Spanish Navy

Spanish Navy
Spanish Navy
Emblem of the Spanish Navy.svg
Active 13th century - present
Country Spain
Branch Spanish Armed Forces
Type Navy
Size 95 ships
20.193 personnel
250,000 Tons.
Part of Ministry of Defence
Garrison/HQ Rota
Anniversaries 16 July
Commander in Chief King Juan Carlos I
Chief of the Navy Staff Manuel Rebollo García
Naval jack Naval Jack of Spain.svg
National Ensign Flag of Spain.svg

The Spanish Navy (Spanish: Armada Española) is the maritime branch of the Spanish Armed Forces, one of the oldest active naval forces in the world. The Armada is responsible for notable achievements in world history such as the discovery of Americas, the first world circumnavigation, and the discovery of a maritime path from the Far East to America across the Pacific Ocean (Urdaneta's route). For three centuries the Spanish Navy played a crucial defensive and logistical role within the Spanish Empire. It formed part of a vast trade network that sailed the Pacific from Asia to America and the Atlantic from America to Europe escorting the galleon convoys. The Spanish Navy was the most powerful maritime force in the world in the 16th and early 17th centuries. After a gradual decline in the second half of the 17th century, it was revived following the Spanish War of Succession and for much of the 18th century was the third strongest in the world.

As of 1987, the Armada had 47,300 personnel, including Marines, of which about 34,000 were conscripted.[1] In 2002 all branches of the Spanish armed forces were professionalized.[2] The main bases of the Spanish Navy are located in Rota, El Ferrol, San Fernando and Cartagena. See also: Structure of the Spanish Navy in the 21st century.

As of 2010 the total displacement of the navy is approximately 250,000 tons.[3]


The Spanish Navy today

Subordinate to the Spanish Chief of Naval Staff, stationed in Madrid, are four area commands: the Cantabrian Maritime Zone with its headquarters at El Ferrol on the Atlantic coast; the Straits Maritime Zone with its headquarters at San Fernando near Cádiz; the Mediterranean Maritime Zone with its headquarters at Cartagena; and the Canary Islands Maritime Zone with its headquarters at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Operational naval units are classified by mission and assigned to either the combat forces, the protective forces, or the auxiliary forces. Combat forces are given the tasks of conducting offensive and defensive operations against potential enemies and for assuring maritime communications. Their principal vessels included two carrier groups, naval aircraft, transports, landing vessels, submarines, and missile-armed fast attack craft. Protective forces have the mission of securing maritime communications over both ocean and coastal routes, securing the approaches to ports and maritime terminals. Their principal components are destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and minesweepers. It also has marine units for the defense of naval installations. Auxiliary forces are responsible for transportation and provisioning at sea and has diverse tasks like coast guard operations, scientific work, and maintenance of training vessels. In addition to supply ships and tankers, the force included destroyers and a large number of patrol craft.

The second largest vessel of the Armada is the aircraft carrier, Principe de Asturias (R11), which entered service in 1988 after completing sea trials. Built in Spain it was designed with a "ski-jump" takeoff deck. Its complement is twenty nine AV-8 Harrier II vertical (or short) takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft or sixteen helicopters designed for antisubmarine warfare and to support marine landings.

The carrier has an escort group of four Álvaro de Bazán class frigates, built in Spain, equipped with the AEGIS combat system and armed with Harpoon and Standard missiles. The first was commissioned in 2002. Also in the inventory are six F-80 Santa María class frigates, commissioned between 1986 and 1995, built in Spain. Six slightly smaller corvettes of Portuguese design were constructed in Spain between 1978 and 1982.

The submarine force consists of Franco-Spanish designs. Four of the Agosta 90B class submarine were constructed in Spain between 1983 and 1985. They are equipped with the submarine-launched version of the Exocet anti-ship missile. Four Daphné class submarines were completed between 1973 and 1975 and are now retired. The Spanish armada is constructing new S-80 class submarine with long range, conventional propulsion and new anti-detection technology .

The Marines have 11,500 troops and are divided into base defense forces and landing forces. One of the three base defense battalions is stationed with each of the Navy headquarters. "Groups" (midway between battalions and regiments) are stationed in Madrid and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. The Tercio (fleet - regiment equivalent) is available for immediate embarkation and based out of San Fernando. Its principal weapons include light tanks, armored personnel vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and TOW and Dragon antitank missiles.


Commemorative plaque at Cádiz's Panteón de los Marinos Ilustres, depicting a list of Victories of the Armadas of Spain.

