- Editorial Staff
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
For centuries there was natural rivalry between Britain and Spain in the fields of colonial expansion, maritime trade and commerce. Relationships, at least from the time of the 1588 Armada, were acrimonious. As a counter to Spanish success Britain built a friendship with Portugal, a small country sharing a common heritage and border with Spain. This goes back even further in time to the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance of 1373, the oldest such treaty in the world which remains extant.
In 1662, in a political move set to embarrass their Spanish neighbours, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza married British King Charles II and as part of her dowry Tangier, in the modern Kingdom of Morocco, became a British possession. This was significant as it gave Britain a gateway to the great Mediterranean Sea leading to the Orient and the East Indies. Huge sums of money were spent improving the port and its defences and a large garrison was involved in keeping the Moors at bay.
There were immediate complications, as Spain had previously annexed Portugal and refused to acknowledge Portuguese independence and its right to cede territory. This meant the new British colony faced an unfriendly presence from the near north and from their Moroccan neighbours, who deeply resented having another foreign enclave in their country. In the end, after only 23 years of occupation Britain destroyed most of its improvements and abandoned the settlement.
However the situation improved for Britain following the outcome of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) when Spain ceded Gibraltar and the island of Minorca to Britain. Gibraltar has remained a British colony to this day but Minorca was fought over a number of times and returned to Spain in 1802. Our own first governor, Arthur Phillip, was an 18 year old Midshipman at the 1756 Battle of Minorca where a British fleet was defeated by the French, leading to the controversial court-martial and death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng.
In the 1700s Spain was amongst the world’s most prosperous nations. From then on a series of disputes regarding the succession to the Spanish throne and the eventual loss of its colonies led to a national decline. A revolution in 1866 was the catalyst for further turmoil which was not finally resolved until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Remaining neutral in both world wars,Spain again gradually built the relative stability and prosperity she enjoys today.
The Spanish Navy has a long and proud history and at one time was the world’s largest navy. During the 17th and 18th centuries its naval forces were sorely tested protecting worldwide trade against the rigours displayed by the ‘wooden walls’ of England. When looked at through dark Spanish eyes this was no more than piratical interference of trade for wanton greed and destruction, with molestation undertaken with impunity in favour of awards and prizes justified by Admiralty Courts of dubious morality.
For over three centuries the Spanish empire expanded across South America, through the Caribbean, Central America and much of North America. The first signs of instability occurred in 1763 when much of its vast Louisiana Territory was ceded to France, and later sold to the United States. The destruction of the main Spanish fleet, under French command, at Trafalgar in 1805 undermined Spain’s ability to defend its empire. Further lands in Louisiana and Florida were ceded to the Unities States in 1819 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 resulted in the loss of Texas.
Starting in 1810 a period of insurrection occurred in Spain’s South American colonies and continued for the next twenty and more years as they sought independence. The final nail in the coffin was the Spanish-American War of 1898 with America giving aid to Cuban rebels and this extended to the loss of its Pacific possessions, most notably the Philippines and Guam.
Spanish Shipbuilding Capabilities
The rugged northwest coastal region of Spain has a centuries old tradition of ship construction and repair. From the 19th century Spain’s warships were primarily sourced from Britain with some construction in government owned naval dockyards. In 1887 a consortium of British and Spanish firms formed a private company, Astilleros del Nervion in Bilbao. They produced three cruisers, basically an enlarged version of the RN Orlando class.
In 1909 the Sociedad Espanola de Construction Naval (SECN) was created by a new consortium of British shipyards (Vickers, Armstrong & John Brown) to rebuild the Spanish fleet. They leased the three government dockyards, effectively privatizing their operations. Over the next twenty years SECN built numerous warships based on British designs, including three Dreadnought-type battleships. While the privatized yards had mixed success they greatly aided the expansion of commercial shipbuilding. The downside was a continuing heavy reliance on overseas technical support.
At the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 SECN was reorganised, the three major shipyards restored to government control and British workers returned home. This led to a decline, with only a handful of small warships being constructed during WWII.
This all changed in 1953 with the signing of the ‘Pact of Madrid’ between Spain and the United States. The Pact provided for mutual defence and US military aid to Spain for the construction of bases that could be used by the US, in particular Rota near Cadiz. Over the next decade the US transferred destroyers and minesweepers as well as extensive funds to modernise naval infrastructure and for improved naval training. The first major US warships transferred to Spain in 1957 were three Fletcher-class destroyers. Rota is now a Spanish naval base shared with considerable US forces and is fully funded by the United States.
The next major step taken in the mid 1980s was the building of US designed guided-missile frigates under licence at the Bazan El Ferrol shipyard. The six-ship Santa Maria-class, a variant of the US Oliver Hazard Perry-class, is similar to the RAN’s Adelaide-class. With technological transfer from the US this proved the turning point in Spain’s ability to build modern warships. The major difference between this approach and the previous British initiative was that technology was transferred directly to the indigenous labour force. They also entered into a long-term relationship with the renowned ship-design house of Gibbs & Cox which allowed seamless integration of local requirements into American hulls.
