Matadors at Sea

Erik Roelofs spent some time at sea, recently, with the Armada Española (Spanish Navy) aboard its carrier, the SPS Principe de Asturias, which is likely to be retired in the near future.

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Under pressure to achieve dramatic cost savings, the Spanish Navy may be forced to send its only aircraft carrier into early retirement. Erik Roelofs reflects upon his time aboard the Principe de Asturiaswhere he witnessed Spanish naval aviation in action.

Principe de Asturias

The SPS Principe de Asturias is a so-called vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft carrier, which, unlike a conventional aircraft carrier, does not use catapults or arresting cables to launch and recover aircraft. Instead, the Principe de Asturias relies on the V/STOL capability of its aircraft and helicopters, and the ship is fitted with a “ski-jump” sloped foredeck to assist fully loaded Harrier aircraft to take off.

V/STOL aircraft carriers are typically a lot smaller than the large aircraft carriers used by the US Navy. For instance, the nuclear powered USS Nimitz is 332 metres long and has a displacement of 100,000 tonnes whereas the Principe de Asturias is only 195 metres long with a displacement of just 16,700 tonnes. The Spanish V/STOL carrier has a crew of 830 compared the USS Nimitz’s crew of 3,200. The Principe de Asturias was entirely built in Spain and entered service with the Spanish Navy (Armada) in May 1988.

Upon entering service, the Principe de Asturias received the designation R11 and relieved the aircraft carrierDédalo as the Armada’s flagship. The Dédalo was already 30 years old when it entered Spanish service in 1972, having been constructed as the light aircraft carrier USS Cabot in 1942. As soon as the Principe de Asturiasbecame fully operational in 1989, the Dédalo was retired and ultimately scrapped in 2002.

Although the Principe de Asturias can, in theory, carry nearly 30 aircraft and helicopters, it rarely sails with more than 10 Harriers and a mixture of Sea King and Twin Huey helicopters aboard. The small flight deck does not provide a lot of space to park, launch and recover aircraft. Even when carrying a modest number of Harriers and helicopters, the deck crew are constantly shuffling parked aircraft around on deck.

However, the carrier is fitted with a spacious hangar below decks that provides ample space for the Harriers, helicopters, a wide variety of aircraft handling equipment, several cars and small boats, and even has a crew exercise area. Access to these hangars is provided through two aircraft elevators, one located at the stern of the ship and the other located immediately in front of the bridge.

Matadors and Harriers

The Spanish Navy has operated the Harrier for more than 36 years, across three generations of the famous V/STOL fighter. The first batch of six AV-8S single seat and two TAV-8S two-seat aircraft were delivered to the Spanish Navy during 1976. A second batch of four AV-8S aircraft was delivered in 1980. The distinctive large air intakes gave the aircraft the nickname “Cobra”, although the official name is “Matador”. All of the AV-8S Matadors were operated by 8 Escuadrilla (8 Squadron), based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Rota, like all other Spanish Naval Aviation Squadrons. These early model AV-8S Matadors, with their distinctive large air intakes and low placed canopies, received company when the Spanish Navy took delivery of the EAV-8B Harrier II in 1987. Between 1987 and autumn 1988, 12 EAV-8B Harrier II aircraft were delivered to the newly formed 9 Escuadrilla at NAS Rota.

The new EAV-8B Harrier II offered better performance and handling. It had a newly designed wing, which offered better performance at high speeds, better fuel consumption and increased fuel capacity. The Rolls-Royce F402-RR-406 engine provided more thrust and more reliability than the engine in the earlier AV-8S. The EAV-8B also has smaller air intakes and a higher placed canopy, offering better pilot visibility.

Spain’s last seven AV-8S and two TAV-8S Matadors were sold to Thailand in 1996, where they entered service with the Royal Thai Navy although it is believed they are no longer operational. After phasing out the AV-8S and TAV-8S Matadors, 8 Escuadrilla was disbanded.