Conquest of Majorca 1229
Conquest of Minorca 1232
Conquest of Ibiza 1234
Conquest of Seville 1248
Battle of Malta 1283
Combat of Sorrento
Battle of Castellamare
Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1337) 1337
Battle of La Rochelle 1371
Combat of Gibraltar 1407
Battle of La Rochelle (1419)
Conquest of the Canary Islands 1484
Conquest of Malaga 1487
Conquest of Oran 1509
Conquest of Tunis 1535
Battle of Muros Bay 1544
Conquest of Velez 1584
Battle of Lepanto 1571
Battle of Ponta Delgada 1582
Disembarkation of Terceira Island
Spanish landing on Ireland 1602
Battle of Saint Vincent 1603?
Battle of Playa Honda 1617
Battle de Pernambuco 1621
Combate de Las Antillas 1629
Batalla de los Abrojos 1621
Conquest of Sardinia 1717
Battle of Cartagena de Indias 1741
Battle of Toulon 1744
Battle of the Azores 1780
Siege of Pensacola 1781
Reconquest of Buenos Aires 1806
Battle of Cadiz 1808
Siege of Cádiz 1810 - 1812
Bombardeo del Callao 1866
Landing on Alhucemas
Battle of the Strait 1936
Cantabrian campaign 1936 - 1939
Campaign of the Mediterranean 1936 - 1939

Origins: The Middle Ages

Battle of La Rochelle, 1372

The roots of the modern Spanish navy date back before the unification of Spain. By the late Middle Ages, the two principal kingdoms which would later combine to form Spain, Aragon and Castile, had developed powerful fleets. Aragon possessed the third largest navy in the late medieval Mediterranean, although its capabilities were exceeded by those of Venice and (until overtaken in the 15th-century by those of Aragon) Genoa. In the 14th and 15th centuries, these naval capabilities enabled Aragon to assemble the largest collection of territories of any European power in the Mediterranean, encompassing the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy and, briefly, the Duchy of Athens. Castile meanwhile used its naval capacities to conduct its reconquista operations against the Moors, capturing Cadiz in 1232 and also to help the French Crown against its enemies in the Hundred Years War. In 1402 a Castilian expedition led by Juan de Bethencourt conquered the Canary Islands for Henry III of Castile.

In the 15th century Castile entered into a race of exploration with Portugal that inaugurated the European age of discovery. In 1492 two caravels and one carrack, commanded by Admiral Christopher Columbus, arrived in America, on an expedition that sought a westward oceanic passage across the Atlantic, to the Far East. This began the era of trans-oceanic trade routes, pioneered by the Spanish in the seas to the west of Europe and the Portuguese to the east.

The Habsburg Era

Following the discovery of America and the settlement of certain Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Pizarro were carried by the Spanish navy to the mainland, where they conquered Mexico and Peru respectively. The navy also carried explorers to the North American mainland, including Juan Ponce de León and Alvarez de Pineda who discovered Florida (1519) and Texas (1521) respectively. In 1519, Spain sent out the first expedition of world circumnavigation in history, which was put in the charge of Ferdinand Magellan. Following the death of Magellan in the Philippines, the expedition was completed under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano in 1522. In 1565, a follow-on expedition by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was carried by the navy from New Spain (Mexico) to the Philippines via Guam in order to establish the Spanish East Indies, a base for trade with the Orient. For two and a half centuries, the Manila Galleons operated across the Pacific linking Manila and Acapulco. Until the early 17th century, the Pacific Ocean. Aside from the Marianas and Caroline Islands, several naval expeditions also discovered the Tuvalu archipelago, the Marquesas, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in the South Pacific. In the quest for Terra Australis, Spanish explorers in the 17th century also discovered the Pitcairn and Vanuatu archipelagos. Most significantly, from 1565 Spanish fleets explored and colonised the Philippine archipelago, the Spanish East Indies.

Battle of Lepanto, 1571

After the unification of its kingdoms under the House of Habsburg, Spain maintained two largely separate fleets, one consisting chiefly of galleys for use in the Mediterranean and the other of sailing ships for the Atlantic, successors to the Aragonese and Castilian navies respectively. This arrangement continued until superseded by the decline of galley warfare during the 17th century. The completion of the Reconquista with the conquest of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492 had been followed by naval expansion in the Mediterranean, where Spain seized control of almost every significant port along the coast of North Africa west of Cyrenaica, notably Melilla (captured 1497), Mers El Kébir (1505), Oran (1509), Algiers (1510) and Tripoli (1511), which marked the furthest point of this advance. However, the hinterlands of these ports remained under the control of their Muslim and Berber inhabitants, and the expanding naval power of the Ottoman Empire brought about a major Islamic counter-offensive which embroiled Spain in decades of intense warfare for control of the western Mediterranean. (Algiers and Tripoli would be lost to the Ottomans later in the 16th century.)

