Morocco Canary Islands Invasion: No Imminent Threat

“I say it publicly, and I am the only one who says it: Morocco is our enemy geopolitically, economically, and militarily.” A few weeks ago, Alvise Pérez promised to make a visit to the Canary Islands after the summer—together with a group of retired colonels—to organize the islandsdefense. Against what? “[For] when Morocco makes the decision, which it has imminently planned and will make before 2030, to invade the Canary Islands, Ceuta, and Melilla by fair means or foul,” he said in a recent interview.

When Alvise Pérez was nothing more than a media provocateur, this assertion would have caught on social media as a mere incendiary anecdote. But with 800,000 votes already collected in the European elections, the voice of the leader of ‘The Party is Over’ resonates strongly in certain political and social sectors. So the boutade of the elected MEP merits a more detailed analysis. Because if there is a strategic challenge for Spain’s security in which reckless simplifications should not be accepted, it is that of Morocco.

Let’s start by denying the majority. No, Morocco is not planning to invade the Canary Islands or the autonomous cities in an “imminent” manner. There are no political, social, military, or economic signs of any kind or intensity that suggest the possibility of an open conflict in the short term.

Spain has been Rabat’s main trading partner for decades, and almost 900,000 Moroccan citizens are registered in its territory. The bond between the royal houses of both countries, with its ups and downs, has been one of friendship and harmony (perhaps more so between Juan Carlos I and Hassan II than between the “cousins” Felipe VI and Mohamed VI). And although the political relationship is at its lowest point in decades (customs in Ceuta and Melilla remain closed), there is no open hostility between the two governments.

Even the premise that Rabat has some sort of secret plan for a hypothetical offensive is, in military terms, far-fetched. In 2024, Moroccan defense spending could reach unprecedented levels of 9% of GDP, with an investment of more than 10 billion euros. This would be, on paper, a budget close to that of Spain (13 billion euros in 2023). But Morocco, like Spain, has also been dealing with decades of relative military disinvestment.

After reaching highs of over 6% of GDP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, spending fell in the following years to a low of 2.2% in 2000. It has since recovered to around 4% in recent years. This is three times more than the 1.28% that Spain allocates to its national defense, an argument frequently used to explain how the military gap between the two countries is gradually narrowing.

While it is true that Rabat is accelerating its spending, this indicator is not the most appropriate for comparing the military muscle of both nations. The Spanish economy is 10 times larger than that of the Maghreb country, not to mention that it has a consolidated defense industry (the eighth largest exporter in the world and fourth in Europe). So, in real (not relative) terms, Spain’s military investment has been much higher for years. Not to mention that it is also a member of NATO.

It should also be noted that each country’s budget calculations include different items that make it difficult to compare actual expenditures on equipment. For example, using the 2023 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), one of the reference centers on the subject, Spain would have made 22 billion euros in military outlays compared to Morocco’s 5 billion.

“Currently, Morocco has no military superiority over Spain. And any kind of gap in capabilities that could occur in the coming years, Spain could respond. And it is true that Morocco is gaining momentum in terms of artillery, combat vehicles, and attack helicopters,” says Guillermo Pulido, military analyst, editor of the magazine Ejércitos, and author of ‘Guerra Multidominio y Mosaico’. “But Spain is also taking measures, such as replacing the F-18s in the Canary Islands with Eurofighters. It also has clear economic and industrial superiority. That is, sufficient potential to exercise deterrence.”

Tell me what you buy, and I’ll tell you who you fear.

Rabat’s military shopping list in recent years has been significant, with key reinforcements in the ground and air forces, as well as intelligence work. The Alawite kingdom has ordered 36 Apache AH-64E combat helicopters for around 4 billion euros (which are under construction), 24 advanced F-16 Viper Block 72 fighters (with weapons and support) for 3.5 billion euros, and 22 Turkish T-129 reconnaissance and combat helicopters for around 1.3 billion euros. It is also negotiating a batch of 40 units of the AGM-154 JSOW, a highly effective gliding bomb launched from aircraft, for 700 million euros.

