17 Nov 2009
Arming the Maghreb
Old-fashioned geopolitical concerns have created a resurgent arms marketplace in the northern corner of the Maghreb, Des Carney writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Des Carney for ISN Security Watch
Significant military agreements undertaken by Morocco, Algeria and, belatedly, Libya, have strengthened the perception that the Maghreb is in the midst of a lucrative regional arms race fuelled by buyers and sellers alike.
In addition, recent deals have moved away from ‘hit and run’ opportunities to combine heavy weaponry with long-term technology development, training and support programs, offering well-paid opportunities for international arms dealers to combine weapons sales with foreign policy.
Chiefly, outdated equipment, regional rivalry and the threat of Al-Qaida in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist outfit born in the Algerian civil war and active across the Sahel belt, have spurred the arms sales that are allowing selling countries to strengthen their political alliances in the region.
In March 2006, energy-rich Algeria, the second-largest supplier of gas to the EU behind Russia, signalled its intention to upgrade its military by signing a $7.5 billion deal with Russian state-run Rosoboronexport that includes 28 Su-30MK jet fighters, 180 T-90 tanks, two submarines and several air defense systems. To sweeten the deal, Moscow forgave Algeria's $4.74 billion of Soviet-era debt.
Since then, Algeria has earmarked the development of its own military industry as a component of major deals and indicated that it is moving away from the traditional French and Russian arms suppliers, partly to strengthen its negotiating hand but also to secure common security agreements.
Recent reports suggest that Anglo-Italian Company Agusta Westland is close to securing a $5 billion deal for 100 helicopters that would see roughly half of the fleet assembled in Algeria. The reports coincide with a security cooperation agreement between the UK and Algeria signed by British Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth on a visit to Algiers that includes officer training and the exchange of security information between the two countries.
The Algerian government is also seeking tenders for four stealth frigates, pitting Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems, France’s DCNS, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Fincantieri against each other. A reported $11.6bn offer from Fincantieri would see two of the frigates constructed in Algeria as part of a policy to revive the shipyard at Mers-el-Kebir.
To a large extent, Algeria’s purchases are part of an ongoing counterinsurgency strategy against AQIM that is overwhelmingly military in nature. Crucially, Algeria’s relative experience and geographical position at the forefront of the battle with Islamic extremism in the region have allowed foreign policy concerns in international capitals to dovetail nicely with the aspirations of arms sellers.
But Algeria’s geopolitical rivalry with Morocco, with whom it is at loggerheads over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, cannot be discounted as a motivating factor behind the purchases, and there seems to be a Reaganite policy of ‘beggar thy neighbor’ that would force Rabat to concede political ground in the region.
Morocco, for its part, is wary that it will lose strategic significance as a regional security partner next to an overwhelmingly superior Algeria and, despite lacking the resources of its neighbor, responded to the Algerian deal with Russia by purchasing 24 Lockheed Martin F-16 jets from the US in a $2.4 billion deal. The purchase came on top of a 2005, €350 miliion ($523 million) deal with France to upgrade its fleet of 27 Mirage F-1 fighters.
France, which maintains strong political and security ties with its Maghreb neighbors, was dismayed that its former colony rejected a €2.2 billion ($3.1 billion) offer of 18 Dassault Rafale fighters in favor of the F-16s, and lost further ground in the sellers’ race when the Moroccan Royal Navy sanctioned the $875 million purchase of three multi-mission frigates from Schelde Naval Shipbuilding of the Netherlands. Paris gained some consolation when Morocco agreed to buy a FREMM frigate from DCNS in a $710 million deal.
Counterterrorism and the arms boom
Morocco’s military spending is also derived in part from counterterrorist policy, though the immediacy of the threat is less than in Algeria. Moreover, the timing of its forays into the arms market seems an attempt to match Algeria and subsequently to shore up its geostrategic importance in the region.
Morocco’s efforts have found favor in the US, where significant foreign military sales are subject to strict congressional approval in order to remain tightly aligned with military policy.
While the US has adopted a multilateral strategy of engagement with the Maghreb that involves, inter alia, training, support and joint military manoeuvres through US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, its military sales to and privileged cooperation with Morocco signal an intention to counterbalance Algeria’s military superiority and in turn gain a strong and lasting foothold in the region.
Despite a significant increase in security cooperation with Algeria, the US has so far been reluctant to provide the energy producer with sophisticated weaponry that might add to the latter’s regional supremacy.
A similar story is now enfolding in Libya. Owing to a prolonged stint in international isolation that ended after Colonel Muammar Gadhafi abandoned Libya’s nuclear program in 2003, most of the country's military arsenal is Soviet-era and is easily the most dilapidated of the regional powers. Its decision to revamp its military capacities from the ground up on the back of renewed oil and gas exploitation was not unexpected, but it has once again put international sellers on red alert.
The US has shown reluctance to involve itself with Libya, but France is reportedly offering a $5.8 billion package that combines refurbishment, armored vehicles, helicopters and the same Rafale fighters that were rejected by Morocco. The UK, meanwhile, is looking to provide security training and counterterrorism support.
Moscow, on the other hand, has been quick to reinforce its former Soviet-era ties with Tripoli. Russia’s Interfax news agency reported recently that Libya intends to buy 20 Sukhoi attack jets from Rosoboronexport in a $1 billion deal. Not shy to reproduce an old trick, Russia forgave Libya $4.5 billion of its Soviet-era debt in return for lucrative energy and arms deals.
Russia, which operates on the fringes of the war on terror, has differing motives to other powers and is primarily concerned with its control of European gas supplies.
Dr Michael Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies in Massachusetts, told ISN Security Watch that “Russia is very interested in cementing ties with the Maghreb, in part to retain its dominance in the export of natural gas to Europe and to frustrate efforts by the EU to reduce reliance on Russia by increasing reliance on North African oil and gas.”
Combating threats to the regime and policing its porous borders – which would likely win support among Fortress Europe – are at the forefront of Libya’s defense policy, but the military hegemony of Algeria, its neighbors to the West, an influx of petrodollars and competing designs on regional leadership are likely to spur further purchases in the future.
Des Carney is a freelance researcher and writer based in New York, US. His areas of interest include state transformation, informal politics and non-state social forces.
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