The North African Military Balance

Force Developments & the Regional Challenges

The military balance in North Africa, and internal security developments in each country, receive less attention than the Arab-Israeli balance and the balance in the Gulf. They are, however, an important part of the security of world energy exports, and the struggle against terrorism and extremism. Moreover, major acquisitions on the part of Algeria and Morocco starting in 2006, and potential major orders by Libya, could mark the beginning of important military modernization efforts in the region. These trends are analyzed in a new draft report on the balance called “THE NORTH AFRICAN MILITARY BALANCE: Force Developments & Regional Challenges.” It is available on the CSIS web site at:

Comparative Resources & Security Dynamics

The report goes beyond purely military considerations, addressing internal security and the forces that shape it. Resources, demographics, and social change all play a critical role in shaping regional security forces, and North African resources are limited compared to other parts of the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. Although Algeria and Libya have considerable petroleum resources, all of the Maghreb states have increasingly been affected by sharp population growth, lags in development, economic and social infrastructure and job creation. As a result, social, economic, and demographic factors play an important role in shaping both national forces and the need to deal with internal security threats.

The exact correlation between extremism and terrorism and population growth, unemployment, underemployment, failures to provide effective government services, and breakdowns in education remains uncertain. It is clear, however, that all can contribute to regional problems. Moreover, a well-established pattern of high population growth is difficult to halt and can easily outpace even well run efforts to expand the economy and government services. It also creates a young and volatile population that is often alienated from a society that fails to give it opportunities and help. Unfortunately, very little meaningful work has been done to measure such strains.

The Forces that Drive The Military Balance

The report shows that Algeria is the only country whose arms orders have led to consistent and overlapping deliveries of major systems over the 1994-2009 period. Algeria’s major drive for new acquisitions and the trade-in or replacement of aging and obsolescent systems is significant both for Algeria and the regional military balance. With sanctions now lifted, Libya is once again on the market, but efforts to recapitalize its forces have been minor and major sales/deliveries have yet to materialize. Morocco shows a significant increase in new orders over the 2006-2009 period while Tunisia has made no major orders over the 1994-2009.

Morocco's continuing low-level tensions with Algeria and Mauritania, and its nearly two decade long war with the Polisario over the control of the Western Sahara are the key factors shaping its force recapitalization efforts. Regional competition with Algeria continues to spur new Moroccan orders, however it still under-funds and under-trains its conscripts and enlisted men and remains unable to fund adequate force modernization

Libya has invested in equipment and facilities rather than a sound manpower, infrastructure, and support base. Its overall ratio of weapons to manpower is militarily absurd, and Libya has compounded its problems by buying a wide diversity of equipment types that make it all but impossible to create an effective military force. Meanwhile, money still severely limits the size and modernization of the Tunisian force structure.

Morocco and Tunisia are the only major recipients of U.S. military equipment and training in North Africa. It is noteworthy, however, that unlike major Middle East Foreign Military Sales (FMS) recipients like Egypt and Israel, Morocco and Tunisia do not rely heavily on U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance to fund national purchases from the U.S. Like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, national funds continue to drive present and future patterns of military agreements with the U.S. This gives both Morocco and Tunisia far more flexibility in shaping U.S. sales. While there were reports that Algeria may opt to procure military systems from the U.S., the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) indicated that it had received no formal requests from Algiers for purchases under FMS as of mid-2010.

The Conventional Military Balance

The military balance has a different impact in north Africa from the rest of the MENA region. While there are rivalries and tensions between Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, no state in the Maghreb now actively prepares for war with its neighbors, and the prospects of such conflicts are limited. Several countries have had border clashes in the past, and Algeria and Morocco still take opposing sides in the struggle for control of the former Spanish Sahara, but none of the Maghreb states have approached the point of serious conflicts with each other since achieving independence. 

All of the Maghreb states except Tunisia bought more military equipment during the 1970s and 1980s than they can now adequately support. Like many developing countries, the Maghreb states confused weapons numbers and the "glitter factor" of buying advanced weapons technology with military effectiveness.

North African militaries remain ground forces heavy and as such continue to maintain large  pools of armored systems. Algeria has the most significant air capability in the regional balance, but many of its aircraft are aging. Both Algeria and Morocco have taken steps to upgrade or replace their combat aircraft while Libya and Tunisia have yet to do so. All regional forces also maintain constabulary naval forces and while Algeria and Morocco have more modern major naval assets, their blue water capabilities and training remain limited.

Algeria and Libya maintain large forces of major air defense (AD) systems by regional standards. However, many of these systems are increasingly old and efforts to recapitalize have yet to bear fruit. Morocco maintains a limited mix of limited AD systems and Tunisia has no serious AD systems to speak of.

Paramilitary Forces & Internal Security

The report shows that North African paramilitary and security forces play a major role in internal security, safeguarding the power of ruling regimes and consolidated the regional status quo. Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia also face a common threat from transnational Islamist groups in the Maghreb looking to emulate Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Another driver of the regional balance is Moroccan-Algerian “cold peace,” driven by regional competition and disputes over Western Sahara.  While there have not been open wars between Maghreb states, there have been paramilitary and proxy operations. Morocco and Algeria have struggled directly and indirectly over regional hegemony in the Maghreb.

Terrorism remains the main security challenge in North Africa. The so-called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) posed the main terrorist threat. The group seemed to pose a significant national security threat to Algeria in 2007, however the Algerian military’s subsequent response to AQIM’s operations effectively strangled the group outside of its strongholds. AQIM’s operational success was further curtailed by an inability to stem civilian casualties and continued difficulty in gaining traction in other Maghreb states due it being essentially a re-badged Algerian Islamist jihadi group run almost exclusively by Algerian commanders and combatants.

Despite the Moroccan-Algerian cold peace presenting serious problems for regional security and counterterrorism cooperation, the U.S. has shown increasing interest in Africa since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have expressed increasing concerns over AQIM’s continued operations in East Africa and the Maghreb. Growing economic interests also shape U.S. policy in the region. Trade between Africa and the U.S. has tripled since 1990, but more importantly, Africa now exports about as much crude oil to the U.S. as does the Middle East.

Maghreb states have seen increasing levels of cooperation with NATO. One of the most important areas of Maghreb-NATO cooperation is maritime security in the Mediterranean sea. Given the region’s not too distant colonial legacy, North African states have tried to manage the potential backlash from being “close” to a U.S and E.U.-led NATO operation.

What has bridged regional and international North African conceptions of security is the premise that violent Islamic terrorism centered on AQIM and efforts to contain regional crises drive both regional and international efforts to promote greater cooperation and partnership in North Africa. However, as regional and U.S.-led cooperation efforts have shown, efforts to shape security politics in North Africa are unlikely to be successful without the support of leading regional actors, including Algeria and Morocco.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy
Aram Nerguizian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Burke Chair in Strategy