In Time of Trans-Atlantic Austerity, US Opens Another Military Base in Spain

Article excerpt

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 Merones 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. Merones 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," Merones said.

The budget of the Defense Ministry has been cut around 30 percent since 2007, Merones 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 Fundacion 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 Moron 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. …