Madrid — Spanish and American warships have just completed naval exercises off the Canary Islands. They could be the last before Spain opts to join NATO. The Spanish Navy, say US naval officers, is a highly professional fighting force, more than capable of taking its place among other NATO navies.
In strategic terms, the Spanish Navy could play a key role in NATO guarding the approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar, the vital strait itself, and a sizable portion of the western Mediterranean. A subsidiary role would be covering the waters off the Spanish Canary Islands, which lie close to the northwest African coast.
It has long been argued that, strategically, Spain would offer NATO an important rear area that would add depth and allow for the relatively safe resupply of men, weapons, and equipment from the United States -- a kind of logistical platform.
As important, however, is the denial of access to Soviet surface vessels, particularly submarines, to the Atlantic from the Mediterranean. Here, the role of the Spanish Navy could be vital. Although combined operations with units from more than one other Navy always present increased problems of control and communications, the Spanish Navy could certainly assume its NATO tasks with relatively few problems.
Spain's Navy is probably the most useful addition it has to offer NATO in terms of military strength. Of the three armed services it certainly has the most experience when it comes to operating with other Western armed forces.
The Spanish Army, with the exception of a possible token force stationed in Germany, would not be in the front line. The Spanish Air Force, though professionally highly competent, is barely large enough to take care of Spain's own air defense needs.
Because of its geographical position -- the Iberian Peninsula forms the southwestern extremity of Europe -- Spanish land forces are less likely to become involved in a conventional clash between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, unless this comes in the form of an amphibious thrust from the Mediterranean.
The professionalism of Spanish naval forces was borne out during the recent amphibious transit phase of this year's giant naval maneuvers, called Ocean Venture, which involves the navies of 14 countries exercising on a bilateral basis with the United States.
Spain's major surface warships, including the jump-jet carrier Dedalo, first opposed an amphibious force of US warships and then joined in a war-at-sea operation.
Spanish and American naval units have exercised regularly together for decades now and the degree of ship-to-ship coordination is extremely high. The recent exercises included a tricky night rendezvous totaling 13 ships. The combined force took up battle stations without a hitch while silent-running Spanish diesel submarines lay in wait to test American antisubmarine defenses.
The Spanish Navy has a core of five modern antisubmarine frigates equipped with guided missiles based on the American Knox class. These generally operate with the Dedalo, forming the principal Spanish task force.