an enemy much less endowed with initial military resources, but highly mobile, experienced and allowed to draw on considerable resources from behind the Iron curtain, Libya, Algeria and Cuba. The trouble with diverse weapon systems is that heterogeneous standards render logistics largely ineffective: the 1976-1991 is littered with unfortunate occurrences of field commanders issued with the wrong spare parts for their vehicles, inadequate ammunition allocations and indeed an amateurish use of military hardware to name but a few. Because most of past engagements were on the ground, battle condition requires logistic units (transport regiments and battalions, regimental repair shops and hardware supply damps) to be fully operative and equipped with the proper spare parts; Their efficiency increases as they have standardized sets homogeneous vehicles with common parts and proven reliability. This is particularly cardinal when ammunitions are concerned: firearms in Morocco are too diverse: Soviet-made guns (AK-47 and its variants: AK-74, Romanian and Czechoslovakian versions), Western-made (obsolete MAS-36 and MAT-49, M16, FAMAS, H&K MP5, and even WW2 Italian sub-machine-guns) as well as new acquisitions (Singapore copies of Steyr Aug and SAR-80) use each a different type of ammunition, ranging from 5.56mm NATO bullets to parabellum. It is quite easy to prove that even with one type of firearm per country of origin, the possible calibration for each gun quickly lead to an inflated number of calibres to manage, a major cause of inefficiency, as well as increasing the likelihood combat units to be issued with the incorrect ammunitions. For instance, the AK-47 uses a 7.62 mm bullet (calibrated 7.62 x 39mm) so do some NATO firearms. however, these are calibrated into a standard 7.62×51 mm bullet, like the FAL (Fusil d’Assaut Léger). Both rifles are widely used in Morocco, and other firearms have a wider range of calibres: MAS-36 has a 7.5mm bullet, Beretta side-arms are 9mm parabellum. This is particularly bad when Morocco orders ammunition, and has therefore to put different orders for different types of ammunition, which not only increases costs for no sane purpose, but also complicates the delicate business of logistics. It is much wiser to scrap the obsolete weapons, and take up a unified set of calibres for light armament. There could be a limited range of calibres to be selected following use: light vs heavy machine guns (typically, that would be 5.56 or 7.62 NATO for individual weapons, and 12.7mm for heavy and support machine-guns) because Morocco is working hand in hand with NATO, the 5.56 mm or 7.62 mm NATO bullets can be good choice (although there is argument among the military about 5 mm ammo and its weaknesses of low velocity and lower probability of a first shot should kill). The ammunition choices are certainly determining the type of weapons the armed forces ought to retain or purchase, and that choice is contingent on the political decision of associating Morocco with UN and NATO interventions.

Sample of uniforms and outfits in the Moroccan Army. the obsolete 'Leopard' camouflage was inherited from the French army, and only elite units are issued with the garment, quite useless when it comes to desert warfare. (Picture: Aujourd'hui Le Maroc)

What applies to guns applies to spare parts for vehicles too: Morocco has a dozen types of vehicles, all of which come from different issuers. Tanks like M60 and M48 do have common spare parts, but these are useless as far as the T72, AMX-13 or VAB are concerned, and even equipment from the same seller have low commonality ratios when there is considerable discrepancy in service date (the commonality ratios are the strongest evidence in favour of integrated and standardized weapon systems). It is crucial for the army to renew its equipment indeed, but choices have to be made in terms of harmonized hardware. Hardware like the M48 Patton or AML armoured vehicle are definitely obsolete tough still kept in store -with all entailed inventory costs-, and so there is a need to either scrap or sell them off to other countries (Lebanon is building up its army to bridge the gap with Hezbollah militia. Good prospect customer), while retaining some for training and target practise purposes.

A good analogy for the ideal tank suited for desert warfare would be that of the French light tank AMX-13: it was designed in the early stages of cold war, and requirement were that of a light chassis with a powerful cannon (first 75mm, then 90mm and 105mm) and subject to possibilities of airborne transportation. Under some operational assumptions, Morocco can defend its southern and eastern borders quite effectively with a small but extremely mobile armoured task force with tanks lighter than regular MBTs, like the AMX-13, but less obsolete, and perhaps with a higher protection. The plausible axis of attack Algerian or Polisario troops would hypothetically launch would involve a massive use of armoured troops (a remnant of soviet-style blitzkrieg) and can carry on an in-depth penetration in Moroccan territory of about 400kms on plain fields, and because soviet-built tanks have a at best a slope engagement of 30° in mountain and hill regions, not more than 100 km. distances are roughly computed on tanks’ average autonomy, and without taking into account defensive actions from the Moroccan forces. Now, the ground forces have two ways to go: either assume battle will take place on our soil- or beyond borders, and behind Algerian lines. For the sake of appeasement and because wars ultimately are definitely a bad outcome, strategic outlines need to be defensive, although allowing for a margin strip of 100-150 km inside enemy territory and avoiding urban centres and subsequently, collateral damages: the purpose of such exercise is not seeking the complete destruction of the opposing force, not even on the basis of pre-emptive strikes; The nexus of any comprehensive military strategy is defence on the border, nothing more.

