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The Spanish Navy (in Spanish, Armada Española) is the maritime arm of the Spanish Military, 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 America, 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 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 Europe from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries, and one of the strongest in the world until the early 19th century.

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


The Spanish Navy today

Subordinate to the Spanish Chief of Naval Staff, with his headquarters in Madrid, were four zonal 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 were classified by mission, and they were assigned to the combat forces, the protective forces, or the auxiliary forces. The combat forces were given the tasks of conducting offensive and defensive operations against potential enemies and of assuring maritime communications. Their principal vessels included two carrier groups, naval aircraft, transports and landing vessels, submarines, and missile-armed fast attack craft. The protective forces had the mission of protecting maritime communications over both ocean and coastal routes and the approaches to ports and to maritime terminals. Their principal components were destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and minesweepers as well as marine units for the defense of naval installations. The auxiliary forces, responsible for transport and for provisioning at sea, also had such diverse tasks as coast guard operations, scientific work, and maintenance of training vessels. In addition to supply ships and tankers, the force included destroyers and a considerable 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 would be twenty nine AV-8 Harrier II vertical (or short) takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft or sixteen helicopters designed for antisubmarine warfare and support of marine landings.

The carrier has an escort group of four Álvaro de Bazán class frigate, 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 and built in Spain. Six slightly smaller vessels of Portuguese design, classified as corvettes, 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 were equipped with the submarine-launched version of the Exocet antiship missile. Four submarines of the Daphne class were completed between 1973 and 1975 and are now retired. The Spanish armada has in construction new submarines of the S-80 class, with long range air propulsion and new anti-detection technology .

The Navy Marines, numbering 11,500 troops, are divided into base defense forces and landing forces. One of the three base defense battalions is stationed at each of the headquarters at Ferrol, Cartagena, and San Fernando. "Groups" (midway between battalions and regiments) are stationed at Madrid and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. The fleet Tercio (equal to a regiment), available for immediate embarkation, is based at San Fernando. Its principal arms included light tanks, armored personnel vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and TOW and Dragon antitank missiles.


Origins (13th-15th centuries)

Battle of La Rochelle, 1419

The Spanish Navy is crucial in explaining the accomplishments of Spain since the 14th century, specially Spain's role in the Age of Discovery and its colonial expansion across the Atlantic and the Far East. The roots of the modern Spanish Armada date back to long before the discovery of America. The founding kingdoms of modern Spain, Aragon and Castile, had strong naval capacities from as early as the 13th century. Aragon used this capacity to help build an empire in the Mediterranean and Castile conducted expeditions against the Moors (capture of Cadiz, 1232) and became involved in the One 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 used its naval capacities to enter into a race of exploration with Portugal that inaugurated the European Age of Discovery. With the navies of both Aragon and Castile, as with their successor, the Armada, the Barbary pirates were a constant naval threat. Defensive and punitive expeditions across the Mediterranean led to the conquest of various outposts in North Africa, including Melilla in 1497, Mazalquivir in 1505, Oran in 1509, Algiers in 1510, Tripoli in 1511 and the smaller Plazas de Soberania which have remained part of Spain to this day.

In 1492 two Caravels and one Nao commanded by Admiral Christopher Columbus arrived in what today is America, in an expedition that sought a westward oceanic passage across the Atlantic, to the Far East. This naval expedition later became known as the discovery of America, and started an unprecedented era of world exploration and colonialization.

Expansion and Dominance under the Habsburgs (16th–17th centuries)

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 Armada to the mainland, where they conquered Mexico and Peru. The Armada also carried Spanish explorers to the North American mainland, including Juan Ponce de Leon and Alvarez de Pineda, who discovered Florida (1519) and Texas (1521) respectively. In 1519, Spain sent the first expedition of world circumnavigation led by Ferdinand Magellan. Following Magellan's death in 1521 on the island of Mactan, Philippines, the expedition was completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano. In 1565, a successive expedition by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was carried by the Armada from New Spain (Mexico) to establish the first Spanish settlements in the Philippines.