In 1996, the Spanish Navy also took delivery of its first EAV-8B+ aircraft. The Harrier II Plus programme was a joint effort by the United States Marine Corps and the Spanish and Italian Navies to increase the effectiveness of the AV-8B Harrier II while sharing the costs of the programme. The most noticeable improvement to the Harrier II Plus was the installation of the Hughes AN/APG-65 multimode radar—the same radar system used by the F/A-18C Hornet. Although fitted with a slightly smaller antenna than the Hornet, the AN/APG-65 gives the EAV-8B+ a true beyond visual range (BVR) capability. Armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, the EAV-8B+ can detect and destroy enemy aircraft well before they enter visual range. The radar-less EAV-8B can only rely on short-range heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for self-defence. The upgraded EAV-8B+ Harriers can easily be identified by their larger noses, which house the AN/APG-65 radar.

In addition to its radar upgrade, the strike capability of the EAV-8B+ was improved. The Litening II targeting pod enables the EAV-8B+ to undertake strike missions at night or in adverse weather. New avionics and weapon systems allow the EAV-8B+ to use precision-guided munitions including JDAM and laser-guided weapon systems. The EAV-8B+ also received a new Rolls-Royce engine, the F402-RR-408, which delivers 10% more thrust than the older 406 engines. The Spanish Navy received eight “factory fresh” EAV-8B+ aircraft in 1996, which also entered service with 9 Escuadrilla. Of the remaining nine EAV-8B Harriers, four aircraft were lost in accidents, leaving five aircraft to be brought up to Harrier II Plus standard by CASA.

Four EAV-8B “Day Attack” Harriers continue to operate next to the EAV-8B+ variants with 9 Escuadrilla. The Navy is now getting these aircraft upgraded by CASA under the SNUG programme (short for Spanish Navy Upgrade). These four legacy snub-nosed Harriers are receiving new and more powerful Pegasus 408A engines and identical cockpit layouts to those of the EAV-8B+ aircraft. Like their Plus brethren, the SNUG Harriers can use the Litening targeting pod but will not receive the APG-65 radar, and therefore retain their snub noses. With the current budget restrictions, any update to full Harrier II Plus standard seems unlikely for these aircraft.

Besides the EAV-8B and EAV-8B+ Harriers, 9 Escuadrilla also operates a single two-seat TAV-8B. After selling its two TAV-8S twin-stick aircraft to Thailand, the Spanish Navy could no longer train its own Harrier pilots. To fill the gap, the US Marine Corps provided this training at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina until the Spanish Navy finally bought another two-seat Harrier in June 2001. Although the Harrier training is now conducted in Spain, any new Harrier pilots still have to travel to the United Sates to undergo basic flight training on the T-34C Mentor and T-45A Goshawk.

Helicopter Operations

Although the Spanish Navy operates four helicopter types, only two operate from the Principe de Asturias, these being the SH-3H Sea King and the Agusta Bell 212. The SH-60B Seahawk helicopters operate from the F-80 Santa Maria class frigates and the Hughes 369 helicopters are used for basic training back at NAS Rota.

No. 5 Escuadrilla, nicknamed “The Flying Cows”, flies two versions of the SH-3H Sea King. Initially, all Sea Kings were delivered as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters but three of these were converted to airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters by CASA in Spain. These AEW Sea Kings use the Thorn-EMI Searchwater radar system and can easily be identified by the large radar bulge attached to the helicopter. Operated by two radar officers, the AEW SH-3H Sea Kings patrol ahead of the naval task force, providing early warning alert for incoming missiles or aircraft.

The remaining SH-3H Sea Kings were converted to troop carriers and received a transport role. Usually, two AEW Sea Kings deploy aboard the Principe de Asturias, leaving the third example at NAS Rota. The SH-3H troop carriers not only deploy aboard the Principe de Asturias but also to Spanish Navy amphibious ships such as the SPS Galicia and SPS Castilla, which are similar in size and appearance to the HMNZS Canterbury.

