El contexto bélico eleva el nivel de exigencia de la Armada española

The war context raises the level of demand of the Spanish Navy


17 | 05 | 2023


Esp-MINEX 23 naval exercises and ship replacement stakes maintain commitment to NATO goals

In the image

Deck of the Juan Carlos I with various aircraft [Navy].

Despite the fact that the Ukrainian war has not been particularly relevant for its naval faction (at least for the general public), it has nevertheless played a role core topic, and has left no few lessons for the future of naval conflicts.

The sinking of the Moskva in April 2022, one of the most talked-about events of the conflict, is the first sinking of a warship - in war - since the Argentines sank the British Royal Navy's HMS Sheffield in the Falklands War in 1982. The drone attack on the Russian base in Sevastopol in October last year has also been another event core topic. Not only because it was the first of its kind (using an unmanned surface drone to dock no less than the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet), but also because it has become the latest link in a chain of similar historical milestones that includes the attack on Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, or the attacks on Taranto and Pearl Harbor during the Second World War.

But the consequences of the war in Ukraine for naval strategy and maritime security go beyond this, in an era marked by a return to confrontation between great powers. For this reason, and at purpose of one of the latest NATO naval exercises, Esp-MINEX 23, held in Spanish waters at the beginning of May, it is worth highlighting the invaluable role, sometimes forgotten, that the Navy plays in the security of Spain and its allies.

Spain, maritime subject

Spain's geographical position, as has already been noted on countless occasions, means that it is naturally inclined towards the sea. "Straddling the Atlantic and the Mediterranean", as Admiral Fernando de Bordejé pointed out years ago, Spain has a coastline on two of the most important seas in the world: it is configured as the spearhead of Europe towards the Atlantic, and also guards the Strait of Gibraltar, of great commercial importance for the Mediterranean. A country that depends so heavily on the sea for its trade and security is obliged to have a force that allows it to control that trade and use all the advantages provided by the sea to its advantage. This is what is traditionally known as maritime power.

As of today, the main assets of the Spanish fleet include the amphibious aircraft carrier L-61 Juan Carlos I (commonly called aircraft carrier, although it is not), the two amphibious assault ships L-51 Galicia and L-52 Castilla, 11 frigates of the Santa María and Álvaro de Bazán classes, six minehunters and six other maritime action ships, among others. In addition, it also has two submarines of the class Agosta (S-70), the Galerna and the Tramontana.

The aircraft carrier, the Navy's flagship, provides force projection capability with its ability to embark up to 30 aircraft or 12 F-35B aircraft, in addition to the Marine landing force. In the last year, the Juan Carlos I has been deployed in the Mediterranean taking part in NATO naval exercises (such as the Dynamic Mariner/Mavi Balina in Turkey). On the other hand, the two amphibious assault ships are also engaged in a multitude of missions, including peacekeeping and humanitarian financial aid in addition to their main purpose (amphibious operations).

The frigates are divided into two groups: the six units of the class Santa María (F-80), built during the 1980s and inspired by the American Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, and the more modern five units of the class Álvaro de Bazán (F-100), built at the beginning of the century following the model of the American Arleigh Burke destroyers. With them and their anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities, our sailors keep watch over our waters and work for the maintenance of peace in many other regions of the world together with our allies.

The other ships, each with a specific mission statement , also contribute to our country's security, securing our waters and strengthening our ties with allied countries in the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Atlantic.

Esp-MINEX 23 and the Spanish Navy

As one of Europe's largest and most important navies, Spain is a strong contributor to NATO missions, including the standing maritime groups and the numerous missions in which it has been involved since joining NATO in 1982. Its ships actively participate in the European anti-piracy mission statement in the Gulf of Somalia, known as Operation Atalanta, and also take part annually in numerous multinational exercises with other allied navies and military forces.

The Esp-MINEX 23 exercise, which took place during the second week of May in Spanish waters and involved eight Spanish ships, two Italian ships, two Tucos, and another one from France and Greece, is yet another example of this. In this case, it is an annual mine warfare exercise, in which the Counter Mine Action Diving Unit and other units with unmanned underwater vehicle operation teams also participate regularly.

In the case of the Spanish Navy, these were the minehunters of the class Segura and the maritime action ships (BAM), with actions such as mine clearance, crisis response operations, humanitarian missions, peacekeeping missions and maritime patrols. Through them, working with the other allied navies, not only are the objectives of these missions achieved, but also contribute to improving interoperability between nations and strengthening cooperation in subject security. As the war in Ukraine and its consequences for European security (including attacks on critical undersea infrastructure such as Nord Stream in the Baltic) has shown, the Navy's work is now more fundamental than ever.

The future of the Spanish Navy

However, given the permanent need to innovate and adapt to the new times, the Spanish Navy is also immersed in the execution of several programs to provide its fleet with the appropriate replacements when the time comes to give up the current ones leave .

Among them, it is worth mentioning the F-110 frigate program, five units of the class Bonifaz that will replace those of the class Santa María. With them, the Navy will significantly improve its capabilities. The new ships will feature the new integrated mast that these frigates will have, which includes a range of state-of-the-art sensors and the ability to operate with maximum stealth to make it difficult for adversaries to detect their presence.

In addition to them, the Navy is also at an advanced stage of the development of the submarines of the class Isaac Peral (S-80). With the first unit scheduled to enter service by the end of 2023 if all goes well, the Navy will be replacing the S-70s (two of which have already been decommissioned) with the planned S-80 units. The need for an adequate submarine weapon is, as of today, a fundamental requirement for any navy aspiring to have a robust presence. During the years immediately following the end of the Cold War, NATO's capabilities dwindled in the absence of an adversary. However, at the same time as the Allies were lowering their defenses, Russia continued to work on strengthening its submarine fleet, which has in recent years become a serious threat to the Alliance's current members.

Finally, Spain is also involved in the EPC (European Patrol Corvette) Program of the EU's Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), in which Italy, France, Greece, Denmark and Norway also participate. Through this program, with which Spain hopes to acquire 6 new modern corvettes designed by the companies Fincatieri and Naval Group, the aim is to replace the current patrol vessels with these new units that can be configured as ocean patrol vessels, as corvettes or as light frigates. Although the program is going ahead without major delays, the background of similar initiatives by some of these countries casts doubts on the real viability of the EPC.

In the 1990s, Spain participated in NATO Frigate Replacement (NFR 90), NATO's Frigate Replacement Program for the 1990s with the goal aim of producing just that: a multipurpose frigate model to be acquired by several of the allied navies. However, the lack of consensus among them on armament, design and size issues finally wrecked the projectThe American destroyers class Arleigh Burke, the Spanish Álvaro de Bazán, the British destroyers class Daring, or the French Horizon frigates. Therefore, it remains to be seen how this project will finally unfold, under the leadership of a much more consolidated EU than in the 1990s.

If anything should be clear from this brief review, it is that the return to confrontation between great powers will have global consequences, including for Spain. Multinational exercises such as Esp-MINEX 23 are an example of what European and NATO countries should increasingly aspire to, as they are also one of the main instruments at their disposal to deal with Russian hostilities and other threats that are increasingly lurking in the maritime environment on which Spain is so dependent.