Among the most famous Armada Admirals was Álvaro de Bazán, "Almirante del Mar Océano" (Admiral of the Ocean Sea), a title granted to Columbus by King Ferdinand. De Bazán helped conduct the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire in 1571. The Infantería de Marina (Navy Infantry), the world's oldest marine force (established in 1537, drawing from the Compañías Viejas del Mar de Nápoles), played a prominent role in this battle.

Battle of Lepanto, 1571

The Spanish Armada's retreat in 1588 did not mark a decline in the Spanish navy but actually led to a thorough reform and recovery of its dominance. Despite the heavy loss of ships and men off the Irish coast, the years that followed proved the zenith of the Spanish navy's mastery of the oceans. Following the repulse of an English Armada in 1589 the Spanish navy successfully dealt with the buccaneering against the Spanish treasure fleets and attacks upon its territories along the Spanish Main and in the Spanish West Indies, continuing the dominance of the Atlantic sealanes. It was the Dutch rebels that were to effectively challenge Spanish sea power. Dutch commanders inflicted some defeats upon the Spanish navy from as early as the 1570s, and increasingly threatened Spanish and Portuguese shipping, especially from the 1620s. Most notable of these attacks was the Battle of Gibraltar in 1607 in which smaller Dutch vessels surprised large ocean going galleons in the confines of the bay, with serious results. In response, the Spanish established the Dunkirkers, whose primary aim was to intercept Dutch merchant ships and fishing trawlers. This naval war took on a global dimension with actions as far away as the Far East, notably in the Spanish Philippines. The Armada's dominance declined with the destruction of a large troop-carrying fleet when intercepted by a Dutch fleet at the Battle of the Downs in 1639.

Spanish ship Santísima Trinidad, the biggest of its time

Later in the 17th century, sensing the weakening of Spanish power, the English Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, in an alliance with the French, initiated the Anglo-Spanish War (1654) with the hope of conquering parts of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. This aim proved too ambitious, as the Spanish Navy maintained a strong presence in the Caribbean aided by a network of strongly fortified ports, including Havana, Veracruz and Cartagena de Indias. The newly rebuilt English navy inflicted several defeats on the Armada in the Caribbean, and helped England seize the island of Jamaica. Other minor Caribbean islands were also lost to other European powers and were used for attacks on Spanish New World towns and shipping by pirates and privateers. However, the major Caribbean islands continued under Spanish control, with the Armada successfully escorting the treasure fleets to and from the Caribbean for another two hundred years.

Although the later Spanish Habsburgs paid little attention to naval affairs, the Spanish Armada maintained the links between Spain and its American and Pacific territories for most part of the 17th century, and continued to successfully carry out its primary duties. It remained a global naval force to be reckoned with until the early 19th century.

Modernisation under the Borbòns (18th century)

During the eighteenth century the new Borbòns monarchy brought with it French and Italian expertise to help modernise the neglected Armada[3] and its administration. A "Secretaría" (Ministry) of the Army and Navy was established under which the command and administration of the disparate fleets was centralised in 1714 and a program of more rigorous standardisation was introduced both in ships, operations and administration. It was the third most important navy in the world as the French (with which it was often allied) and British navies vied for dominance. Nevertheless the Armada still played an indispensable supportive role in important military successes as in the War of Polish Succession, the War of Jenkins' Ear and the American War of Independence, and continued carrying out its regular duties such as patrolling coastlines, and protecting convoys, with the help of a large fleet of frigates.

San Felipe de Barajas Fortress in Cartagena (Colombia). The Spanish defeated a massive British amphibious force from this colonial port during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.

