In time of trans-Atlantic austerity, US expands military presence in Spain

With its already small defense budget hit hard by the economic crisis Spain is leasing several bases to the US in exchange for access to better technology, intelligence, and training.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
A member of the Spanish Royal Guard snoozes as he waits for the start of a military parade in Madrid in Jan. 2011. Spain's military is hoping to rejuvenate itself via deals with the US which will give the American military quick access to Africa and the Middle East in exchange for improved training and technology for the Spanish military.

The state of Spain's military today couldn't be much further removed from the the days of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

Where some forty years ago the military was the government, today's annual defense spending accounts for a single percent of the country's GDP.  Spain's military expenses look to remain small for the foreseeable future, racked by the country's long-term arms contracts and ongoing economic crisis. And its military credentials are still stained by Spain's rapid withdrawals from military coalitions in Iraq and Kosovo in recent years.

So Spain is falling back on the core of modern US-Spanish relations, dating back to General Franco's era: offering its strategic vantage point as gateway to the Mediterranean and Africa in exchange for the American cooperation it needs to bolster its defense.

Punching below its weight

Since it joined NATO in 1982, Spain has historically been one of the alliance's smallest military spenders, and the smallest among the bloc's big countries. Its military expenditure has decreased since 2007 to around 1 percent of the gross domestic product – far below the 5 percent average spent in most industrialized nations. Spain’s Defense Minister Pedro Meronés described it on Monday as “an endemically ill-financed defense.”

And while Spaniards have criticized that defense spending has been cut less than other public services, Mr. Meronés warned that “People assume [the armed forces] will always be there, but it’s not the case."

"We have been trying for some time to relay the message to citizens that it’s an asset that has to supported and financed,” Meronés said.

The budget of the Defense Ministry has been cut around 30 percent since 2007, Meronés said, although total defense spending cuts are closer to 12 percent because international troop deployments and some defense expenditure is paid through other ministries, according to a study commissioned by the Ministry of Defense about the effects of spending cuts that was published earlier this year by Fundación Alternativas, a Madrid-based think tank.

The report found that military spending is strained as result of arms contracts that were mostly signed before the crisis. The contracts, equivalent to more than 20 percent of Spain's annual budget shortfall, will use up money over the next 15 years that could otherwise be invested in troop training and combat readiness.

Arms contracts are being renegotiated or delayed to decrease costs, troop salaries have been cut, and investment into training and operational readiness is plummeting.

A Spanish launching pad for US forces

That is where the bilateral military deals with the US come in.

Crisis-hit Spain understandably wants to bolster its diplomatic ties to the US for a myriad of economic and political goals. But while Europe, and Spain particularly, is becoming irrelevant to Washington’s global broader priorities, it can offer the US easier access to regions where those priorities do lie.

As part of the most recent deal, 500 US Marines are in the process of deploying to Morón Air Base in southern Spain as part of rapid reaction force that will act as the vanguard to protect American interests in the increasingly volatile North African region, especially following last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died.

The Spanish government last month approved the deployment of the combat-ready team, which along with six V-22 Osprey and two C-130 refueling aircraft will be ready to react within hours to evacuate Americans under orders of the US Africa Command.

Spain last year already negotiated a new eight-year extension to the US lease of several military facilities, including the Rota naval base that will be home to four anti-missile Aegis destroyers as of 2014 as part of a missile defense shield in Europe of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Spain’s strategic, US-leased military bases are “a great logistical platform for the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa, and that’s the role it’s played in all major recent conflicts,” says José Antonio Olmeda Gómez, a political science professor in Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, and an expert in Spanish defense and security.

“The goal is to watch over the evolution of Al Qaeda in the Magreb, which is also a security threat to Spain.”

Partnership's benefit

In addition to the security boost of being a base of operations for US forces, Spain will benefit through the new assets that come with the US presence.

Closer ties with the US military will give Spanish forces access to top of the line training, technology, and intelligence, says Dr. Olmeda. “It will help Spain keep a technological edge. [Spain's] armed forces are in very bad shape. There is no money and everything is pretty stalled.”

Increasing international military cooperation is also a cost-effective ways to improve Spain’s forces and to modernize them for new challenges, like peace keeping, natural disasters, and maintaining a real operational force, the Fundación Alternativas study said. “Collaborating, sharing, and integrating military structures” allows Spain to maintain long term costs “that it would not be able to assume otherwise.”

And the cooperation with the US will help Spain's efforts to improve its reputation among allies after the sudden 2004 withdrawal of troops from Iraq for its political opposition to the war, followed in 2009 by the withdrawal from Kosovo to avoid encouraging its own secessionist movements within Spain.

The withdrawals from Iraq and Kosovo “made us a non-reliable partner,” Olmeda says. “The military agreements seek to mend that [and] are also a balloon of oxygen for Spain amid falling defense spending.”

[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized the US military's ongoing base leases with Spain.]

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