Spain ‘Rejects’ US F-35 Stealth Fighters; To Focus On ‘Made In Europe’ Eurofighter Typhoons

The Pentagon’s hopes have been dashed as Spain withdrew its earlier declaration of intent to acquire the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II as a possible substitute for its existing McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II and Boeing EF-18 Hornets.

“We have no information about Spain’s interest in acquiring another weapons system other than the Eurofighter,” the Spanish Ministry of Defence (MoD) told Janes. The statement comes when Madrid hosts the IQPC International Fighter Conference (IFC) 2023.

Spain first announced in November 2021 it had asked for information on the enhanced Long Term Evolution (LTE) version of the Eurofighter from Airbus as well as the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35A and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B from Lockheed Martin. However, the latest announcement signals that the country has pulled the plug on any potential F-35 purchase, at least for now.

Earlier, the then Director of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program, Vice Admiral Mathias W. “Mat” Winter, told US lawmakers that “future potential Foreign Military Sales customers for the F-35 include Singapore, Greece, Romania, Spain and Poland.” The Americans have, thus, been betting on a potential contract with Spain after sweeping all others on that list except Greece, which is actively considering the purchase.

The Spanish government’s rejection of the F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft may be a setback to the United States and Lockheed Martin. The aircraft manufacturer has essentially been bagging contracts globally. The F-35 has routinely defeated other contenders, including the Dassault Rafale, Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen, and the Eurofighter Typhoon manufactured by Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo.

The surge in the popularity of the F-35 fighter jet across Europe has been despite pleas from French authorities for its neighbors to “buy European.” Military analysts have asserted that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s high rate of interoperability with allies and partners, especially in NATO, and its assured upgrade roadmap have been the main factors contributing to this wave of success.

However, these factors combined have not worked for Spain, which has shown its preference for the homebuilt 4.5th-generation Eurofighter Typhoon over the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jets.

On its part, Spain has been dithering on the purchase of the F-35. In November 2021, Spain put to rest all speculation about buying the American F-35 stealth fighter aircraft after the spokesperson of its Defense Ministry clarified to the press that all Spanish energies were focused on the FCAS, which it has been keenly pursuing alongside France and Germany.

However, the Spanish rejection of the jet may now come as a rude shock since there were indications that momentum was building in the country for materializing a purchase of the American stealth jets. The speculations that the F-35 would be favored began swirling in May this year when the Spanish government announced the pledge to hike its defense budget to align with NATO’s targets by 2029.

At the time, Gen. Javier Salto Martínez-Avial, chief of the Air & Space Force, described a “long-term” objective for the Spanish MoD in acquiring a fifth-generation fighter, besides purchasing additional Eurofighter Typhoons. However, there may have been some internal brainstorming since the government does not seem keen on buying the expensive F-35 fighters from the United States.

The withdrawal from the F-35 talks has also somehow coincided with the possibility of retrofitting the Long Term Evolution (LTE) upgrades for the Eurofighter combat aircraft to its more expansive fleet. Military watchers quickly observed that the decision signals a choice of Eurofighters over F-35s.

Upgrades To Wider Spanish Eurofighter Fleet

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said on November 6 that Spain may install Long Term Evolution (LTE) improvements for the Eurofighter combat aircraft (C.16 in national service) to its more extensive fleet.

In response to a Janes question regarding the interest of the Spanish Air and Space Force (Ejército del Aire y del Espacio: EdAE) in the LTE upgrade, the MoD stated that this could be implemented for the entire Eurofighter fleet, including those aircraft that are currently under contract or have been chosen for future procurement.

The MoD said, “Halcon I and Halcon II will not be acquired with the LTE standard, which is under development. However, Halcon I and Halcon II, as well as earlier tranches, might be upgraded to LTE standard in the future.”

The air force is adding 20 Tranche 4 (contracted under Halcon I) and 25 Tranche 4+ (chosen under Halcon II, with a contract pending) aircraft to its 17 Tranche 1, 32 Tranche 2, and 19 Tranche 3 Eurofighters, which it currently flies as a partial replacement for its 91 EF-18A and EF-18B Hornets. 

Since the LTE modifications would not be appropriate for the Tranche 1 aircraft, leaving 96 of its Tranche 2, 3, 4, and 4+ Eurofighters (together with whatever is left over from a possible Halcon III purchase for Tranche 5) eligible for possible LTE enhancements.

F-35/Representational Image

Moreover, General Javier Salto Martinez-Avial, chief of staff of the Spanish Air and Space Force (Ejército del Aire y del Espacio), gave a thorough outline of the future intentions of his service, mentioning the Eurofighters that will be purchased through the Halcon I and Halcon II programs. He didn’t mention the F-35 at all.

Under a €2-billion contract negotiated and signed last year, Spain is scheduled to receive delivery of 20 Typhoons between 2025 and 2030 to replace its aging F-18 aircraft. The American stealth fighter was first rebuffed when Spain decided to order Typhoons.

The political self-interest of the European nations that produced the Typhoon and decided to order it inevitably played a significant role. For instance, 20,000 direct and indirect jobs are supported by Airbus’s industrial footprint in Spain, which includes the assembly and testing of Spain’s newest Typhoons.

Adding the upgrades to its more expansive fleet will still not convert the fighter into a modern stealth jet but would surely bolster the capability of Eurofighters operated by Spain. The Long Term Evolution [LTE] variant of the Eurofighter is a modernized version of the original Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.

The LTE offers advancements in communication systems, sensors, and avionics. With these enhancements, the Eurofighter can share data more quickly, have higher situational awareness, and communicate with other aircraft and ground systems more effectively.

The sophisticated radar system of the LTE model is one of its primary characteristics. It has an Active Electronically Scanned Array [AESA] radar, which improves target tracking, extends detection range, and fortifies against electronic countermeasures.

The LTE version has upgraded electronic warfare capabilities in addition to the radar improvement, enabling better self-defense and countermeasures against possible threats.

The Eurofighter’s LTE version is made to adapt to the changing demands of contemporary air combat. Its sophisticated modifications and cutting-edge technologies make it a powerful fighter aircraft that can operate in demanding and complicated conditions.