In addition, Rabat is upgrading its armored power with the purchase and modernization of 162 M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks for 10 billion euros, as well as the acquisition of several types of armored vehicles. Last year, Rabat received the green light from the US to purchase 18 high-precision mobile missile launchers with several types of GMLRS-guided munitions and 40 units of Atacms, the long-range tactical missile that can hit targets 300 kilometers away (a package of about 500 million). This year, it also ordered 600 FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles for 250 million.

The growing alliance with Israel has led to the acquisition, among other things, of the Barak-MX anti-aircraft system, intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, the PULS missile launcher, and 150 WanderB and ThunderB drones. In the drone area, where Morocco is making a significant effort, there are also 13 Turkish Bayraktar TB2 units, four MQ-9B Sea Guardians, and some Chinese Wing Loongs.

Perhaps it is precisely in the naval field that Rabat has made few significant additions since the purchase of the Dutch Sigma-class frigates and a Franco-Italian Fremm-class frigate a decade ago. For years, the specialized press has been echoing the possible Moroccan interest in acquiring a French Kilo-class submarine (a key capability that Spain has just reinforced with the S-81 Isaac Peral), but nothing has been confirmed.

“For now, Morocco does not have large long-range anti-aircraft systems, and they have not bought many anti-ship missiles (perhaps some Harpoons), and those are two of the keys. The third is long-range artillery, such as the Himars, in which they have surpassed us and we are late. But as long as they do not have Patriot (anti-aircraft defense) systems or Russian S-400 systems, and they do not have defense against our Navy or submarines, I would not worry too much,” explains Yago Rodríguez, an expert in military affairs and director of The Political Room. “I have no doubt that the Moroccan military purchasing effort is clearly aimed at Algeria,” he adds.

In fact, what experts can infer from this “arms menu” is precisely that the conflict that Rabat fears is not with Spain but with neighboring Algeria (and, to a lesser extent, the low-intensity war it is waging with the Polisario Front, the armed wing of the Sahrawis). Part of these military acquisitions fit with the geographical challenge of the desert and the hamada, with wide plains without cover and extreme temperatures. And also with the idea of matching or neutralizing Algerian capabilities rather than Spanish ones.

“They are optimizing their army to fight a war against the Algerian army, as is evident from the type of purchases. Morocco has 700 tanks, and Algeria has about 1,400. Apache helicopters are excellent anti-tank platforms, as are javelin missiles. “Morocco is trying to compensate for its inferiority in artillery and anti-aircraft defenses by being inferior to Algerian aircraft,” explains Pulido.

Impossible? No, but suicidal.

In the short term, there is no prospect of a direct military conflict between Spain and Morocco, but that does not mean that the situation in the Maghreb does not entail national security risks. In fact, there are military environments that, by definition, must work, operate, and plan in anticipation of a possible attack. Unlikely, yes. Impossible, no.

Morocco is one of the most stable countries on the continent. Mohammed VI has been on the throne for 25 years and firmly controls the military and intelligence apparatus, which has allowed him to weather the discontent of the Arab Spring, neutralize the uncontrolled rise of jihadism, and repress regionalist impulses. But one cannot rule out remote but plausible scenarios in which an unexpected event (the so-called black swans) could upset the nation’s status quo. What would happen if one of them led to this direct confrontation?

“Spain has more than enough capacity to fight off a massive invasion of Ceuta and Melilla (or the Canary Islands). The Moroccan army is considerably larger than the Spanish one, especially in terms of troops and tanks, while the garrisons in Ceuta and Melilla are small. But it would be a suicidal attack by Morocco,” explains Pulido. “Spain has air and naval superiority, which could do a lot of damage to Morocco.” This type of invasion would make no sense.”