Eighteenth century naval tactics revolved around the protection of convoys, the maintenance of links to colonies, the suppression of piracy and privateering and the support of amphibious military operations, often in conjunction with the army. The universal orthodoxy of the day despaired of any strategically decisive naval battles. In these terms, then, the modernised Armada acquitted itself as a generally very effective force until the economic, political and administrative chaos wrought in Spain by the Napoleonic wars.

Decline (19th century)

The 19th century was the nadir of the Spanish Armada's history. The Armada suffered two great events. On October 21, 1805 forced to the battle by Napoleon, the Franco-Spanish fleet was defeated in the Battle of Trafalgar. Of the 15 ships, only 6 immediately regained Cadiz. More importantly the one sided battle which pitted 33 ships of the Franco-Spanish squadron against 27 British ships exposed the futility of using inexperienced crews against the veteran British sailors. Many of the Spanish crews were land soldiers, recently press-ganged beggars and peasants, with some not even having fired a cannon on board of a rolling ship, in contrast to the heavily drilled British crews who had seen many actions by this time. This had come about by the loss of many experienced sailors to an epidemic of the yellow fever in 1802–04, as well as being a traditional cost saving measure. The French admiral ignored the pleas of the Spanish captains - who had long experience in breaking blockades (and held no illusions about the state of their fleet) to wait for better conditions in which to leave the port. The British admiral's daring tactics took full advantage of the skill disparities of the opposing squadrons. Some 45 ships of the line (of about 150 vessels in total) remained at port until they joined the anti-Napoleonic coalition in 1808.

The end of the 19th century finished, as it had begun, with another strategically decisive event. On July 3, 1898[4], Admiral Cervera's fault ridden squadron was annihilated in a heroic but clearly hopeless charge to trespass a blockade by a powerful American squadron off Cuba, during the Spanish-American war. The Spanish squadron in the Philippines already had been destroyed in the Battle of Manila Bay (1898).

Throughout its history the Spanish navy has achieved numerous goals, from the transportation of gold and silver from the colonies in America, to the maintenance of the Spanish Empire in Europe, America, Asia-Pacific and Africa. In its heyday it contributed enormously to the geographical knowledge of the world, the opening of ocean routes across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the suppression of piracy and smuggling. It also contributed to the early development of ocean going vessels, most famously the galleon, and played an important part in the development the submarine. It would not be until the 20th century when the Spanish Armada could begin its recovery and growth until to be considered now among the most important of the world.

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.

Contemporary history (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

Several events at the beginning of the twentieth century, approached the Spanish Armada to its reorganization, as when, along with Spanish fighter aircraft, was conducted in 1923, the famous Alhucemas landing during the war with Morocco, the first successful amphibious landing in world history.

In modern times, as 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 places 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 Spanish Navy Infantry (Marines), known in Spanish as the Infantería de Marina, is also part of the Armada.

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, shipboarding, direct action, and special reconnaissance.
  • The Combat Diver Unit (Unidad Especial de Buceadores de Combate - UEBC): Specialist combat diving unit trained in underwater demolitions and hydrographic reconnaissance.

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

  • Militar de Complemento: Similar to the U.S. ROTC program, students are college graduates who enroll the Navy. They spend a year at the Naval Academy and then are commissioned as Ensigns. This path is growing prestigious.
  • 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
Spain 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 General2 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
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

Current Fleet

See: List of active Spanish Navy ships


  • The Fleet (Headquarter located at Rota)
    • Projection Group located at Rota
    • 41st Escort Squadron located at Rota
    • 31st Escort Squadron located at Ferrol
    • Submarine flotilla located at Cartagena.
      • 4 Submarines S-70 Galerna class
    • MCM flotilla located at Cartagena
      • 1 MCM support ship M-10 Descubierta Modified class
      • 6 Minehunters M-30 Segura class

Future ships

See: List of future Spanish Navy ships

Historic ships

See: List of retired Spanish Navy ships

Armada Española Air Arm

See: Armada Española Air Arm


See: Salve Marinera


External links



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