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Spain stands by its commitments to NATO and the EU. The Spanish Navy currently has a permanent presence in the Euro-Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Gulf of Guinea. In addition, the Spanish Navy participates in NATO operations, which also take its ships to the Baltic Sea, the Horn of Africa, and Libyan coast.
To meet these challenges, the Navy must keep pace with new
developments. In this context, ESD had the opportunity to speak to Admiral Teodoro Lopez Calderón, Chief of the Spanish Navy.

Photo/Logo: Armada Espanola

ESD: What is the current situation of the new F-110 frigate programme? When do you expect them to be in service?
Admiral Lopez: The programme envisions the shipbuilding of five units and is currently in the final stage of the detailed design. The actual construction is expected to start at the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021 at the latest. The frigates will be gradually delivered between 2026 and 2030. Once delivered, each ship will then require a year of endurance tests and sea trials.

Regarding deadlines and taking into account the shipyard’s experience, no delays are expected. To mitigate the possible development of risks, a significant investment has been made with the most advanced systems, which will allow testing of certain equipment in ground facilities to warrant their successful operation before being installed on board.

ESD: What kind of characteristics will this new type of Spanish frigate have?
Admiral Lopez: The F-110s are designed to handle a wide range of military missions in all kinds of scenarios. In addition, they will have a large and flexible multi-mission bay to face the different types of tasks that may arise, such as participation in rescue missions in case of natural disasters.

The ships maintain the great air detection capability enjoyed by the F-100s due to a new S-band radar that uses solid-state technology resulting from the fruitful cooperation between Indra and Lockheed Martin. Moreover, they will have an important ASW capability due to their hull-mounted and towed array sonars, along with an acoustic process system for the sonobuoys.

This project is being developed implementing the European 4.0 industry framework. One of the most innovative aspects is the transformation of the existing process to the digital world, focused on the so-called ‘Digital Twin’, which helps converge physical reality and cybernetics in all areas.
Included in this process are the systems, procedures and people, so that all elements have their corresponding ‘digital twin’. This will mean the possibility of access to any on-board system in real time with added advantages, such as the implementation of Artificial Intelligence for the optimization of predictive maintenance techniques. In other words, actions can be taken before the actual failure or breakdown occurs, resulting in obvious savings.

ESD: And the S80-class submarine? Are all the problems solved? When do you expect the four units to be in service?
Admiral Lopez: The design problems have already been solved and the programme is making good progress as regards the final shipbuilding and integration stages of the first unit, with its hull expected to be completely assembled before the end of this year, and launching scheduled for 2020.
This is a project that has been a great challenge for the Spanish shipbuilding industry. Our country has become one of the few countries in the world with the capability to design and build its own submarines.

The delivery date of the first submarine of the series, the S-81 ISAAC PERAL, has been scheduled for September 2022, and the remaining three units will be successfully delivered by 2027.

ESD: What is the Spanish Navy looking for with this type of submarine from the operational point of view?
Admiral Lopez: Once the S-80 class submarines come into service, we will have one of the most advanced conventional submarines in the world, one which will provide the Spanish Navy with the new capabilities that it currently lacks.

As for the projection of naval power ashore, the S-80 will decisively contribute to the ‘Deep Strike’ task of the Naval Force, with ground attack missiles that ensure the deterrent element of the Force, even if complete air and sea control has not been attained.

In relation to Special Naval Warfare, the projection capability of Special Operations groups will likewise significantly improve.

Regarding the protection of a Naval Force, the submarines will contribute to achieving sea control of the theatre of operations, facilitating the arrival of a Naval Force to the area. They will also help the Force’s ASUW defence with their missile and torpedo capabilities, and the ASW through its detection systems and weapons. Likewise, this submarine will have the capability to conduct CSAR operations and discrete evacuation of personnel, as well as perform covert offensive mine-laying missions.

All those capabilities will be enhanced thanks to the new Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, which will allow the S-80 to remain submerged in deep waters for around 15 days, depending on the tactical use made of it by the commanding officer.

A port bow view of the Spanish Navy frigate ALMIRANTE JUAN DE BORBON underway in the Pacific Ocean during combat system qualification trials (Photo: US Navy)

ESD: The Spanish Navy Aviation will need to replace the AV-8B HARRIER II in the forthcoming years. What is the solution Armada Española is looking for? Are you negotiating with Lockheed Martin to get F-35B as the replacement?
Admiral Lopez: The replacement of the AV-8B must be in service with the Spanish Navy by 2027. The F-35B is the only short take-off and vertical landing aircraft available and, therefore, the only aircraft capable of operating from the LHD JUAN CARLOS I. Consequently, the Spanish Navy anticipates that the F-35B will be the selected replacement of the AV-8B. Contact has already been made with LM and the US Navy International Programmes Office to study the viability of this option, either through a joint Spanish Air Force-Navy programme, or through a specific naval programme.

