General Francisco Javier Varela Salas is the head of the Spanish Army. He was appointed by the former conservative government and, like all chiefs of the Spanish military services, was confirmed by the current socialist government.
ESD: One of the future projects of the Spanish Army is “Brigade 2035”. What is this?
General Varela: It is the spearhead of an exciting and innovative project and it has two milestones: the introduction of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics or “big data” for the weapon systems of the Spanish Army and the improvement of the leadership skills of the young officers of the units.
ESD: In the structure of the Spanish Army, a personnel strength of 64,000 is projected. Will the new technologies result in staff reductions in the Army?
General Varela: There is some confusion about this matter. The technologically advanced brigade will need fewer personnel, but that does not mean that the Army will need fewer personnel. We will shift personnel to other areas where we are short of staff. In keeping with our goal of maintaining the personnel strength in the long-term, the Army’s strength will remain at the current level of 64,000 men and women.
ESD: The backbone of the future Spanish Army will be the PIRANHA 5 8×8 wheeled armoured fighting vehicle manufactured by General Dynamics European Land Systems (GDELS) and equipped by Indra and Sapa. The Spanish version will be called DRAGON. What is the current status of the programme?
General Varela: Our project “Brigade 2035” cannot proceed without the 8×8 wheeled armoured combat vehicles. The problem is that the Army should have received the demonstrators in November 2018. Now we hope to receive and test them in July 2019, but nobody will guarantee me that this is going to be the final date. This is a real problem for us. If we cannot test the 8×8 vehicle and its systems throughout the entire year, then it will be difficult to sign a contract at the end of 2019 as we had originally planned, with a first batch of 348 vehicles for €2.1Bn.
ESD: Are we right to assume that the tests are taking so much time because of the associated integration efforts?
General Varela: The vehicle platform produced by GDELS-Santa Bárbara is excellent, but of course there is much more to it. We need to integrate various systems with the platform, such as the 30mm turret, a 12.7mm remote controlled weapon station, SPIKE missile launchers, sensors, radios, command and control systems for small units, and so on. The tests are to show that all the systems work together correctly and do not interfere with each other. This is what the tests are about. And then we must decide as quickly as possible in order to be able to sign the contract in due time.
ESD: Is there a feeling that the crisis of the Spanish Army has come to an end?
General Varela: Well, we still have some serious problems. It is true that there is a very positive spirit of hope, namely that we have had an increase in the budget this year; the budget has grown by 1.6%. However, we have been in a deep crisis for 10 years now, and it will be difficult to change this situation in the short term.
ESD: Which capabilities of the Spanish Army have been lost as a result of the crisis?
General Varela: Basically, we have lost three skills. The first is the preparation time of the forces. Processes and procedures that used to take a year now take three years; it takes more time to prepare our soldiers. Second, we have mothballed half of our equipment because we could not pay for its daily operation and we have obsolescence of systems related to mobility, protection, and long-range fire – we also lost a unit of rocket launchers. We also face problems when it comes to command and control. Thirdly, the standard of our military facilities has deteriorated in terms of quality of life due to very little investment in maintenance and upkeep over the last eight years. Now the MoD has a plan to solve this problem.
ESD: Apart from the 8×8 vehicle, what other resources should the Spanish Army acquire?
General Varela: After upgrading the CHINOOK helicopters from the D to the F version, it is necessary to modernise the ASCOD/PIZARRO armoured fighting vehicles as our Phase I. We should also launch a project for setting up four PIZARRO III battalions which would rely on the current ASCOD. We need immediately a long-range artillery capability (rockets and self-propelled artillery). And we need to decisively promote the command and control system under a plan we call MC3, with command and control at the brigade level being a priority.
ESD: Spain aspires to head the EU training mission in Mali in late 2019 and in 2020.
General Varela: The leadership of the mission is a proposal put on the table by the Ministry of Defence. Taking over this command would require increasing the Spanish contingent, which currently stands at around 300 troops, as we would have to provide staff and other capabilities. We are prepared for such a responsibility and I think it would be positive if Spain were to lead the mission.
ESD: Could the Spanish Army’s NH-90 helicopters be deployed abroad for the first time?
General Varela: We are studying the deployment of the NH-90 in Iraq. It makes sense to deploy our best equipment items. We do not think this would be a problem but it is a political decision and must also be financed.
ESD: The Spanish Army has deployed 350 soldiers with six LEOPARD tanks and fourteen PIZARRO combat vehicles to Latvia. Could the deployment be reinforced by the use of more tanks?
General Varela: The Latvian authorities have asked us for more tanks because of their deterrence effect. We have looked into the matter and we could well deploy another section (six LEOPARD tanks) if the political level orders us to do so. We are also considering the possibility of deploying a 105mm and 155mm mixed artillery battery. Latvia has some training grounds that are very useful for testing 155mm extended-range field artillery ammunition.
The interview was conducted by Esteban Villarejo.