Spanish Hornet marks 35 years of service

Spanish Hornet replacement
Spanish Air Force Hornet.

The Spanish Air Force base at Gando, where the main international airport of Gran Canaria is co-located, is the home of the Ala 46 (46th Wing) of the Spanish Air Force. The Wing is comprised of a single squadron (the 462nd) of McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B+ Hornets, together with the 802nd Search and Rescue (SAR) Squadron, equipped with CN-235D and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma. These Hornets celebrated their 20th anniversary of service on the 19th of January. Our contributor George Karavantos, visited the base and brings you the story of the Spanish Hornets which also celebrate their 35 years of service with Ejercito del Aire.

Spain started to look for its new fighter in the early 80's when the need to replace its F-4C Phantom and F-5 Freedom Fighter with a new multipurpose fighter was obvious, under the so called program named FACA (Future Fighter and Attack Aircraft).

In response to this request, the U.S. government made two proposals of new fighter jets, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-18 Hornet, along with the newer version F-4E Phantom from its surplus. In December 1982, Spain, announced that it had chosen the F-18 Hornet as its new fighter aircraft, mainly due to the advantage of being a twin-engine and more modern than the Phantom. The order was decided to be 72 single-seaters and 12 two-seaters, becoming the first European customer for the Hornet fighter! But the final number was quickly reduced to 60 single-seaters and 12 two-seaters due to budgeting.

The Spanish Hornets were referred to as EF-18A and EF-18B, the "E" stood for "Espana" (Spain) and they were coded as C.15 and EC.15 by the Spanish AF. The first EF-18B (EC.15-01) was introduced to St. Louis, Missouri, in November 1985 and made its first flight on December the 4th. The first two-seater fighters were sent to the Whiteman AFB base in Missouri, where McDonnell Douglas staff trained Spanish technicians and crew. Between 1986 and 1987 all two-seaters had been delivered to Spain, and later on the deliveries of single-seat versions began which lasted until the July of 1990.

The initial versions were the A and B, but during the first years of their service, a program was carried out to upgrade them all to A+ and B+ versions, similar to the C and D models of the United States Navy. 46 aircraft were converted by McDonnell Douglas, while the other 26 by CASA in Getafe, during the period of 1992 until 1995.

The ECP287 upgrade program included a new mission and weapons management computer, new software, wiring and modifications to the wings of the AN/AAS-38B NITE Hawk orientation pod, later replaced by Rafael Litening and RecceLite. Another major upgrade concerned the new AN/APG 73 radar capable of using the AIM 120 AMRAAM missiles, GBU-24 laser-guided bombs and IRIS-T missiles.

In 1995 Spain obtained another 24 ex-USN F/A-18A/B Hornets. These were delivered from December 1995 until December 1998. Despite the fact that these fighters were older than the original ones, they were also modified to A/B+ standards, before being delivered to the Air Force. This was the first sale of USN surplus Hornets. The first of these Hornets delivered to the 462nd Squadron on the 19th of January 2001.

Combat Air Command:

Nowadays the Spanish Hornets are being distributed into three different Wings and six different Squadrons. The main force is located in the mainland with two major Wings (Alas): the 12th Wing at Torrejón Air Base (121st and 122nd Squadrons) and the 15th Wing at Zaragoza Air Base (151st, 152nd and 153rd Squadrons). Wing 15 is divided into two operational squadrons (151 and 152) and the 153 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), responsible for the operational conversion and training of all Spanish pilots who come from the 23rd Wing in Talavera la Real and are being assigned to the EF-18 Hornet fleet. Additionally there is a detachment located at the 46th Wing (462nd Squadron) which is based at Gando AB.

121 is tasked with tactical air support and maritime operations; 151 and 122 are assigned to all-weather interception and air combat roles; and 152 is assigned the SEAD mission. 462nd Squadron's role is air defense of the Canary Islands, being responsible for safeguarding the Canarian archipelago.


Nowadays the first line of defence of the Spanish air force is comprised of Eurofighter Typhoons and EF-18M Hornets. The current EF-18M version came from a mid-life upgrade (MLU) program made by CASA to 67 of the original 72 EF-18s. The upgrade began in 2000 and ended in 2009.

The main modernization consisted of a new tactical computer, known as Tactical Pilot Awareness Computer (TPAC) and the addition of new colour cockpit screens, enhanced friend or enemy identification (IFF), a new communication system that includes Have Quick II radios and an updated GPS navigation system. Added internal/external lighting compatible with night vision goggles (NVG), along with a four-channel video data recorder. Provisions were made for the introduction of the Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS), and a new initial control panel.

This was the main upgrade, but over the next few years, some new smaller elements have been added: the most important in 2010, with the introduction of gun control and MIDS upgrades, plus the SPAI-900 EW suite, comprising AN/ALR, the 400, AN/ALQ-500 and AN/ALE-47 subsystems, and the long-range Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile.

Taurus KEPD 350 is a German/Swedish Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) that is manufactured by Taurus Systems GmbH, a partnership between MBDA Germany and Saab Dynamics. The missile has a range of +500 kilometres (300 mi), a speed of Mach 0.8-0.9 and stealth features. It is optimized for attacking deep buried bunkers and infrastructure even in anti-access and area denied environments.

