The F-35B and Spain’s Naval Aviation Conundrum

Spain, alongside the U.S. and Italy, is one of the only countries still operating the AV-8B Harrier II Plus vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft. Unlike Italy and the U.S., however, Spain hasn’t ordered any F-35B’s to replace its ageing Harrier fleet.

The Spanish Navy currently operates thirteen Harriers (though one is a trainer). They are piloted and maintained by the Novena Escuadrilla de Aeronaves (9th Aircraft Squadron). These aircraft also provide the Juan Carlos I amphibious assault ship with its fixed-wing ground attack complement.

Left: Juan Carlos I amphibious assault ship photographed in 2016. Credit: Javier Yáñez Juan – Right: AV-8B Harrier II Plus of the Novena Esquadrilla aboard Juan Carlos ICredit: NATO

As the U.S. Marine Corps and the Italian Navy inch slowly toward replacing their AV-8B Harrier II Plus fleets with the new and much more capable F-35B, the Harrier programme itself is nearing its expiry date. Indeed, in January this year the U.S. Navy signed a contract with BAE Systems and Vertex Aerospace to ensure their own Harrier fleet is supported only until 2029.

Time’s Ticking for the Harrier

This is both good and bad news for the Spanish Navy. On the one hand it can breath a sigh of relief knowing that maintenance costs for the aircraft will not soar in the short term. The Commander in Chief of the Armada’s Aircraft Flotilla, Captain Rafael Guerra Soler, explained that being part of the Harrier programme alongside the U.S. and Italy allows all three operators to maintain a common configuration and undertake modernisation programmes more efficiently. Without a doubt, it is the U.S. Marines’ fleet of over 100 such aircraft that provides the critical mass for the costs to remain low enough to avoid obsolescence.

On the other hand, however, F-35B deliveries are set to pick up pace in the next few years and it is unlikely that the U.S. will seek to extend the Harrier’s lifespan beyond this new horizon. While Italy is also set to phase out the Harrier in favour of its much more expensive successor, Spain is left contemplating a post-2029 scenario where its amphibious assault ship, the Armada’s flagship (commissioned just over a decade ago), cannot operate a fixed wing squadron.

This is a rather daunting prospect for the Spanish Navy, whose General Guidelines from 2017 gave particular importance to the fleet’s ability to project maritime power on land.

The future of the Fleet depends on the clear and realistic definition of future capabilities, especially those of high strategic value as is the case for the projection of sea power on land.

Admiral Teodoro López calderon (then admiral chief of staff of the Spanish navy)

No Alternative to the F-35B

Captain Rafael Guerra Soler himself made no secret that the F-35B is the only option for the Armada if Spain is to retain fixed-wing capabilities aboard the Juan Carlos I. This, he argued, will negatively affect the navy’s amphibious and expeditionary potential by depriving the fleet and its marines of adequate air cover in scenarios of medium and high intensity combat.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest obstacle for Madrid is the F-35B’s cost, both in terms of operation and purchase price, which now stands at around €100m per unit. But that’s only one side of the story.

Last month, the spokesperson on matters of defence for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, which leads the country’s ruling coalition, seemed to shatter any residual hope that the Navy might be able to buy into the F-35B programme. She declared that “the F-35B is a purely U.S. [project]” and that purchasing the aircraft wouldn’t serve European interests as it would go against the principle of EU strategic autonomy. The problem, she concluded, is that money invested in the F-35B does not finance European industry, employment, and research & development. Simply put, the Spanish government would rather invest in the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) sixth generation fighter program, a European project, than spend precious funding on the capable though expensive F-35B.

While there are plans for a carrier-launched version of the FCAS, this will be designed for conventional carriers fitted with CATOBAR systems (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) such as France’s future aircraft carrier.

By the time the FCAS is expected to enter service in the 2040s, Juan Carlos I will in all likelihood be retired. Operating a carrier-launched version of the FCAS will inevitably require the Armada to acquire a new, larger and much more expensive conventional aircraft carrier. Yet V/STOL aircraft carriers are the perfect fit in terms of cost and size for medium-sized navies with a regional scope such as Spain’s. It remains to be seen whether Madrid will muster the budget and consensus to embark down this route.

Turning Away from Carrier-Launched Jet Aircraft?

As is abundantly obvious, there is no alternative to the F-35B if Spain is to retain the current level of capability for force projection, and amphibious and expeditionary operations; not to mention adequate air cover for the fleet in hostile environments. With costs of the F-35 programme as a whole unlikely to fall further due to many countries cutting their own orders, the Spanish Navy faces thee possible scenarios:

  1. Spain embarks on an acquisition programme for a number of F-35B aircraft within the next five years, as proposed by Captain Guerra Soler. This would allow the navy to replace its ageing Harrier fleet before their 2029 expiry date and retain – and indeed greatly improve – its fleet’s air cover potential as well as amphibious and expeditionary capabilities.
  2. Spain does not invest in the F-35B, turning the page on carrier-launched jets until a new CATOBAR carrier is launched and the carrier-capable FCAS aircraft enter service.
  3. Spain turns the page on carrier-launched jets at the end of the Harrier programme.

Admittedly, it is difficult to see why Scenario 2 should not in fact lead to Scenario 3 by default, as this option will likely require a huge budget increase with the navy possibly moving from no carrier and embarked fighter squadron in the early 2040s to a CATOBAR carrier with its FCAS fighter wing complement. Moreover, the Navy will also eventually find itself in the awkward position of having to re-acquire the skills and expertise needed to launch and run fixed-wing operations from a warship a decade after the Harriers are retired.

Scenario 1 is therefore the only viable path for the Spanish Navy in the short and long term if the Armada is to avoid seeing a substantial dip in capability beyond 2029.

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