ESD: What are the immediate needs Armada Española will face in the short and medium term?
Admiral Lopez: In the short term, we need to replace our tactical and transport helicopters. The objective is to reduce the number of different helicopter models, currently four, to only two versions and be more efficient as regards maintenance. For this reason, over the next decade we will procure the NH90 in two different versions: transport and tactical (ASW and ASUW). In the meantime, and until they become operational, several US SH60F helicopters have been procured as an interim solution.
Another requirement is to continue with the offshore patrol vessel programme (BAM) in different configurations. The most urgent needs are the BAM-IS (for underwater interventions, support for diving operations, and search and rescue of submarines) and the replacement of hydrographic vessels.

Another ‘must’ is the widespread use of unmanned vehicles, especially submarines and surface UVs.

Finally, in the medium term, the replacement of minehunters and logistic support vessels are also a priority.

ESD: Are you worried about the delay of the naval version of the NH-90 helicopters?
Admiral Lopez: The programme of the naval version of the NH-90 helicopter introduces a high technological component, which is essential to satisfy the operational requirements of the Spanish Navy. It is important to underline that, according to the Spanish Navy tactical procedures currently in force, a naval helicopter is not only an air platform on board the ship, but also a real extension of its sensors and weapon systems, which are fully integrated into the ship’s combat system from which it operates.

We are, therefore, aware that this requirement makes the Spanish naval version of the NH-90 helicopter a much more complex option than those chosen by other European navies. This entails risks that will have to be mitigated with appropriate feasibility studies.

In any case, the expected delivery times will allow us to take the necessary steps to maintain the current capabilities until the final commissioning of the different versions of the NH-90 helicopter.

The Spanish Navy training vessel JUAN SEBASTIAN DE ELCANO renders a 21-gun salute as the ship passes Naval Air Station Pensacola on its way to the Port of Pensacola. (Photo: US Navy / Scott Hallford)

ESD: The Spanish Navy is closely linked with the national Navantia shipyard. How important is that relationship?
Admiral Lopez: The historical relationship with Navantia for more than 50 years has resulted in a successful shipbuilding model both in its shipyard aspects and in the development of naval systems. This relationship allows us to conceptually design the ships we need from scratch, based primarily on prospective studies that contemplate the scenarios our units will have to face in the future, and the required capabilities during their whole operational life cycle. Having the possibility of participating in this process – until the units are finally commissioned – provides us with a clear knowledge of the available systems on the one hand, and with what we call ‘technological sovereignty’ on the other. This has an important and positive impact on the industrial network of our country.

Navantia, apart from being the preferred shipyard that designs, builds and maintains Spanish Navy ships, provides – as an added value – the integration of sensors and weapons in critical on-board systems, like our indigenous combat system, platform control and cyber-defence systems.

ESD: How do you envision the navies of the future? What kind of new roles should they be prepared for?
Admiral Lopez: The international strategic scenario is complex and uncertain, with blurred boundaries, already anticipated in the so-called ‘hybrid and asymmetric’ scenarios, ever more transregional and with an ever growing importance of the technological element, which is evolving at an even faster speed.

The Armed Forces must be prepared to operate in scenarios with the ample proliferation of state and non-state actors, demanding multi-domain actions. These actors are permanently innovating in terms of technology and, in many cases, with unpredictable behaviours.

The fight in cyber-space has become increasingly important, present in all types of conflicts. This importance will also occur with combat in outer space.

The navies must maintain their role as one of the main tools of government to counter the threats to national interests in the maritime domain. For our part, the Spanish Navy intends to continue being the reference point of the State’s action at sea, either leading the maritime community providing the necessary support, or coordinating the joint effort.

Likewise, navies will have to be balanced, capable of operating in the entire spectrum of naval operations, being technologically advanced, flexible, capable of responding to any threat and interoperable with other navies, armed forces or civilian actors, with the possibility of exercising its influence and, in short, enjoying an expeditionary capability as well as the possibility of projecting the naval power ashore.

