The Spanish Air Force and the Spanish Navy risk losing important capabilities

Spain, the F-35, the EF-18 and the Harrier II: the problems that lie ahead and their causes

One of the great dreams of the European military industry is to compete with that of the United States, but it is a dream frustrated by European politicians.

Polish spotter Hesja publishes more formidable photos of Spanish EF-18 fighters
The Spanish EF-18, the main attraction in a massive popular event in Lithuania

The problem of the European military industry

Let's face it: European industry cannot compete with American industry if European governments (with exceptions such as the United Kingdom, Poland and Greece) continue to make ridiculous investments in defense, a problem that can only be has started to correct a bit in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Projects such as the Eurofighter (especially) and the A400M have accumulated years of delays and considerable cost overruns, and now we are seeing truly unfortunate problems in the NH-90 and the Eurocopter Tiger (Australia has decided to get rid of them because they do not meet their expectations). In Europe we want to swim and save our clothes on defense issues, investing little and hoping to be the most, and that is not possible.

The Spanish Air Force bets on the F-35 in the face of the problems of the FCAS

The latest example of this we have today in Spain. The pro-government newspaper El País publishes a news story stating that the Spanish Air Force is betting on the F-35. The reasons they give, among others, are delays in the FCAS program (we saw last year the serious objections of the German Bundeswehr to that project) and the need to find substitutes soon for the EF-18 fighters purchased in the 1980s, and which will begin to exhaust their operational life in 2025. Today it is unthinkable that the FCAS is ready to that date, and the Spanish Air Force does not like the solution of buying more Eurofighters, because they rightly consider it a design from the last century and that it is not up to the current 5th generation fighters.

An artistic rendering of the future FCAS fighter. At the moment the plane is in a merely conceptual phase (Image: Dassault Aviation).

Regarding the FCAS, El País points out that the project is "blocked by the struggle between the two main companies involved, the French Dassault Aviation and Airbus, which represents Germany", in such a way that the signing of the contract for the development of the prototypes "has been pending since last year". This is not new, and it shows another of the problems of European industry: the challenge of putting various countries and their respective interests in agreement, especially with regard to France and Germany, whose governments have decades accustomed to letting others simply get carried away by their decisions. The struggle between the French and Germans currently threatens to send the FCAS project to the bin without it having passed the mock-up phase .

The FCAS would not be ready until 2040: Spain would need it in 2025

Currently, the forecast is that the FCAS, if it goes ahead, will be ready by 2040. For the Spanish Air Force, this would be disastrous, as the aforementioned newspaper points out: "In the next decade, the Spanish Air Force will be left without half of its combat aircraft". Spain cannot wait until 2040 to have a replacement for its EF-18, nor can it continue to invest a fortune in a Eurofighter that is no longer up to its competitors, despite the many updates that have been do. Against this background, the Spanish Air Force's commitment to the F-35 is entirely logical. It is an aircraft already available on the market. Of course, even buying it now, it would be very difficult for the first copies to arrive in time to replace the first EF-18s that are decommissioned in 2025.

Two McDonell Douglas EAV-8B+ Harrier IIs (VA.1B-35 / 01-923, left, and VA.1B-36 / 01-924, right) of the 9th Squadron on the flight deck of L-61. The Spanish Navy has no other option than the F-35B to replace its fighters (Photo: Contando Estrelas).

The problem of the replacement of the Harrier II of the Spanish Navy

The case of the Spanish Navy is even clearer. The Harrier II has no other substitute on the market than the F-35. It has already been purchased by the US Marines and the Italian Navy to replace their Harrier II fleets. The logical thing would be for the Spanish Navy to also buy it, but the government does not decide to take that step, risking leaving us without fixed-wing aircraft in a short time. Let us remember that in 2020 the Spanish Navy has already indicated that it will need the F-35 in 5 or 6 years. We find the same situation as in the Spanish Air Force: even if the F-35Bs are bought now, they may not arrive on time.

In April we already saw here that to replace the Harrier II the Socialist Party (PSOE) was betting on a European plane that does not even exist, since there is no European STOVL plane not even in phase of project. The alternative proposed by the PSOE is "to buy from foreign companies, but demanding that they revert to Spain", in reference to the F-35, but the project for this fighter has counted with Tier II partners such as Italy or Tier III partners such as Norway, who have been involved in this project since its inception. Spain cannot demand compensation for the F-35 program when it has not put a penny into it. This is another of the great stumbling blocks of European defense policy. Our politicians do not like to invest in defense because it seems unpopular to them, and they try to compensate for it by seeking industrial compensations in the form of technology transfer and manufacturing (at least partial) in Spain every time a armament. But if investment in defense is insufficient, what compensation do you expect?

The first F-35B delivered to the Italian Navy to replace their Harrier IIs.

What can happen in a few years: loss of important capacities

I can imagine what will happen to the Spanish EF-18s. Our politicians will decide to buy more Eurofighters to replace the first Hornets to lose, mainly because they have no other choice (as I have pointed out, even if the F-35 contract is signed now, the aircraft will not be ready by 2025). Both the F-35s of the Air Force and those of the Navy will arrive late, possibly leaving the Navy Aircraft Fleet without embarked combat aircraft for some years and reducing the capabilities of the Air Combat Command, being one of the few European countries of some relevance that does not have a 5th generation fighter. But in the end we will end up buying the F-35 because there is no other solution. Due to the sheer stubbornness of our politicians, we will have lost precious time and important military capabilities, as well as the possibility of participating in that project in exchange for investments in our country. The question is: will we learn from this lesson, or will we continue to make the same mistake in the future?


Photo: An F-35A of the 388th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force at the Los Llanos Air Base, in Albacete (Spain) on June 10, 2019, on the occasion of its participation in the NATO Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) that is taught on that basis.

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