Spain was incorporated into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986 and the European Commission (EC) gave new impetus and aid to restructuring unproductive industries. Spain had a significant commercial shipbuilding industry which was entirely government owned, under direction from the EC this was privatised. However essential security involving defence industries could be retained in state hands. This solution allowed Spain to protect its military shipyards which later emerged under the Navantia umbrella.
EEC involvement in the1990s saw more cooperation with European neighbours on joint ship design projects for frigates and logistic support vessels. In particular the Patino–class replenishment ship was designed in collaboration with the Netherlands. A huge leap in faith was the design of Juan Carlos I, the largest and most expensive ship in the Spanish Navy. The accumulated experience of design and building complex warships led to the establishment of export markets. The first major export contract came in 1992 with construction of the VSTOL aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebetfor the Royal Thai Navy.
The 2007 Global Financial Crisis which in Spain is known as the Great Recession had a devastating impact upon the local economy. Through mismanagement and less than prudent fiscal controls an over inflated economy imploded with business closures, high unemployment and reduced wages. However with continued government support much of the Spanish shipbuilding industry weathered the storm and maintained reasonable forward order books. In winning new work the longer term profitability of business may be questionable, but at least in the short-term, this appears to favour customers.
In 2005 the military yards in El Ferrol, Cadiz and Cartagena were formed into a new company, Navantia. A great confidence boost to the new company was the award of a contract by Norway to build five Aegis frigates at a time when the first Spanish ship of this type was not yet commissioned.
Australian Naval Requirements
The RAN traditionally relied upon British designed warships as these formed part of a global naval strategy augmented by ships from the Dominions. Nothing much changed until the Vietnam War, in which Britain did not participate, and our closer ties with the USN saw the introduction of American built warships. Since then there has been an uneasy proliferation of design options including American, Australian, British, French, German, Italian and Swedish, but until recently Spanish designs did not feature.
Our involvement with Spanish shipbuilding started in 2003 when the RAN was in the process of revitalising shipbuilding capabilities to include construction of three Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) and two Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious ships. Early studies for the AWD included designs of the German Sachsen, the Spanish F100 and the American Arleigh Burke. Surprisingly the favoured Sachsen was the first to be eliminated from the competition and ultimately the larger Arleigh Burke (a new derivative by Gibbs & Cox) lost out in favour of the more advanced Spanish design.
In 2005 the Australian Government announced the Spanish modified AWD was the preferred design. At the same time, competition for the amphibious ship program intensified between the French joint-venture shipbuilder Armaris with its recently-commissioned Mistral–class, and Navantia’s proposal based on the yet to be completed, Juan Carlos I. The selection of both Navantia proposals was confirmed by Australian authorities in June 2007 which involved teaming with local builder Tenix for construction of the LHDs. The LHD Canberra-class was primarily constructed at El Ferrol but with fitout integrated in Australia and the AWD Hobart-class built entirely by ASC Shipbuilding in Adelaide.
The Spanish Armada’s combat logistic ship ESPS Cantabria served on the Australian Station from January to November 2013. In a ‘Try before you Buy’ program she bridged the gap in the fleet when the replenishment ship HMAS Successwas in extensive refit. Cantabria performed 63 replenishments and her officers and crew were a credit to the Armada. It is perhaps noteworthy that Cantabria and her smaller sisterPatino were recently lent to the Royal Canadian Navy when they too had a short-term lack of logistic support vessels. However the RCN is awaiting delivery of German designed vessels to replace its two aging logistic ships.
The overall Australian acquisition program appears successful with the LHD lead ship Canberra commissioned in November 2014 and her sister Adelaide in December 2015. Continuing the progression, in March 2016 the Minister for Defence announced that Navantia had beaten the offer of a major Korean shipbuilder for construction of two auxiliary oil and replenishment (AOR) vessels to be delivered from 2021. More recently from February to June 2017 we had the company of ESPN Cristobal Colonon which class the RAN’s new Air Warfare Destroyers are based. While here she participated in exercises and provided invaluable training opportunities to most of the ship’s company of our first AWD HMAS Hobart which commission on 23 September 2017.
An article entitled Our Most Welcome Spanish Guestin the March 2014 edition of this magazine contained a few words which remain pertinent:
Spanish guests are only infrequently welcomed to our shores, in fact this seems to occur about every 200 years. The famous navigator Luis Vaez de Torres visited in 1606 and two centuries later in the early 1800s, Spanish prizes taken by privateers off the Pacific coast of South America started to appear at Port Jackson. These included the handsome schooner Bethlehem which for a time wore the broad pennant of Commodore Bligh. Another 200 years have passed and we have discovered the wonders of Spanish shipbuilding, leading to the invaluable loan of a Spanish naval ship to the RAN.
Looking down from our lofty perch there is much to be learned from our Spanish cousins who had sailed into the unknowns searching for Terra Australis many centuries past. Turing to the present, Spain has built an enviable reputation as a shipbuilder by accepting transferred technology, being ably supported by the best of overseas designers, and integrating the vast hidden value of research and development, previously absorbed in global platforms. We might aptly conclude with an example taken from the great navigator Torres who on completing his task sought no glory but through his pen offered the world further enlightenment.