ESD: Last year, the naval base of Rota was selected a new strategic HQ for the EU. What kind of missions have been deployed since 2014?
Admiral Lopez: Indeed, an EU OHQ was set up in Rota Naval Base in 2018 as a strategic HQ. In addition, and as of March 2019, this EU OHQ manages and controls Operation ‘Atalanta’. Through this operation, the EU has been fighting piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean since 2008, providing protection to UN ‘World Food Programme’ vessels, fighting illegal fishing in the area and supporting other missions within the framework of the EU’s comprehensive approach in the area.

This OHQ is currently under the command of Marine Corps Major General Antonio Planels, who, in turn, is dependent on the EU’s Political and Security Committee. It goes without saying that the Spanish Navy guarantees the necessary logistic support, both in regard to facilities and personnel.

Apart from Operation ‘Atalanta’, the Spanish Navy has deployed several units in the EU-led Operation ‘Sophia’ since 2015 to fight human trafficking in the central Mediterranean, contributing with different assets to the EUNAVFOR MED Naval Force.

As regards training missions, the Spanish Navy is currently participating, as of January 2018, in Mali (EUTM MALÍ), with two Marine Corps’ Force Protection platoons, as well as with other significant contributions to the HQ, depending on the requirements of the scheduled rotations.

ESD: What is the relationship with the US Navy in the Spanish Naval Station where four ARLEIGH BURKE class destroyers are deployed since 2014?
Admiral Lopez: The presence of US Armed Forces in Rota Naval Base dates back to 1953 after a bilateral agreement was signed between Spain and the US that same year. Since then, a close and fluid relationship of common support and cooperation between the Spanish Navy and US forces has been maintained with mutual benefit to both sides. Following Spain’s entry into NATO, initiatives between Spain and the US have been developed to improve and increase the level of cooperation, adapting this cooperation to the new circumstances. A highlight of these initiatives was the Defence Cooperation Agreement of December 1988. Later, in December 2012, a Second Amendment to this Agreement was signed in order to guarantee a better response to the new and evolving international threats. This agreement has permitted the stationing in Rota of four US destroyers equipped with ballistic missile defence systems.

The presence of these escorts in Spain is a sign of unity within NATO, as well as an additional opportunity to improve mutual training and interoperability. As a result, ships and crews from both countries regularly participate in naval exercises –like SMARTEX, for example– as well as in courses and conferences, in addition to exchanging personnel in various deployments.

ESD: Which parts of the world are Spanish Navy warships deploying?
Admiral Lopez: All in all, the Spanish Navy is currently maintaining a constant presence in the Euro-Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Gulf of Guinea areas. Spain upholds a firm commitment with NATO and the EU. This is the reason why the Navy regularly deploys units in maritime initiatives and operations sponsored by these bodies. Deployments within the Standing Naval Forces, both with escorts and minehunters on the one hand, and NATO’s operation ‘Sea Guardian’ on the other, lead us to be present in the Baltic, North, Mediterranean and Black Seas. As for EU’s operation ‘Atalanta’, different units are recurrently deployed in waters off the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean. Until a few months ago, we also had units deployed near the coast of Libya, participating in Operation ‘Sophia’, units that now remain in port ready to re-join the operation as determined by the EU.

Moreover, Spain makes an important effort to maintain a presence in West African waters and the Gulf of Guinea to promote the development of specific maritime capabilities of the coastal countries concerned. The Spanish Navy conducts exercises, drills and joint patrols with them to enhance the training of local naval services and maritime surveillance centres.

In recent years, we have also encouraged joint deployments with other allied navies like the ones from Canada, the UK, Australia and US. In this sense, there are plans to deploy a Spanish frigate with the French CHARLES DE GAULLE carrier strike group next year.

Worth mentioning also are the regular deployments of our offshore patrol vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, the Great Sole Bank and waters off Canada to support Spanish and EU trawler fleets, which work in these waters in the course of national and multinational fishing campaigns like those framed within the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission.

I would not want to conclude without mentioning our presence in Antarctic waters, with the oceanographic research ship HESPÉRIDES or our endeavours in the area of defence diplomacy exercised all over the world by the training ship JUAN SEBASTIÁN DE ELCANO, especially in these years in which we celebrate the 5th Centenary of the first circumnavigation of the globe, an expedition organized by the Spanish Crown and carried out under the commands of Magellan and Elcano. Our training ship will sail around the world between August 2020 and August 2021, following (if possible) the route of the original expedition, one of the greatest naval feats in history.

The interview was conducted by Esteban Vilarejo.