The ‘Ejercito Del Aire’

I. Early History

The Spanish Air Force has been around in Spain since the first operational balloons began to appear over the Iberian Peninsula back in 1895. But it was not until April 10th, 1910, that the country formally introduced the nascent military air service as part of its overall armed force structure. On the afternoon for November 5th, 1913, a rudimentary fitted Spanish squadron had the distinction of being the first true organize force to stage an offensive operation. On that tragic day, Spanish airplanes dropped a few simple shrapnel-type bombs on a number of rebellious Moroccan villages.

After almost two decades of mitigating action, Spain military air force was completely unprepared when the country’s Civil War erupted on July 18th 1936. During the war, two distinct air arms existed within the integrated structure of the force. The Spanish Republic Air Force was developed by the Republican forces fighting with the established government. At the beginning, the Republican AF was understaffed and more importantly, poorly equipped to influence events in the ground. They were fitted with obsolete Nieuport-Delage NiD-52 fighters, Breguet 19 reconnaissance bombers, a small fleet of Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-bombers and other old foreign aircraft.

The other air force unit derive from the base force was the National Aviation. The ‘Aviacion Nacional’ was created by the Army formations that revolted against what they believed was a repressive government The Nationalist, as this group was called, were lead by the charismatic, albeit, ruthless general Francisco Franco. If the Republican AF was undermanned, then the Nationalist’s was a hollow shell.

Nazi Germany promptly figured out a theater of war where they can test their new equipment and tactics: the Spanish skies. By late July, scores of German-built Junkers Ju 52/3m bomber -transport planes were ferrying Nationalist troops from Spain Morocco to the mainland. By mid August, Italian-made Savoia Marchetti SM-81, Fiat CR.32 and German Heinkel He 51 were filling the Iberian sky.
The Republican AF also got a boost from foreign countries. Sixty French Dewoitine (D.372, 372, 501 and 510) as well as twenty Potez 54s and a squadron of Bleriot-Spad S.510s; joined the force.

Before the war ended on March 28th 1939, Dorniers, Messerschmitt and other top of the line aircraft tilted the balance of power in favor of the rebels. Franco himself secured the victory when his forces entered Madrid on March 27th.

II. World War II

After the war ended, Franco and his staff, clearly impressed by the role air power played in their ascension to power, established the modern Spanish air force; the ‘Ejercito del Aire’ (EDA). Formed on October 7th, 1939, the ‘Ejercito’ would play a relative small, but significant part in World War II.

When news of the German invasion of Red Russia reached the Spanish government, the new Fascist government’s Foreign Ministry, Ramon Serrano Suñer; offered military assistance to the Nazis by way of the German Ambassador, Eberhard von Stohrer. Adolph Hitler wanted a full pledge declaration of war against the Allies, but Franco and Serrano were kindly aware that any such move will place the country’s struggling economy at the mercy of Great Britain’s oil embargo.

If they could not assist Germany directly, then, Franco though, an all volunteer force, similar to the German-deployed Condor Legion during the Civil War, could be muster. On July 1941, 18,000 men from all walks of life joined in what would be called the Blue Division; a ground force unit that would see heavy action in the Eastern Front. Attach to the division was a limited air expeditionary force known as the Blue Squadron or ‘Escuadrilla Azul’.

The Blue Squadron was part of the overall Army Group Center assets from 1941 until 1944. A total of five Spanish Squadrons flying Bf 109 and later Fw 190, flew a total of 1,918 sorties as part of Jagdgeschwader 51, also known as “Molders”. The squadrons worked in succession beginning with the first arriving on early June 1941 until the last official one on February of 1944. They had the distinction of being the only Spanish unit to have fought in the Battle of Kursk. Its combat record consisted of 277 air kills and 74 aircraft destroyed, with a total combine loss of seven Spanish pilots.

III. Post War Organization

Following the end of the War, the Spanish government allied themselves with the Western Allies in their struggles against the Soviet Union. On March 18th 1946, Spain’s first dedicated paratroop unit was formed. The establishment of a mobile force and key changes in the Ejercito mid level structure made it possible for the country to received, on continuing bases, top flight aircraft form the United States.

Between the fall of 1950 and the spring of 1959, the Ejercito incorporated its first jet powered platforms; US-built F-86 Sabre fighters, Lockheed T-33 trainers and DC-3s and 4s transports were delivered the Spanish government. Most of those first generation jet systems were replaced in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was in the spring of 1968 that the Spanish government initiated an aggressive re-armament effort that culminated with the incorporation of top shelf F-4Cs Phantoms and F-5s Freedom Fighters.

The 1970s brought in another refurbishing phase with the assimilation into the Ejercito of French-developed Mirage III and F-1s. Dassault’s deltas, as the III was commonly refer to, formed the backbone of the Spanish AF for much of the 1970s and early 80s. The Mirage III was one of the biggest success stories in the field of post-WW II combat aircraft design. The vaunted Mirage III first flew on November 17th, 1956 which made the system more than a decade old when it joined the Ejercito.