In any case, large scale battle tanks proved in the past to reach stalemate or very marginal gains for the winning side, an in that case unorthodox strategy could be the key in defeating the enemy. The idea behind tank concentration illustrates the Lanchester law: combined tank fire-power provides more than the mere sum of individual MBTs taken separately, and eventually obtains absolute fire superiority. There is however a paradoxical weakening of the armoured force as concentration makes them vulnerable to air strikes, a fact Morocco should take into account in building a new armoured corps, and an increased liaison with notably ‘hunter-tanks’ helicopters, like the Apache.

Hypothetical battle ground on Moroccan soil in the event of Algerian/Polisario attack. Assumptions attached are as follows: a) Morocco waits for an attack and adopt defensive plans. b) Attack is mainly led by tanks and other armoured vehicles. c) Active engagements are not sought

So there it is: a comparatively small but highly mobile and comprehensive task force to intervene when necessary: MBTs (weighting between 32t and 48t) APCs and AIFV for mechanised infantry, light recon tanks, mobile support and anti-aircraft artillery, and finally engineer vehicles for landscape contingencies, the ground element of a coalesced task force relying on air superiority, an element helicopter can achieve in direct confrontation situations (Operation Desert Storm brutally ended the myth of modern Blitzkrieg by reminding military strategists that armoured vehicles are vulnerable when friendly air cover is not guaranteed). To that effect, and in addition to the SA-342 Gazelle already existing, more Apaches need to be purchased, and can be financed either by selling some material, or indeed getting a deal with the United States (The USA have been giving Egypt some $ 1.3 Billion a year since 1979 in military aid, Morocco can certainly manage to get a fraction of it, large enough to buy a squadron or two). The same applies to other vehicles: NATO vehicles are increasingly fitted for greater commonality parts ratios and are therefore a good trade to renew the existing equipment. The present spending in ground forces is roughly MAD 14.Bn (2009 Budget) and at the time, the Forces Armées Royales spent MAD 10.2 Bn in new acquisitions and maintenance equipment. Because there is much secrecy about these transactions, it is difficult to assess the way things are heading: is there an effort in modernizing ? In fact, there is: I remember 3 years ago I couldn’t help but notice that guards posted around the GHQ (near the Royal Palace) the late Prince Abdellah’s palace (near Mohamed V university) or indeed the Parliament garrison, were issued new rifles instead of the old MAT-49, rifles that looks very similar to the Steyr AuG -a very fine piece of armoury- that turned out to be Singaporean copies SAR-21 (so-called Bull-pup rifles like the SA-80 or the FAMAS). It would look good if the same quality rifles were issued to all corps.

AH64 'Apache' Tank hunter

Other branches of the armed forces do not face the same acute problems as the army does: Air-force fleet looks more homogeneous, even though it has some obsolete planes -in the process of being either retrofitted, upgraded or entirely renewed- (hell, some of them feature on Buck Danny’s comics !) either because of over-extended service, or because of shifting standard mission assignments make the existing equipment no longer fit for service. This might have to do with the fact that requirement are pretty high in that branch. The air-force, besides its purely military assignments, is likely to be increasingly associated with other tasks, ranging from forest fire-fighting or more generally in monitoring coastal borders to prevent illegal immigrants, a task jointly carried out with the Navy. As for the primary armament, some efforts have been made to buy missiles to make up for their temporary disadvantage in air superiority, until F-16 and JF-17 deals are closed. JF-17, the Chinese plane could be a good deal though, as a temporary and inexpensive replacement by the time a more suitable alternative -and its funding- comes along.

Surprisingly enough, the navy got interesting bargains for its ships; This might have to do with the fact that Morocco is involved with joint crackdowns on illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The trouble with ships is that Morocco has to restrict its naval ambition to coastal defence, para-military assignment, and perhaps add a helicopter carrier to its existing fleet (that’s as far as I can get with boats.)

