One of the biggest concerns of the Spanish navy about its future -- the 'expiration' of the Harrier fighters and their complicated succession – has now been solved by a 70-million euro plan to extend their service life beyond 2025. Their intended replacement, the American F-35B, must wait "until it becomes financially accessible" for Spain.
Spain has secured the future of its naval air wing, after years of uncertainty about what vertical takeoff fighters it would operate after 2020.
After the loss of the aircraft carrier 'Principe de Asturias’ -- an ideal platform for STOVL fighters, but which has now been retired -- the Navy had begun a process of reducing its Harrier force. Four of them were 'retired' after having been modernized at a total cost of about 11 million euros (about 3 million euros each) as no economic resources were available to operate and support them.
However, the picture changed dramatically after the May 23 meeting of the Council of Ministers, when the government announced an extension of the Memorandum of Understanding for the Harrier’s lifecycle support, and which was to expire next December.
With an outlay of 70 million euros-spread over ten years, Spain has gained access to the equipment and spare parts necessary to ensure that its fleet of AV-8B Harrier Plus fighters continue flying beyond 2025.
The F-35: parked
Today, the only short/vertical takeoff aircraft that fits the requirements of the Spanish navy is the US-made F-35B Lightning, an aircraft that the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy, which, together with Spain, are the leading world-wide operators of the Harrier, have already written into their acquisition plans.
According to Spanish Navy sources consulted by El Confidential Online, the F-35B "continues to be an unattainable aspiration in economic terms." In 2010, the Navy headquarters announced that it intended to procure 15 to 20 of these aircraft. These plans have now been parked indefinitely.
However, according to the navy sources, the Navy command nonetheless managed to outline a financial plan that would have allowed it to buy a few F-35Bs, but it was finally shot down by the Defence staff because of its cost.
One of the options being considered for the future is that, once the US takes these STOVL aircraft into service, it could hand over a few of them to Spain until the Spanish economy improves enough to allows the purchase of an F-35B package of its own. Today, the cost of an F-35B would be approximately EUR 130 million each (and that price does not include the engine, which costs over $28 million each—Ed.)
Given the economic inaccessibility of the F-35B, whose costs increase as the program advances, the Navy has been criticized for what some call "poor planning" on the Harriers.
Some years ago, the UK retired its own fleet of Harriers, and these would have been an n "almost inexhaustible" source of equipment and spare parts that would have allowed the Spanish Harrier fleet to be maintained for over a decade. And, above all, at an "affordable price," critics say.
These critics say Spain negotiated with the United Kingdom to purchase some of the Harrier inventory, but the conditions stipulated by Spain were rejected by London, which eventually sold more than 70 Harrier aircraft and a full spare parts inventory to the main operator of the Harrier: the US Marine Corps, which "which had predicted well before that the F- 35B not arrive in time."
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Other Spanish media report that the Council of Ministers has authorized the defense ministry to extend the Memorandum of Understanding on the life-cycle support of the AV-8B Plus for another 10 years, until December 2024.
The US, UK, Italy and Spain are the MoU’s signatories, and it is managed by a Joint Program Office set up in 1990, when the four countries first began to explore the joint design, development and support of a radar-equipped Harrier variant.
The MoU’s extension has been made possible because the USMC plans to extend the service life of its own AV-8Bs to keep them in service until the F-35B is finally delivered.
Spain will pay a total of 70.3 million euros for the MoU’s extension period, or about $10 million per year.)