The Principe de Asturias usually sails with one or two Agusta Bell 212 ASW helicopters on board, which all belong to 3 Escuadrilla, nicknamed “the Cat Squadron”. Although the AB212 ASW is an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, it has taken up the search and rescue (SAR) role while operating from the carrier. During daylight aircraft operations, the SAR aircrew is standing by to launch within minutes if rescue is required. During night launches or recoveries, the AB212 remains airborne, hovering close the aircraft carrier to provide immediate assistance in case of emergency. While the AB212 ASW helicopters are not performing SAR operations, they provide close air support for the Spanish Marines, and can be armed with machineguns and rocket pods.

The days of the Sea King and the AB212 may be numbered, though, as the aging Sea Kings are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. When asked about the frequent oil leaks, one Sea King pilot said, “Our Sea Kings are really flying cows, but instead of milk, they produce oil!” In 2005, Spain placed an initial order for 45 NH90 helicopters, including up to 28 helicopters for the Navy. The first Spanish NH90 made its maiden flight in 2010 and deliveries are expected to commence this year. Although no mention has been made of an AEW variant, the NH90 could replace both the Sea King and AB212 aboard the Navy’s aircraft carrier and amphibious ships.

In 2010, the Spanish government also requested clearance to buy six former US Navy SH-60F Seahawk helicopters to supplement the 12 SH-60B models it currently operates. With the imminent arrival of the NH90 and the acquisition of more SH-60 helicopters, the Spanish Navy can finally retire its aging Sea Kings and AB212 helicopters. However, the Navy may be forced to sacrifice the Sea King’s AEW capability, as an indigenous developed AEW kit for the NH90 may prove to be too costly.

Early Retirement

In May this year, the Spanish press reported that the Navy may seek early retirement for the Principe de Asturiasand six Santa Maria class frigates. Although one newspaper even mentioned the possibility that the 30-year-old carrier would be sold as a floating casino, the Navy may look at a more gradual retirement process instead. This would see the carrier first being placed on restricted duty before being put in operational reserve or mothballed at its berth in Cadiz.

The Principe de Asturias no longer participates in international naval exercises and has recently only left the port of Cadiz to allow the Navy’s Harrier pilots to retain their carrier qualifications. In 2003, the Principe de Asturiasturned 15 years old and was due for a complete overhaul, including modernisation of all the onboard systems. Because of the estimated cost of around 400 million Euros, this refit never took place. Nearly 10 years later, the carrier urgently needs a complete overhaul and most of its war fighting systems are completely outdated. Once the Principe de Asturias is mothballed, the costs of returning the ship to service would be staggering. This makes it even more likely that the carrier will be withdrawn from service once it finds itself permanently docked in Cadiz.

However, unlike the British Royal Navy, the Armada may not be without an aircraft carrier once the Principe de Asturias has been withdrawn from service. The SPS Juan Carlos I is a brand new, multi-purpose warship that joined the Spanish Navy in September 2010. Named after the current king of Spain, the Juan Carlos I is very similar to the US Navy Wasp class and Royal Australian Navy’s Canberra class amphibious assault ships. Although, strictly speaking, it is not an aircraft carrier, the Juan Carlos I is also fitted with a ski-jump to support V/STOL fighter operations. As an amphibious assault ship, the Juan Carlos I is fitted with a spacious vehicle bay that can be turned into aircraft hangar when operating as an aircraft carrier.

The Juan Carlos I is not a small ship. In fact, at 230 metres and with a displacement of 27,000 tonnes, it is larger than the Principe de Asturias. Although not designed as an aircraft carrier, the brand new Juan Carlos I can effortlessly support both Harrier and helicopter operations and will not require an expensive refit for some years to come. All these factors will make an early retirement of the Principe de Asturias a more compelling option for the Spanish Navy, as the current economic climate will not allow the Navy to operate these two ships simultaneously.


The author and editor would like to thank Captain Esteban, Lieutenant Villa and the men and women of the Spanish Navy aboard the SPS Principe de Asturias (R11) and SPS Castilla (L52) for their support, trust and hospitality.