The other major platform utilized by the AF was the Mirage F-1. The F-1 is a single seat strike fighter which made its maiden flight on December 23rd, 1966. It became operational with the French Air Force in the spring of 1974. The F-1 was one of Dassault’s biggest export success stories.

In the middle of the 80s, the Ejercito received its most advance air weapon up to date, the US-supplied F/A-18 Hornet. Since its operational deployment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Hornet became the cornerstone of Spain’s air deterrence and offensive strike capability. A fact that became apparently during NATO’s air war over Kosovo.
Spain made its movement into full pledge membership on NATO in 1982.

IV. Current Structure and base location

The Ejercito del Aire is divided into five operational commands. The first is the Battle Air Command (BAC) based at Torrejon Air Base, Madrid. General Air Command (GAC) has its headquarters in Madrid. Personnel (PC) and Logistic Commands (LC) are also located in the Spanish capital. The only other active command posted outside the Madrid region is the Canary Island Air Command, which reside at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

The Ejercito utilized 15 operational Air Bases:

1.     Alcanatarilla
2.     Armilla
3.     Four Winds
4.     Gando
5.     Getafe (built in 1911 and widely considered the cradle of Spanish aviation)
6.     Los Llanos
7.     Matacan
8.     Moron Air Base*
9.     San Javier
10.   Santiago
11.   Son San Joan
12.   Talavera
13.   Torrejon Air Base**
14.   Villanubla
15.   Zaragoza

* Moron Air Base is located in southern Spain, roughly 35 miles southeast of the city of Seville. Negotiations for US bases in Spain were conducted between June 1951 and September 1953 under the direction of a Joint United States Military Group, commanded by Major General A. W. Kissner.

In 1957 Sixteenth Air Force was realigned under the Strategic Air Command. Main operating bases in Spain were used for SAC B-47 rotational alert aircraft until April 1965. 16th AF also operated SAC bases in Morocco from 1958 through 1963. In 1966, a year after SAC withdrew its B-47 alert force from Spain, 16th AF was reassigned to US Air Forces in Europe. On 13 May 1958, the first flight of B-47s were assigned to Morón Air Base to conduct Reflex operations, and 6 weeks later the first rotational fighter squadron, F-100s from George AFB, CA, arrived for temporary duty to conduct air defense alert.

In April 1960, Morón was placed under the command of Colonel Henry C. Godman. Morón kept operated primarily as a “Reflex” base until 29 April 1962, when the first Chrome Dome KC-135 aircraft arrived.

On November 1971, Morón was relegated to a “modified caretaker status. Torrejon Air Base was designated as the Primary Support Base (PSB) with support services to start in April 1972. Military personnel were reduced to a staff of approximately 100 members of the 7473 CSS. All flying activity was halted except for occasional exercises.

On May 14th 1983 US Spanish bilateral Agreement of Friendship, Defense and Cooperation authorized the United States to station up to 15 tanker aircraft at Morón Air Base. A manpower change request was developed to increase blue-suit manning, based on the tanker task force and the increased War Reserve Materiel (WRM) requirements. The Morón Air Base work force, including all military, civilian, contractor and tenant personnel, was approximately 300 personnel.

In 1984, Morón became NASA’s Space Shuttle Transoceanic Abort Landing Site. Since that time, Morón and NASA have developed a lasting partnership in service to Shuttle ventures. In March 1984, Morón Air Base was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site for the space shuttle program. Special navigation and landing aids are in place, and personnel are highly trained to recover landing of the orbiter vehicle. Major enhancements were completed in 1986, and included the permanent installation of a Microwave Landing System. Morón Air Base is the only TAL site in the world situated to support high, mid, and low inclination launches. For this reason, Morón Air Base activates for almost all space shuttle launches.

In August 1990, SAC deployed 22 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers to support Operation DESERT SHIELD. In January 1991, SAC changed Morón Air Base from refueling to bomber operations for DESERT STORM. The 801st Bomb Wing (Provisional) at Morón Air Base consisted of 24 B-52s, 3 KC-135s and over 2,800 personnel. This was the largest deployed bomber wing during the war.
Since January 2000, Morón is a critical link in supporting the rotation of Aerospace Expeditionary Forces (AEF) — deployed in EUCOM and CENTCOM Areas of Responsibilities. Tanker Task Forces (KC-135 and KC-10), Fighter Units from the Air Force and Marine Corps, and airlifters (C-141, C-17 and C-5s) use Morón as a staging base for AEF operations. The base also frequently welcomes rotating US Army personnel.

Moron currently housed F-18 Hornet fighters and P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft – was once one of three bases the US used in Spain and home to about 2,000 active-duty people and their families. The Defense Department closed Torrejon and Zaragoza Air Bases, and trimmed Moron to little more than a handful of people keeping an eye on the runway and buildings in case the Air Force needed to return to the Iberian Peninsula.

** Torrejon Air Base was a major military airport in Spain. During the hey days of the Cold War, Torrejon was headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe Sixteenth Air Force as well as the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. Aircraft stationed at Torrejon were usually rotated to other USAFE airbases located in Italy and Turkey.

