The Spanish Army

By Julio A. Montes

Madrid was struck by tragedy on March 11, 2004. The date is simply referred to as 11-M, and marks the worst terrorist attack against Spain in its history when 10 backpacks full of explosives were detonated in the rail system in and around Madrid.


In the murky moments of 11-M, the government was quick to blame the Eukadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) terrorist group for the tragedy. Dissidents had established the ETA in 1959 to wage war for independence of the Basque Region of Spain. This terrorist war has been brutal and bloody; therefore, ETA became the obvious suspect since at the moment it was unthinkable that the attack would have come from any other source. However, ETA had never before carried out something of the magnitude of 11-M. Unfortunately for the government of Jose Maria Aznar, a strong ally of the United States, it soon became clear that fundamentalist terrorist had carried out the blasts. Investigators pieced together an un-detonated bomb, and found links to Al Qaeda, and to the Abu Dahdah cell. The population felt betrayed by the government for blaming ETA for the terrorist hit, and quickly voted down the sitting political party. The winner of the following national elections was Jose Luis Zapatero from the Socialist Party.

Spain has a long military tradition. In modern times, the Spanish Army waged a long desert war in the Sahara in the 1960s and ’70s, and continues to battle ETA. The Spanish element in support of KFOR (Kosovo) consisted of the KSPAG XI group; listing as main components three mechanized cavalry squadrons, a light cavalry squadron, a services squadron, and diverse support units. The Spanish support to ISAF (Afghanistan) comes in the form of one light infantry battalion (about 550 men), and a medical unit. The military is committed to these and several other peacekeeping operations around the globe, and it now has do deal with the fundamentalist terrorists at home as well. The Spanish government had led until April/May 2004, a military brigade composed of troops from Latin America to Iraq in support of the US. The unit included 1,300 Spaniards, and hundreds of soldiers from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.


The basis for the modern Spanish Army organization is Order 220 dated November 12, 1997, which in turn has its origins on Royal Decree 1207 of 1989. These Laws established a Joint Chief of Staff overseeing an Army General HQ, a Territorial Force and a Support Force.

The Territorial Force represents the sharp edge of the triangle. This is subdivided into a Permanent Force and a Ready Reserve. The standing or “Permanent” Force comprises the Specific Forces for Joining Action, Maneuvering Force (FMA), and Area Defense Force. The first one refers to the Air Defense Command, Coastal Artillery Command and Communications Command. The FMA comprises the Rapid Reaction Force (Fuerza de Acción Rápida - FAR), the Aragon I Mountain Hunter Brigade from Huescas, the Brunete I Mechanized Infantry Division from El Goloso, the Castillejos I Cavalry Brigade from Zaragoza, and the Support Nucleus of the FMA. Area Defense refers to garrison units in the Ceuta, Melilla, Canarias Islands, Tenerife and Belares. The most powerful formation is the mentioned Brunete I Mechanized Infantry Division. Each of the two Armored Infantry Battalions forming the armored brigade of this division total 400 elements, distributed into a Support Company, a Combat Services Company, and four Combat Car Companies. Each of the last ones has 10 MBT in three combat and one HQ sections.

The Mountain Hunter Brigade comprises a HQ Battalion, Artillery and Logistical Groups, Combat Engineers, an elite Ski Company, and depends for operations on the Galicia 64 (Jaca region) and the America 66 (Navarra Region) Regiments. The Galicia Regiment is formed around the Pirineos I/64 Light Infantry Mountain Battalion while the America Regiment consists of the Montejurra II/66 and the Estella III/66 Light Infantry Mountain Battalions.

The FMA is complemented with the Support Nucleus, which includes the FAMET or Army Aviation (with 6 battalions), a Special Operations Command, a Logistical Support Command, a Fire Support Apparatus and a Combat Support Apparatus.

Rapid Reaction Force - FAR

The Felipe de Borbón Base at Paracuellos del Jaramá is a new installation of the Spanish Almogávares VI Parachute Brigade (or BRIPAC for Brigada Paracaidista). BRIPAC was established in August 1965, and until recently, the unit was based at Primo de Rivera, Alcalá de Henares. The Army is building a brand new and modern complex at Jaramá, a few steps away of the Torrejón Air Base, where it hoped to eventually concentrate all the Paras. However, one Parachute Battalion and several support units remain at Primo de Rivera, Alcalá de Henares. The BRIPAC is under the command of Gral. Salvador Fontela Ballesta.

The NCO in charge of the security detail at Alcalá de Henares appeared to have a different accent. He is a Colombian national. Spain has introduced volunteer service to its military, but it has found it difficult to compete with the private sector; therefore, enlistments and rolls are down. To solve the problem, the government has opened vacancies within the BRIPAC, Legion and other formations to nationals from Latin America. They sign a contract for a few years of service, and receive Spanish citizenship. After their tour of duty they can choose to return to their country or to stay. There are Ecuadorians, Colombians, Argentineans and others in the ranks.

