Spain considers an F-35 order. Is the FCAS threatened?

U.S. Navy photo

Spain is reportedly considering an order for a total of 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets. The order would comprise 25 F-35B and 25 F-35A, a Lockheed-Martin official told Jane’s on the sideline of a Royal Institute of International Affairs session. The F-35A would come as a replacement for the aging F/A-18 Hornets of the Ejército del Aire, the Spanish Air Force. The F-35B would allow the Spanish Navy to retire its antique AV-8 Harrier II, operating from the Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier. 

The replacement of the Harrier with the F-35B does not come as a surprise, given the former is the only modern VSTOL aircraft available on the market. The acquisition of the F-35A by the Air Force is a bit more unexpected. 

In October 2020, the Spanish government announced the purchase of 20 additional Eurofighter Typhoons for €2 billion. That acquisition was seen as a stopgap solution for the Ejército del Aire while waiting for the development of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and its Next Generation Fighter (NGF). One could have expected the Spanish government to continue on that route.

During the Paris Air Show in June 2020, Spanish Minister of Defense, Margarita Robles, signed an agreement with her French and German counterparts, entering the European combat “system of systems” program. The Spanish defense electronics group Indra was chosen as the main industrial representative of the country, along with Airbus for Germany and Dassault Aviation for France. But the acquisition of the F-35 by Spain could have consequences on the country’s participation in the project, as it could entail the transfer of strategic data to the United States. 

A similar situation arose in 2020 when Germany looked into replacing its fleet of aging Panavia Tornado combat aircraft by 2030. The Lockheed Martin F-35 was one of the possible successors. However, picking the U.S. fifth-generation fighter jet would have undoubtedly soured the relationship with France as both were committed to developing the FCAS together. Eventually, Germany chose a mix of Typhoons and Super Hornets over the F-35, a commitment towards European defense sovereignty. 

The same argument was put forward by Zaida Cantera de Castro of the Spanish Socialist Party, in charge of defense affairs, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio in March 2021. “The F-35 is a purely American aircraft, such a purchase is of no use for Europe,” Cantera said. “Strategic autonomy is important not only for military reasons, but also because European money finances industry, jobs, research and technology in Europe.”

An order for additional Eurofighter Typhoons is also being considered by the Air Force, Jesus Ferrer of Spain’s military procurement office told Defense News.

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