The Air Base was originally the home of the Spanish National Institute of Aeronautics, but after the U.S.-Spanish Defense Agreement of 1953, the US funded the construction at Torrejon of a brand new 13,400′ concrete runway in order to replace the 4,266-ft grass airstrip. A massive concrete apron and other necessary maintenance and shelter facilities were erected to accommodate the biggest of the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command’s bombers which mainly supported the Command’s strategic Reflex missions.
Today, among other things, the base houses the Torrejon-Madrid Airport.

V. Operational Activity

The main Spanish air formation is the Wing or ‘Ala’. Each Wing is composed of up to three squadrons (escuadrones). Between 19 and 24 aircraft are housed in an escuadron or air unit. The Ejercito also operates a number of Groups and special operation squadrons.
Total aircraft inventory is estimated to be around 660 operational airframes. Here’s a list of current air activity platforms and base units.

a. Fighter Attack Planes

  • Dassault Mirage F-1M
  • (36 units) Wing 14th
  • Dassault Mirage F-1BM
  • (3) Wing 14th
  • McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet F-18M
  • (68) Wing 12th & 15th
  • McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet F-18A
  • (17) Wing 46th
  • Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000
  • (36) Wing 11th
  • Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000T
  • (14) Wing 11th

b. Maritime Reconnaissance Systems

  • Fokker F-27
  • (3) 802nd Squadron
  • Lockheed Orion P-3A
  • (2) Wing 11th
  • Lockheed Orion P-3B
  • (2) Wing 11th
  • Lockheed Orion P-3M
  • (3) Wing 11th

c. Transport Aircraft

  • Airbus A310
  • (2) 45th Group
  • Beechcraft C-90
  • (4) 42nd Group
  • CASA C-212 T.12
  • (74) Distributed on various commands such as Wing 37th, 801st Group, 47th Group, Wing 48th, and 721st Squadron.
  • CASA C-212 T.12B
  • (10)
  • CASA C-212 T.12B modified
  • (6)
  • CASA CN-235
  • (20) Wing 25th
  • CASA C-295M
  • (13) Wing 35th
  • Dassault Falcon 900
  • (2) 45th Group
  • Dassault Falcon 900B
  • (3) 45th Group
  • Lockheed C-130H
  • (6) Wing 31st
  • Lockheed C-130H-30
  • (1) Wing 31st
  • Lockheed KC-130H
  • (5) Wing 31st

d. Aerial Refueling Airplanes

  • Boeing 707-300KC
  • (3) 47th Group

e. Trainers

  • Beechcraft Bonanza F-33C
  • (23) 42nd Group
  • CASA C-101EB-01
  • (73) General Air Academy
  • Northrop F-5BM
  • (20) Wing 23rd
  • LET L.13
  • (5) Wing 79th
  • PZL Bielsko SZD-30
  • (4) Wing 79th
  • Schiebe SF-28A
  • (1) Wing 79th
  • ENAER T-35C
  • (37) General Air Academy

f. Helicopters

  • Aerospatiale SA 330J
  • (4) 801st Squadron
  • Eurocopter EC 120B
  • (15) Wing 78th
  • Eurocopter AS 532UL
  • (2) Wing 46th & 48th
  • Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332
  • (9) Wing 46th & 48th
  • Sikorsky S-76C
  • (8) Wing 78th

Other aircraft included (6) CASA 127 VIP transports, (2) Cessna Citation V C-560 recon platforms, (4) Dassault Falcons 20D and E naval survey aircrafts, (12) Canadair CL-215 fire attack planes. Ten additional Canadair, version CL-415 aircraft as firefighting systems. The Ejercito operates one IAI B-707 351C Intelligence gathering aircraft.

On standby orders, the Spanish AF have 71 single-seat Typhoon fighter/attack aircraft. Sixteen two-seat dedicated attack Typhoons are also expected to join the Ejercito within a ten year radius. Between 25 and 28 Airbus A400Ms are also ordered.

VI. Current Deployments and Future Operational Profile

The Ejercito del Aire has been very active since the end of the Kosovo War. Spain’s F-1s has employed in the skies over Iraq and more recently, Afghanistan. It’s believed the some of Spain’s powerful Typhoon aircraft will soon see action in the Afghan theater of operations. Based on Herat Air Force Base, Ejercito’s F/A-18s and transport airplanes had been operating since the early 2005.
Spain also has a small detachment in the former Soviet republic of Kirgizstan. Elements of the 35th Wing are stationed there for logistic and medevac support operations.

As for the immediate future, the Spanish Air Force is fast becoming one of the better equip unit in the European Continent. It ranks 9th in total combat power, just below Poland and on top of countries such as the Ukraine and Finland. The country’s rank will likely remain the same as other European nations incorporate new type of air platforms to its active inventory.

– Raul Colon

More information:
How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st Century, James F. Dunnigan, HarperCollins Books 2003
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II; Stephene Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
Modern Military Aircraft in Combat, Editor Robert Jackson, Amber Books 2008

Leave a Comment