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Spain F-35

Spain F-35Spain's AV-8B still has 10 or 15 years of service left. The US-made F-35 5th generation fighters could be a good replacement for Spain’s ageing fleet of ship-borne Cobra AV-8B Harrier II-PLUS aircraft. Buying from 10 to 20 units could be an option. However, this implies long-term costs and the need to make this purchase a priority, overshadowing the other needs of the armed forces. Ministry of Defense sources specify that the F-35 is not a priority as of 2018 for the Spanish Navy: "The average operational life is in its half flight hours. Therefore, it is not a decision to make now," they say.

The Navy aims to buy the F-35 to equip the Strategic Projection Ship L-61 Juan Carlos I, which would give it a combat action radius of about 600 miles. The new fifth generation fighter, still under development, incorporates many latest generation technologies such as its invisibility to radars and has a single jet engine, which in its naval version operates in vertical landing and takeoff and has managed to overcome with better results of the required vertical thrust tests.

The Navy has 17 units of the AV-8B Harrier II, some of them in the Plus version. These are relatively new aircraft with few hours of flight. In addition to being certified for the launch of JDAM bombs, they have the ability to send cabin images in real time to advanced air traffic controllers. While it is true that the Harrier has reached the limit of its evolution, it is not so clear the need or convenience that it is replaced by the F-35. Given the average age of Spainish combat aviation, it could be said that more than new aircraft Spain needs equipment and weapons systems that maximize the capacity of the current platforms: Litening II reconnaissance pods, Iris-T air-to-air missiles, Meteor and KEPD-35 Taurus, or Paveway III bombs.

In May 2009, Lockheed Martin exhibited for the first time before a group of Spanish journalists the vertical fighter-bomber F-35B at his factory in Fort Worth, Texas, and stated that it was the natural substitute for the Harrier currently in service in the Navy. Lockheed Martin also showed the Spanish press the final assembly line of the three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F35A, B and C (conventional, vertical takeoff and short takeoff). The model that interested Spain, the F-35B, had already made fourteen test flights.

Recurring problems with the F-35 may cast doubt on its suitability. A Spanish Defense Ministry representative told Sputnik in October 2018 that the country was setting new medium-term and long-term goals for the armed forces. “A gradual replacement of the Spanish Navy’s Harrier jets is part of this planning process,” a ministry representative told Sputnik. "At the moment, the task is to consider all possible options," he added.

In an interview with Sputnik, Jose Luis Hernando Diaz, an assistant professor at the Polytechnic University in Madrid, said that while the F-35B is a good replacement for the Harrier, its numerous shortfalls, including the high price and a long trail of malfunctions, are unacceptable for such an expensive aircraft.

The September 2018 crash of a US Marine Corps F-35B in South Carolina resulted in a temporary grounding of all such aircraft as experts were trying to determine if the mishap was caused by a faulty fuel tube. Jose Luis Hernando Diaz considered it unlikely that the incident will affect Spain’s choice to buy the F-35B. Before it does, however, it wants to wait for the fighter to enter service in other countries’ militaries. “It is too early to draw conclusions about the causes of the accident and, therefore, to predict its consequences. Whatever the main reason for the crash, Spain’s attitude has always been one of a reasonable waiting mode, ” he noted.

Because Spain does not participate in the Joint Strike Fighter program and none of its companies are involved in the production process, the F-35B fighter is likely to cost Spain more than, for example, Britain or Italy.

The Defense Ministry claims that it intends to analyze and evaluate all factors, including operational, technological, industrial and economic. Any future weapon system must meet operational requirements, which inevitably necessitates the inclusion of high-tech elements. However, industrial factors, life cycle costs, etc., are also analyzed. They also discussed buying the F-35B together with the F-35 for the Air Force and/or for their possible combined operation with the Navy.

There is no alternative to the acquisition of the F-35B, because this is the only realistic option in the short to medium term to replace the Harrier, since the European projects are now only at an early stage. One such "highly unlikely option" could be the FCAS 6th generation European fighter jointly being developed by France and Germany. At the same time, it is not yet known whether a V/STOL version of this aircraft will be created to land on board the Spanish Navy’s multirole landing craft-carrier the Juan Carlos I.

But the main problem with this option is the timing. The French-German FCAS will make its first test flight only in 2025. It is not expected to become fully operational before 2040, a decade after the Harriers have outlived their lifespan. But the Spanish Ministry of Defense is considering all options. The procurement planning process is in its infancy, and no option can be dismissed out of hand, including, of course, the European fighter FCAS. The possibility of a high-performance UCAV based on a European design such as Neuron or Barracuda, or even an American one such as the Boeing X-45 could be explored.

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Page last modified: 27-10-2018 18:28:10 ZULU