The Spanish-American relationship hasn’t always been a friendly or trusting one.
However, the rapport is much more cordial than it once was, with President biden most recently having referred to Spain as an “indispensable ally”.
That isn’t reflected in the US’s military presence in Spain, nonetheless. Although it had more in the past, the United States currently has only two military bases in Spain.
That is significantly less than other countries such as Japan, for example, which has a staggering 120 active American bases, or Germany, with 119.
In fact, Spain has the fewest American military bases of Europe: the United Kingdom has 25, Italy 44, and Portugal 21.
But why does Spain have an American military presence in the first place? And where are the bases?
Emerging from its bloody Civil War and the aftermath of the Second World War, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Spain was an isolated state on the world stage.
It was well known that Franco had sympathised with Hitler and the Axis powers more broadly, and had even sold valuable materials to the Nazis.
Shunned by the United States, U.K. and Russia, Spain was excluded from the United Nations, and suffered severe economic consequences of being a pariah state as a dictatorship in an increasingly democratising world.
It wasn’t until 1953, when US President Eisenhower signed the Pact of Madrid, that Spanish-American relations began to thaw.
Knowing that they would need Spain’s support against communism in the Cold War, the pact provided Americans with a naval base in Rota in Cádiz province, Andalusia, and three Air Force bases in Morón, south of Seville; Torrejón, on the outskirts of Madrid; and Zaragoza, in northern Spain, in exchange for military equipment and financial aid.
ROTA Naval base
The joint Spanish-American Rota Naval base is commanded by a Spanish Vice Admiral, and is an important entryway to the Atlantic Ocean with both an airfield and port. Strategically, the ROTA base is key to American (and by extension NATO) interests because of its proximity to the Straight of Gibraltar – where over a quarter of global maritime traffic passes through every year – and it is a geographic midpoint between Southwest Asia and the United States.
The Straight of Gibraltar is an incredibly important naval route for both the United States and NATO not only because of the sheer volume of maritime traffic passes through it every year, but because it links the Mediterranean and Atlantic and would be a key route for deploying forces by sea during a conflict.
Control of the Straight of Gibraltar was traditionally left to British forces on its overseas territory, but the growth of Ronda (which is one of the largest allied bases in the region) means that Spanish ships have taken on some responsibilities.
Stretching over 6,000 acres (24 km2) along the Cádiz coastline, the Rota base is the largest American military community in Spain, home to both US Marine Corps and US Navy personnel, as well as small numbers of US Army and US Air Force fighters.
Rota is also key to American interests as it allows for rapid support of both U.S and NATO ships. It also supports and protects the movement of US Navy and US Air Force flights, and supplies fuel, ammunition and cargo to units in the region.
Morón Air Force base
Also in Andalusia, Morón Air Force, about 30km south of Seville, was actually already an Air Force base before the Madrid Pact was signed. The base was then upgraded and operations began in 1958.
The base is not without controversy, however. In 1962 two American planes crashed while refuelling in mid-air, killing 7 crew members and causing hydrogen bombs to land in the proximity of the small fishing village of Palomares.
Two of the bombs detonated and contaminated an area of 2km2 area, and another fell into the Mediterranean. As a result, American B-52 bomber planes were not allowed on the Morón base until 1983.
In 1971, the base was relegated to “modified caretaker status”, and Torrejón became the main support base for the Spanish Air Force.
In 1991, however, Morón was heavily involved in the Gulf War and then again for fighting in Kosovo in 1999. From 2001 onwards operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan were supported from the base, and the southern base was also used a base for operations into Libya in 2011.
At full capacity, it is believed up to 3,000 American troops from African Crisis Response team can be stationed at Morón, and up to 40 aircraft stored.