From the 1570s the Dutch Revolt increasingly challenged Spanish sea power, producing powerful rebel naval forces which attacked Spanish shipping and in time made Spain's sea communications with its possessions in the Low Countries difficult. Most notable of these attacks was the Battle of Gibraltar in 1607, in which a Dutch squadron destroyed a fleet of galleons at anchor in the confines of the bay. This naval war took on a global dimension with actions in the Caribbean and the Far East, notably around the Philippines. Spain's response to its problems included the encouragement of privateers based in the Spanish Netherlands and known from their main base as Dunkirkers, who preyed on Dutch merchant ships and fishing trawlers.

A 17th century galleon.

At the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the Holy League, formed by Spain, Venice, the Papal States and other Christian allies, inflicted a great defeat on the Ottoman Navy, stopping Muslim forces from gaining uncontested control of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the 1580s the conflict in the Netherlands drew England into war with Spain, creating a further menace to Spanish shipping. The effort to neutralise this threat led to a disastrous attempt to invade England in 1588. This defeat led to a reform of fleet operations. The navy at this time was not a single operation but consisted of various fleets, made up mainly of armed merchantmen with escorts of royal ships. The Armada fiasco marked a turning point in naval warfare where gunnery was now more important than ramming and boarding and so Spanish ships were equipped with purpose built naval guns. During the 1590s the expansion of these fleets allowed a great increase in the overseas trade and massive increase in the importation of luxuries and silver. Nevertheless, inadequate port defences allowed an Anglo-Dutch force to raid Cadiz in 1596, and though unsuccessful in its objective of capturing the silver from the just returned convoy, was able to inflict great damage upon the city. Port defences at Cadiz were upgraded and all attempts to repeat the attack in the following centuries would fail.

Meanwhile, Spanish ships were able to step up operations in the channel, the North Sea and to Ireland. They were able to capture many enemy ships, merchant and military, in the early decades of the 17th century and provide military supplies to Spanish armies in France and the Low Countries and to Irish rebels in Ireland.

By the middle of the 17th century, Spain had been drained by the vast strains of the Thirty Years and related wars and began to slip into a slow decline. During the middle to late decades of the century the Dutch, English and French were able to take advantage of Spain's shrinking, run-down and increasingly underequipped fleets. Military priorities in continental Europe meant that naval affairs were increasingly neglected. The Dutch took control of the smaller islands of the Caribbean, while England conquered Jamaica and France the western part of Santo Domingo. These territories became bases for raids on Spanish New World ports and shipping by pirates and privateers. The Spanish concentrated their efforts in keeping the most important islands, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the majority of Santo Domingo, while the system of treasure fleets, despite being greatly diminished, was rarely defeated in safely conveying its freight of silver and Asian luxeries across the Atlantic to Europe. Only two such convoys were ever lost to enemy action with their cargo, one to a Dutch fleet in 1628 and another to an English fleet in 1656. A third convoy was destroyed at anchor by another English attack in 1657, but it had already unloaded its treasure.

By the time of the wars of the Grand Alliance (1688-97) and the Spanish Succession (1702-14), the Habsburg regime had decided that it was more cost effective to rely on allied fleets, Anglo-Dutch and French respectively, than to invest in its own fleets.

The Bourbon Era

The War of the Spanish Succession arose from the establishment on the Spanish throne of an offshoot of France's ruling House of Bourbon after the extinction of the Spanish Habsburg line. French naval failures and the division of Spain by civil war led to the loss of Sicily, Sardinia, Minorca and Gibraltar and the temporary occupation of the other Balearic islands and parts of mainland Spain, which was extensively fought over for several years as a result. Spain's possessions in the Netherlands and mainland Italy were also lost.