The latest upgrade, which took place in 2017, included the helmet-mounted Thales Scorpion display and a ROVER data link for the targeting and targeting pod. The Thales Scorpion provides dynamic full-colour flight and mission data in a day/night viewfinder on the HGU-55 helmet.

Spain has commissioned 80 HARM anti-radiation missiles from Texas Instruments AGM-88 and 20 Harper anti-tank missiles from McDonnell Douglas AGM-84. The Spanish Hornets carry the Sanders AN/ALQ-126B and in the last 36 aircraft, the Northrop AN/ALQ-162 (V) systems. For air-to-ground missions, the Spanish Hornets carry BR and Mk 80 low friction bombs, Rockeye II pumps, BME-300 anti-airfield, BEAC fuel explosive bombs, GBU-10 and GBU-16 Paveway II laser bombs, AGM-65G Maverick air-to-ground missiles and AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles.

Refuelling Capability:

The in-flight refuelling method for the Hornets, as for all the Spanish fighters, is the probe-and-drogue, provided by the KC-130H of Wing 31 and before them by the Boeing 707-300TT of Group 47, which have been withdrawn from service. Since now Spain is in the process of selling most of the C-130 fleet along with the remaining KC-130s the task of air refuelling has been transferred to the A400M Atlas.

Spanish serial numbers and numbering:

The Spanish Air Force has its own alphanumeric system for identifying aircraft. This forms a prefix to the airframe serial number, usually marked on the tail. The letter or letters, correspond to the use given. Thus, C means cazabombardero (fighter bomber); A, ataque(attack); P, patrulla (patrol); T, transporte (transport); E, enseñanza (training); D, search and rescue; H, helicopter; K, tanker; V, Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL); and U, utility. An example would be that the F-18 with "C.15-08" on the tail is the fifteenth type of fighter that arrived in the Spanish Air Force (the Eurofighter is the C.16) and is the eighth example of this type to enter the SAF. On the nose or fuselage the aircraft has a numeral specific to the unit in which it is based.

Variants of planes in service, for example two-seater versions or tanker versions of transports planes, add another letter to differentiate their function, and have their own sequence of serial numbers separate from the primary versions. Example: "CE.15-02" will be the second F-18 two-seater (Fighter Trainer) delivered to the Spanish Air Force. In addition, the aircraft used by the Spanish Air Force usually carry a code consisting of one or two digits followed by a dash and two numbers, painted on the nose or fuselage. The first number corresponds to the unit to which they belong, and the second the order in which they entered service. Example: the fourth F-18 arriving at Ala 12 will have on the nose the code "12-04". Those codes do change when the aircraft is re-allocated to a different unit.

The future of the Hornets:

Spain is the latest European country which decided to buy more Eurofighter multirole fighter jets to bolster its air force. The manufacturer announced the previous month that it is now in negotiations with the Spanish government for the replacement of its 20 F-18A/B+ Hornets under the so-called “Project Halcón” (Project Hawk).

These Hornet jets are the survivors from the last batch of 24 delivered from U.S. stocks more than 20 years ago. In fact these Hornets celebrated their 20th anniversary of service early this year. Although they have been modernized to the A/B+ standards, which essentially brought them up to a standard comparable with the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18C/D, the airframes are old and now require replacement as a matter of priority.

The 20 new Typhoons that will be delivered will be according to the “latest standard,” including the Captor-E Mk 1 active electronically- scanned array (AESA) radar. The Spanish Air Force has received all 73 Typhoons from its initial order, which comprised of 59 single-seaters and 14 two-seaters. The last Spanish Air Force Typhoon from the original order was delivered in the beginning of 2020, when the final Tranche 3 jet arrived at Albacete-Los Llanos Air Base on January 9. Three of these fighters have been lost in accidents, but the remaining 70 are all still active, forming a modern and highly capable fleet alongside with the EF-18M multirole fighters.

Spanish Typhoons, like those for the other European core customers - Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom - were delivered in three different “tranches” with significant differences in terms of avionics and capabilities. Airbus Defence and Space is also currently undertaking a program at Getafe to upgrade the 17 surviving Spanish Tranche 1 aircraft to incorporate later Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 equipment, which would confer a full multirole capability and aims to complete the program in 2023.

While Spain is making efforts to ensure its Typhoon fleet remains capable, and to replace the oldest F/A-18A+s, there is still a question over the future of the remaining Hornet fleet. Spain may yet buy even more new Typhoons as it looks to replace the entire EF-18 fleet between 2025 and 2030, although exactly how many extra Eurofighters may be required is unclear and the future of this effort will likely be influenced by the progress made on the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which involves France, Germany, and Spain. The FCAS initiative plans to field a sixth-generation stealthy manned fighter and accompanying unmanned platforms by 2040. Until then, the well-known figure of this unique fighter, which already celebrates 35 years of service with the Spanish Air Force, will be guarding the airspace of the Iberian Peninsula.

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Spanish Hornet replacement

Text and Pics: George Karavantos

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