There was a mention earlier on the need for a combined task force to ensure a mobile outfit. That means ground forces will need to free themselves from the rigid, mass armies-like units; For instance, brigades should become ad-hoc structures: as far as the regimental level is concerned, arms classification (Mot. infantry, Armoured, Engineer, Artillery, etc…) can be kept as is, but staff level has to be broken down to allow for a more flexible structure: brigades as large units would not consist of definite units, but rather a contingent aggregate of regiments, the contingency being  specifically the ground field. Brigades would have a larger engineer component if it is expected to engage in difficult landscape.  It is becoming a common practise among NATO armies to break down their large units into temporary combined regiments, so as to fit the terrain and its constraints by increasing availability of a specific expertise: the 4.500 strong German expeditionary force in Northern Afghanistan consists mainly of Explosive Ordinance Disposal units and 233rd Mountain battalion (Gebirgsjäger), units that are more than qualified to evolve in a mountainous, IED-littered environment.

ISAF German vehicle in Afghanistan. the painted Palm tree is similar to the WW2 Afrikakorps symbol

It is quite astonishing to read that Moroccan ground forces can field only 3 camel corps (albeit independent and thus enjoying a great deal of operational flexibility) when it has 2/3 of its troops in the Sahara. One way to remedy to these shortcomings is to create LRDG-like units. The British and Commonwealth armies provide interesting examples of desert commando warfare that can be put to good use. the LRDG (Long-Range Desert Group) was an aggregate of commandos raiding behind German-Italian lines during WW2, with light armament, substantial resources and an outstanding human element. Far from seeking sophisticated weapons for their assignments, they relied on rustic Jeeps and Vickers machine guns, or even camels when there was need for, but most importantly, an in-depth intelligence with local Arab and Bedouin tribes. Up to 1958, Morocco did have similar experienced and battle-hardened soldiers (the MLA-South) that could provide some interesting insights for new commando units, specialized in desert warfare, trained in local dialects and able to mount deep penetration raids in enemy territories. In short, the Moroccan army has to learn from past battles against the Polisario, and develop contingency plans for reprisal raids in any event.

All these proposals are aimed at halving defence expenses: out of the MAD 34.62 Bn budget devolved to defence, there’s a great deal of waste going on. Scrapping unused and obsolete equipment, as well as investment in standardized arsenal should meet a target objective of 2-3% defence expenditure on GDP, i.e. reaching the level of 2000 (2.3%)

14 Responses

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  1. fawzi said, on December 13, 2010 at 08:18

    Little Red Riding Moroccan Subject exclaims: “My, what big guns you have!” To which the Makhzen replies: “The better to oppress you with”. And it swallowed us whole, too.

  2. Mouka said, on December 13, 2010 at 15:06

    Interesting article. I wonder if you grew up in a military family? I actually did, my dad was one of the first victims of the Sahara conflict (war) in 1976. I will let you in on a secret: The Moroccan “Makhzen”, not the Makhzen as a symbol of the Moroccan establishment, corps had back then the “standard” nicknamed “3isha twila”, which is nothing but bolt rifles. They engaged the Polisario that were far better equipped and far better trained: The Polisario did most of its training in Cuba and was equipped with AK-47. It will to no surprise that the entire unit my dad belonged to was wiped clean. Of its 104 members, only 7 survived. It took the Moroccan army 6 days before they regained control of the area where the clash occurred. My dad, alond with 96 others were buried in a common “hole”. We never knew where this “hole” was. I don’t care much about it anyway. It is a very painful memory for me.
    Do you think that a government that treats this poorly its soldiers has changed this dramatically in the last 3 decades? It’s a rhetorical question. Everybody knows that the Moroccan army was NEVER meant to fight wars with no one, just to control the local population.
    Things have slightly, let me emphasize the word “slightly” once more, since then, but there was no major change in attitudes or goals. The army is a control tool, and this explains why Morocco has such a hard time adjusting to the new realities on the ground. Any war with Algeria would have disastrous consequences, both militarily and politically.
    Military consequences are obvious, so no need to linger there. Political consequences of destabilizing the region are far more serious. Its consequences play in the hand of the Moroccan government. The “powers to be” cannot afford it.