Battle ot Toulon, 1744

Attempting to reverse the losses of the previous war, in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–20) the navy successfully convoyed armies to invade Sicily and Sardinia, but the escort fleet was destroyed by the British in the Battle of Cape Passaro and the Spanish invasion army was defeated in Italy by the Austrians. This caused the Spanish to switch to a more careful foreign policy to avoid facing united fronts of multiple enemies and the realisation that the navy was central to its success. A major program to renovate and reorganise the navy was begun. A Secretaría (ministry) of the army and navy had been established by the Bourbon regime as early as 1714; which centralized the command and administration of the different fleets. Following the war of Quadruple Alliance, a program of rigorous standardization was introduced in ships, operations, and administration. Given the needs of its empire, Spanish warship designs tended to be more orientated towards long-range escort and patrol duties than for battle. A major reform of the Spanish navy was initiated, updating its ships and administration, which was helped by French and Italian experts, although Spaniards also rose to prominence in this work.[4] A major naval yard was established at Havana, enabling the navy to maintain a permanent force in the Americas for the defence of the colonies and the suppression of piracy and smuggling.

During the War of the Polish Succession (1733-8), a renewed attempt to regain the lost Italian territories was more successful; with the French as allies and the British and Dutch neutral, Spain launched a campaign by sea and regained Sicily and southern Italy from Austria. In the War of Jenkin's Ear, the navy showed it was able to maintain communications with the American colonies and resupply Spanish forces in Italy in the face of British naval opposition. The program of naval renovation was continued and by the 1750s the Spanish navy had outstripped the Dutch to become the third most powerful in the world, behind only those of Britain and France.

Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad, 1769.

Joining France against Britain near the end of the Seven Years' War (1756–63), the navy failed to prevent the British capturing Havana, during which the Spanish squadron present was also captured. In the American War of Independence (1775–83) the Spanish navy was essential to the establishment, in combination with the French and Dutch navies, of a numerical advantage that stretched British naval resources. They played a vital role, along with the French and Dutch, in maintaining military supplies to the American rebels. The navy also played a key role in the Spanish army led operations that defeated the British in Florida. The bulk of the purely naval combat on the allied side fell to the French navy, although Spain achieved lucrative successes with the capture of two great British convoys meant for the resupply of British forces and loyalists in North America. Joint operations with France resulted in the capture of Minorca but failed in the siege of Gibraltar.

Having initially opposed France in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), Spain changed sides in 1796, but defeat by the British a few months later in the Battle of Cape St Vincent was followed by the blockade of the main Spanish fleet in Cadiz. The run down of naval operations had as much to do with the confused political situation in Spain as it had to do with the blockade. The blockade was only partially successful; ships on special missions and even convoys evaded the blockade but otherwise the fleets were, for the most part, inactive. The blockade was lifted with the Peace of Amiens 1802.

The Navy in the 19th century

The 19th century saw the decline of the Spanish Empire. The size of the navy was reduced following the loss of Spain's major American territories. In 1805 a Franco-Spanish fleet was defeated by the British Royal Navy in the Battle of Trafalgar. The Spanish fleet was forced into the battle by French Admiral Villanueve, using inexperienced crews against veteran sailors. Of 15 Spanish ships that participated, 6 made it back to Cadiz. The battle pitted 33 ships of the Franco-Spanish squadron against 27 British ships.

At the time the navy's forces totalled some 150 ships, including 45 ships of the line. Following Trafalgar, some were left in port under blockade until they joined the anti-Napoleonic coalition in 1808. In the years immediately afterwards, the crisis of Spain's Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic years resulted in some ships being run down, training being neglected and its administration becoming over-run by corruption. Following the loss of most of Spain's colonies in the Americas there was no longer the need to maintain such a large fleet.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, a Spanish fleet was defeated as it tried to break an American blockade in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.[5] Admiral Cervera's squadron was overrun in a heroic attempt to break a powerful American blockade off Cuba. In the Philippines, a squadron, made up of ageing ships including some obsolete cruisers, had already been sacrificed in a token gesture in Manila Bay. The Battle of Manila Bay took place on 1 May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. The American Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey engaged and destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron under Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. The engagement took place in Manila Bay in the Philippines, and was the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War.

At the end of the 19th century the Spanish Navy adopted the Salve Marinera, a hymn to the Virgin Mary as Stella Maris, as its official anthem.

The 20th and 21st centuries

A port bow view of the Spanish Navy, F 100 Class Frigate, Almirante Juan de Borbón (F102)
SPS Principe de Asturias Aircraft Carrier
LHD Juan Carlos I

During the Rif War in Morocco, the Spanish navy conducted operations along the coast, including the Alhucemas Landing in 1925, the first air-naval landing of the world. The navy became divided in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Two coastal battleships, one heavy cruiser, one large destroyer and half a dozen submarines and auxiliary vessels were lost in the course of the conflict.