Analysts fear that the situation is more focused on another type of front, more subtle but equally dangerous. Rabat has been using hybrid warfare strategies for years to exert pressure and obtain political concessions from Spain and Europe (diplomacy, by other means). The use of migration as a political tool, international espionage, or military provocations. In April, six frigates and twenty patrol boats from the Moroccan Royal Navy carried out a series of military maneuvers off the coast of the Canary Islands (about 125 km away), which prevented Spanish fishing boats from fishing shortly after the EU Court of Justice recommended annulling the fishing agreement with the North African country.

Behind many of these strata lies the historic claim to sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla. The aim, experts believe, is to turn these enclaves into a problem for Spain in the long term and to disaffect the autonomous cities of the peninsula through economic asphyxiation and social pressure. When the time comes, experts agree that this would be a more likely way for hostilities to materialize.

“The conditions for an open offensive are very minimal. They are there, but they are very small. Now, they are launching a hybrid war game with a series of migratory avalanches while they are doing military exercises outside the cities and threatening to use their armed forces. Also, there is the delicate matter of trying to use people inside the cities for their plans, with roadblocks or protests.

But it is not only a direct conflict with Morocco that is significant for Spanish defense.

The Israeli distortion

In her book, Black Scenarios for the French Army (Robert Laffont, 2024), journalist and political scientist Alexandra Saviana reviews eleven situations that, in the eyes of French military personnel, diplomats, and analysts, are the most worrying for their country. First of all, in chronological order, there was a war in the Maghreb between Algeria and Morocco. A contingency that should also be of concern in Spain.

“The deterioration of relations between these two countries is such (…) that nothing can be excluded anymore,” says Xavier Driencourt, who was French ambassador to Algeria for seven years. “In addition, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is once again changing the landscape in the region; it unites Algerians around a central issue while making Morocco more fragile because of its ties with Israel,” he stresses.

The military budget of Algeria, a country richer than its neighbor thanks to hydrocarbons, will almost double (20.219 billion euros) Morocco’s record this year. It is the highest in Africa, ahead of Egypt’s, and has skyrocketed since Rabat and three other Arab countries signed the Abrahamic Accords with the US in 2020 to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

“Security and defense relations between Morocco and Israel are not new. They date back to the creation of the State of Israel, especially in relation to intelligence issues,” explains a Moroccan analyst to El Confidencial, who, for security reasons, prefers not to be identified. “But since 2020, military and security agreements have begun to be announced. Morocco is an Arab country, but it has always been far from the hard lines of pan-Arabism. It is a country closer to the West than to the harsh core that Egypt or Syria represented,” he says.

The “deal of the century,” as then-President Donald Trump called it, had a triple objective for Morocco: for Washington to recognize its sovereignty over the Sahara, to establish a close relationship with Israel in matters of defense and security, and to become the White House’s star pupil in the region in order to receive more favors from the American superpower.

The Royal Armed Forces are a privileged partner of the Pentagon, and they carry out the African Lion maneuvers with the US Army, its main military exercise on the continent. Even US diplomacy has sounded out Rabat’s willingness to send troops to Gaza to guarantee order when the Israelis withdraw. But even with this proximity—and for all kinds of reasons, including military ones—Spain remains a strategic partner with more weight for the US.

While Rabat is forging ties with Israel, strengthening its collaboration with the US, and controlling its relationship with Spain, Algeria lost its diplomatic pulse when Madrid preferred to protect its relationship with the Alawite monarchy (and gave its support to the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara) and its commercial commitments with them. In addition, Russia, its main supporter and military supplier, is engaged in a war with Ukraine with no clear horizon. But Algeria remains the military benchmark in the region, and its armed forces far outnumber, for now, those of Morocco.

“The Algerian system has recently shown a lot of hostility towards Morocco. There is a rapprochement between Iran and Algeria, as well as between the Polisario Front. Morocco is preparing for this. Spain is a strategic ally and a member of NATO,” says the Moroccan analyst. “Morocco would never dare to do anything against Spain.”

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