Morocco, a North African country with a long history of military cooperation with the West, has been facing challenges in modernizing its main battle tank fleet due to the unintended consequences of conflicts taking place in various parts of the world. Morocco’s plans to acquire Merkava MK3 tanks from Israel, M1A1 Abrams tanks from the United States, and T-72M tanks from the Czech Republic have all been hindered by the ongoing wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) have been seeking to upgrade their armored capabilities as part of the strategic vision of King Mohammed VI, who has been investing in new combat equipment, training, and simulation devices for the Royal Armored Corps.
Morocco’s tank modernization plans have been significantly hindered by the conflicts taking place in various parts of the world, which have affected its ability to acquire new tanks or upgrade its existing ones. Morocco has been left with an outdated and insufficient tank fleet, which could compromise its security and deterrence in the region. Morocco will have to find alternative sources of tanks, or negotiate with its partners to resume the delivery of the tanks it had ordered, in order to achieve its strategic vision of developing a modern and capable Royal Armored Corps.
Morocco’s current tank inventory consists of about 1,000 tanks, mostly of diverse origin, such as the T-72, VT-1A, M1A1SA and M1A2M, and M60A3/A3TTS Patton. Most of these tanks are outdated and require modernization to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
One of Morocco’s main objectives was to acquire 200 Merkava MK3 tanks from Israel, which are considered one of the world’s most advanced and effective armored vehicles. Morocco is actively seeking a more diversified range of Israeli weapon systems. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Morocco has emerged as a significant client of Israeli defence industries.
The Merkava tanks would provide Morocco with superior firepower, advanced armor protection, and technological advancements that would greatly enhance its combat effectiveness and operational readiness. However, the potential deal was jeopardized by the outbreak of the Israeli-Hamas war in May 2023, which escalated into a regional conflict involving Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The war has strained Israel’s military resources and diplomatic relations, making it unlikely that it would be able to deliver the tanks to Morocco in the near future.
The Merkava tank holds a significant place in Israel’s defense industry and is considered one of the world’s most advanced and effective armored vehicles. Developed and manufactured by Israel Military Industries, the Merkava has played a pivotal role in Israel’s defense strategy since its introduction in the late 1970s. Over the years, it has undergone several upgrades and improvements to maintain its superiority on the battlefield.
The potential acquisition of Merkava tanks would represent a significant boost to its armored warfare capabilities. The Merkava’s superior firepower, advanced armor protection, and technological advancements would greatly enhance the Moroccan Armed Forces’ combat effectiveness and operational readiness.
Moreover, the sale of Merkava tanks to Morocco could also pave the way for closer defense cooperation between Israel and Morocco. The two countries recently normalized their diplomatic relations, and further collaboration in the defense sector would strengthen their bilateral ties while contributing to regional stability. Morocco and Israel have a long history of military and intelligence cooperation but have no official diplomatic ties, but they have since established a close relations and in 2020, after resuming diplomatic relations since suspension in 2000. Israel signed a defense pact with Morocco in November two years ago, amid plans to advance national security interests with Arab countries that have drawn closer to it. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid travelled to Morocco in August 2021 for the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat to that country since 2003.
Another option for Morocco was to acquire additional M1A1 Abrams tanks from the United States, which are also among the world’s best tanks. Morocco has a strong military partnership with the United States, and has participated in several joint exercises and operations, such as the African Lion and the Flintlock.
Morocco was hoping to receive 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks from the United States, which would complement its existing fleet of 222 M60A3 tanks. However, the delivery of the Abrams tanks was also delayed by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which erupted in April 2023, following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. The United States, as a NATO ally, has been providing military assistance to Ukraine, including the transfer of 45 T-72 tanks that were upgraded by the Czech Republic. These tanks were originally intended for Morocco, but were diverted to Ukraine without Rabat’s permission, violating a maintenance contract between Morocco and the Czech company Excalibur Army.
The unauthorized transfer of the T-72 tanks to Ukraine angered Morocco, which demanded compensation from the Czech Republic and Israel, which had a stake in the deal. Morocco had purchased 136 T-72B tanks from Belarus in the early 2000s, and had contracted Excalibur Army to upgrade them to the T-72M standard, which would improve their mobility, firepower, and protection. Morocco had received only 14 of the upgraded T-72M tanks for crew training, and was expecting to receive the rest of the batch by the end of 2023. However, the Czech company decided to send the remaining tanks to Ukraine, without informing Morocco, in order to fulfill the US-NATO request. This left Morocco with a gap in its tank modernization plans, and a loss of trust in its partners.
According to the plan, in the near future, the backbone of moroccan tank units was planned to be made up of 250 M1A1 SA, 162 M1A2M, 200 Merkava Mk3, and 136 T-72Bs upgraded by Excalibur Army.
T-72Bs and Chinese-made VT-1As will be assigned to the Sahara Southern zone, with a gradual withdrawal of the old M-48s main battle tanks.
M-48 Pattons were retired from active service and stored as reserve in 1991, the SK-105 Kürassiers had the same fate.
Also, Morocco’s M-60s tanks will support Abrams and Merkava units, AMX10-RC will continue it’s service as light tanks and tank destroyers.
In addition to the tank modernization plans, Morocco is also looking at options to replace its ageing armoured vehicle fleet, which is deemed too old to effectively operate in a challenging combat environment. Morocco is looking at options to replace its VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles manufactured by French Arquus. Rabat land forces have over the years relied heavily on the VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles which entered service in the late 1970s. Morocco operates around 400 75 VAB VCI and 320 VAB VTT armoured vehicles, they had been modernised and upgraded locally under the name “ifrane”.
The VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles are used for troop transport, command and control, ambulance, and reconnaissance missions. They are equipped with a 12.7 mm machine gun or a 20 mm cannon, and can carry up to 10 soldiers. The VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles have a maximum speed of 90 km/h and a range of 1,000 km. They have a steel hull that provides protection against small arms fire and shell splinters, and can be fitted with additional armour modules for enhanced protection.
However, the VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles are becoming obsolete and vulnerable to modern threats, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and anti-tank missiles. Morocco has been looking for a replacement for the VAB 6×6 armoured vehicles for several years, and has considered various options, such as the Nexter VBCI, the Patria AMV, the Rheinmetall Boxer, and the Otokar Arma. However, none of these options have materialized into a concrete deal, and Morocco is still searching for a suitable and affordable solution.
Morocco’s armoured vehicle replacement plans are also affected by the global conflicts, which have increased the demand and the prices of armoured vehicles, as well as the competition and the political pressure from the suppliers. Morocco will have to balance its strategic interests and its budget constraints, while ensuring that it acquires armoured vehicles that meet its operational requirements and its compatibility with its allies. Morocco will also have to ensure that it receives adequate training and maintenance support for its new armoured vehicles, as well as the transfer of technology and the involvement of its local industry. Morocco’s armoured vehicle replacement plans are crucial for its military modernization and its regional security, and will require careful planning and negotiation.