Since the mid-20th century the Spanish Navy began a process of reorganization to once again become one of the major navies of the world. After the development of the Baleares class frigates based on the US Navy's Knox class, the Spanish Navy embraced the American naval doctrine.[6]

Spain is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The Armada Española has taken part in many coalition peacekeeping operations, from SFOR to Haiti and other locations around the world. Today's Armada is a modern navy with two carrier groups, a modern aircraft carrier, a new strategic amphibious ship, modern frigates (F-100 class) with the Aegis combat system, F-80 class frigates, minesweepers, new S-80 class submarines, amphibious ships and various other ships, including oceanographic research ships.

The Armada's special operations and unconventional warfare capability is embodied in the Naval Special Warfare Command (Mando de Guerra Naval Especial), which is under the direct control of the Admiral of the Fleet. Two units operate under this command:

  • The Special Operations Unit (Unidad de Operaciones Especiales (UOE)): Special operations unit trained in maritime counter-terrorism, combat diving and swimming, coastal infiltration, ship boarding, direct action, and special reconnaissance.
  • The Combat Diver Unit (Unidad Especial de Buceadores de Combate (UEBC)): Specialized combat diving unit trained in underwater demolitions and hydrographic reconnaissance.

Armada officers receive their education at the Spanish Naval Academy (ENM). They are recruited through two different methods:

  • Militar de Complemento: Similar to the U.S. ROTC program, students are college graduates who enroll in the Navy. They spend a year at the Naval Academy and then are commissioned as Ensigns. This path is growing in prestige.
  • Militar de Carrera: Students spend five years at the ENM, receiving a university degree-equivalent upon graduation.


The officer ranks of the Spanish Navy are as follows below, (for a comparison with other NATO ranks, see Ranks and Insignia of NATO).

NATO Code OF-10 OF-9 OF-8 OF-7 OF-6 OF-5 OF-4 OF-3 OF-2 OF-1 OF(D) Student Officer
Bandera de España Spain SP Capitan General.gif SP Almirante General.gif SP Almirante.gif SP Vice Almirante.gif SP Contra Almirante.gif SP Capitan Navio.gif SP Capitan Fragata.gif SP Capitan Corbeta.gif SP Teniente Navio.gif SP Alferez Navio.gif SP Alferez Fragata.gif SP Alumnos.gif
Capitán General Almirante General Almirante Vicealmirante Contraalmirante Capitán de Navío Capitán de Fragata Capitán de Corbeta Teniente de Navío Alférez de Navío| Alférez de Fragata Guardiamarina Alumno
English equivalent Captain General General Admiral Admiral Vice Admiral Rear Admiral Captain Commander Lieutenant Commander Lieutenant Lieutenant Junior Grade/Ensign Midshipman Officer Cadet

Officer Ranks

Ranks of Non-commissioned officers and Enlisted

Current Fleet

The "Juan Carlos I" entering Ferrol


  • The Fleet (Headquarter located at Rota)
    • Projection Group located at Rota
      • 1 Aircraft Carrier R-11 Principe de Asturias class. 17,188 Tons.
      • 1 LHD / multi-purpose warship and aircraft L-61 Juan Carlos I class. 27,079 Tons.
      • 2 LPD L-50 Galicia class landing platform dock class. 13,818 Tons.
      • 1 LST L-42 Pizarro, Newport class. 8,500 Tons.
      • 1 Fleet oiler A-11 Marques de la Ensenada class. 14,325 Tons.
      • 1 Replenishment ship A-14 Patiño class (located at Ferrol). 17,045 Tons.
      • 1 Replenishment ship A-15 Cantabria class (located at Ferrol). 19,500 Tons.
    • 41st Escort Squadron located at Rota
    • 31st Escort Squadron located at Ferrol
    • Submarine flotilla located at Cartagena.
      • 4 Submarines S-70 Galerna Agosta class submarine. 1,740 Tons.
      • 4 AIP Submarines S-80 S-80 class submarine. (Under construction.) 2,426 Tons.
    • MCM flotilla located at Cartagena
    • Patrol craft flotilla
      • 5 Corvettes Descubierta class corvette . 1,666 Tons.
      • 7 Corvettes Meteoro class ,Buque de Acción Marítima. (5 under construction.) 2,500 Tons.

  • TOTAL Tons Main Vessels: 224,158Tons

Future ships

Historic ships

Armada Española Air Arm



External links

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