    • The Moorish Wanderer said, on December 13, 2010 at 20:21

      I do agree with you all along the line. In a way, I have some relatives that served, and I have the greatest respect for the men and women in uniform. It is a shame the victims of the 1976 war were never properly honoured (just because Hassan II was desperate not to seem like he recognized Polisario as a regular opponent). Does it sound odd from a self-confessed left-wing radical? perhaps.
      Again, it is true the Moroccan army is more designed to suppress any dissent, that explains why it defended so poorly the Sahara early in the war against Polisario. btw, the bolt rifle you refer to is the standard issue MAS36, a WW2 weapon that was certainly not designed to be used in dry conditions.

      • fawzi said, on December 14, 2010 at 08:30

        “I have the greatest respect for the men and women in uniform”

        Because…they blindly follow orders?

        I had my doubts about the extent of your demagoguery, but you’re certainly quashing them in a hurry.

        • The Moorish Wanderer said, on December 14, 2010 at 11:22

          nope. I respect them because they are potentially -whether they wanted it or not- in harm’s way. Oh, and uniforms are not just military: firefighters too (and police to a certain extent). It is more a matter of principles that can hardly apply to Moroccan context. I do believe that as individuals, uniformed men and women are just as victims of Makhzen as civilians.

          Where did you spot demagogy?

          • fawzi said, on December 14, 2010 at 13:39

            That’s one hell of a thwarted world view!

            The Makhzen is a collection of individuals. The royal family, the entourage of the king, notables, clerics, and a whole lot of foot soldiers. The latter cannot be victims of the Makhzen unless they were kidnapped and enslaved. They made a voluntary decision to serve and protect a regime, and they should be held responsible for that decision.

            You are a fascinating character, Zouhair. Tell me…do you also think Mohamed 6 is a victim of the Makhzen too? If one adheres to your line of thought, he is blameless as an individual too. The poor guy just got sucked in by this overpowering – almost supernatural – entity. Do you have any understanding of personal responsibility and accountability whatsoever? Or are you one of those who think Hitler’s foot-soldiers were poor victims of brainwashing, that islamists are victims of precarious economic conditions, and that psychopaths are victims of their parents and the school bully?

            I believe sentences such as “I have the greatest respect for the men and women in uniform” to be nothing but sophistry. They’re profuse with demagoguery to anyone who is remotely familiar with the part the “the men and women in uniform” played in oppressing Moroccans throughout les années de plomb.

            • The Moorish Wanderer said, on December 23, 2010 at 11:41


              you are being devious on this one 🙂 I did not say that individuals are indiscriminately victims. High up, there’s a wider margin in changing things, or standing up to principles. Ordinary Policemen, servicemen and ‘Merdas’ and the like are not. That was my point.

              As for demagogy, does it really apply to me in view of the traffic I get on this blog? seriously?
              I understand you are being a pacifist, and that’s quite honourable a view to hold. I am however, more interested in how liberals or radicals can carry on things. Still and all, I do enjoy your comments 😀

              • fawzi said, on December 24, 2010 at 15:24

                Arrrgh…I am not a pacifist! Tyranny is not defeated with flowers and pretty thought.

                The margin that a peon has to affect change is not illusory. It exists and plenty of courageous people put their lives on the lines to right wrongs. They are not innocent bystanders in the system. They enable it!

                Demagogy exploits emotions and nationalistic sentiments. It has nothing to do with numbers.

          • fawzi said, on December 18, 2010 at 15:34

            Excerpt from a short story by Thoreau:

            The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.
            In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the
            judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves
            on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men
            can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
            Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others–as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders–serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without _intending_ it, as God. A very few–as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the
            great sense, and _men_–serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

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  5. Manus MacManus said, on March 23, 2011 at 07:33

    This article mainly dealt with logistical and weapons inter- operability shortcomings. However, it has failed to tackle the geo-political realities in the region. With an increasingly belligerent NATO member in the North, a global hegemonic superpower in the west (separated only by the Atlantic Ocean) and a self-evident Algerian military dominance in the east, Morocco ‘s military options are extremely limited if not exclusively restricted to policing its own borders or maintaining the regime’s survival in case of any internal threat.

    • Zouhair Baghough said, on April 4, 2011 at 20:53


      The primary objective was not necessarily to discuss geo-political implications. The way I see it, the Austrian case is a good benchmark: neutrality, i.e. defensive warfare, and an increasing involvement with UN interventions.

      Now, the Algerian neighbour might be a potential threat, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for some defensive operations within their own border (by defensive I mean a limited intervention zone of 10-15km strip in their borders) the objective of which is simply to deter any further attacks.

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