At Primo de Rivera, Alcalá de Henares, a unit is going through gearing up and jump training at the training tower. Although the parachute course is still performed by a Parachute Training Battalion of the Spanish Air Army, there are towers in several installations for continuous preparations. Since September 1, 1996 the BRIPAC has been one of the three elements forming the elite Rapid Reaction Force (Fuerza de Action Rapida - FAR) of the Spanish Army. The 1st Roger de Flor Parachute Battalion was established on October 17, 1953, and the unit would jump for the first time on February 23, 1954. The 2nd Roger de Lauria Parachute Battalion was raised two years later, and the 3rd Ortiz de Zárate Parachute Battalion was organized in 1960. Today, the BRIPAC comprises all three parachute battalions, a HQ element, a HQ Battalion, an Engineer Unit, a Logistical Group, an Air Drop Group, and a Parachute Instruction Battalion. The BRIPAC had occupied the Primo de Rivera Barracks, Alcalá de Henares, since February 6, 1968.

At Felipe de Borbón Barracks, one of the buildings housed the PRP (Patrulla de Reconocimiento de Profundidad), the Spanish own LRRPs. The missions and tasks of this unit are coordinated through the JAE, or Brigade’s Special Actions office. The unit has also a close working relationship with the MOE and other Spec Ops outfits of the armed forces and Civil Guard. The PRP shares installations with the Rigger Unit (GLAPAC) who were found preparing parachutes, and also in constant training and preparation.

The support elements of the BRIPAC are now receiving the new VAMTAC high mobility vehicle - best described as a local copy of the US Hummer. The Anti-Tank companies are now equipped with an armored variant of the VAMTAC equipped with the TOW missile and others sport the LAG-40 M1 automatic grenade launcher. However, there are still several Nissan ML-6 Patrol vehicles equipped with the Milan AT missile. The Brigade’s Artillery Group counts 18 Light Guns. Some have long 105mm barrels (M118) to give a range of 17kms, and short 105mm barrels (M119) to fire standard ammunition compatible to the Army’s 105mm Oto Melara Pack and M101 howitzers.

Elite Infantry

The FAR comprises three elite light infantry brigades and its Support Nucleus. In addition to the BRIPAC, the FAR list the Galicia VII Light Air Mobile Brigade (Brigada Ligera Aerotranportable - BRILAT) based at Pontevedra, and the King Alfonso XIII Legionnaire Brigade (Brigada de la Legion - BRILEC) housed at Almeria.

The BRILAT comprises the Light Infantry Regiment Principe 3, and the Light Infantry Regiment Isabel la Catolica 29 as well as its own Artillery Group, Logistical unit, Engineer unit (Combat Engineers), and a HQ Battalion. The first one includes Battalions Toledo 35, and San Quintin 47. The second mentioned regiment comprises Battalions Zamora 8, and Isabel la Catolica 54.

The Spanish Foreign Legion was established on 28 January 1920, organized in Tercios (roughly equivalent to large regiments). The Legion was raised to suppress dissidents in the protectorate of Spanish Morocco. During the time of General Franco’s government, the Legion listed 18 battalions. When the war ended in Africa, the Legion duly reduced, but retained the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The 1st Gran Capitan Regiment (HQ Melilla) comprises the 1st, 2nd and 3rd battalions (each with three line companies, one HQ Company, and combat support company). The 2nd Duque de Alba Regiment (HQ Ceuta) counts with the 4th, 5th and 6th battalions. The 3rd Juan de Austria (HQ Fuerteventura, Canary Islands) lists the 7th and 8th light infantry battalions and the 1st Light Cavalry Group. The 4th Alejandro Farnesio (HQ Ronda, Malaga) deploys the 9th and 10th battalions.

The 3rd Legionnaire Tercio and the 4th Legionnaire Tercio form the nucleus of the BRILEC (for the Legionnaire Brigade) established in 1995. The BRILEC also counts with a HQ company, a HQ Battalion (HHC, Intelligence Unit, Communication Unit, and Anti-Tank Company), the Legion Artillery Group, Engineer Unit, Logistical Group and the Legion Band to accomplish its missions and tasks.

The Special Training Center was organized in 1980, and the Mando de Operaciones Especiales (MOE - Special Operations Command) was established 17 years later. Under Decree 184, the MOE became part of the Maneuvering Force (FMA) on October 6, 1997, establishing its base at Alicante. Counter insurgency and deep reconnaissance are tasked to the GOEs (or Grupos de Operaciones Especiales). Each GOE comprises some 250 operators distributed between a HQ unit, a Staff Officers Company, a Reconnaissance Special Operations Company (COE), and a Direct Action (CAD) Company. The COE is subdivided into a HQ Patrol, and 12 long range patrols (Patrullas de Reconocimiento Especial - PRE) while the CAD is subdivided in three Operational Teams (EO) and three Basic Teams. The Bandera de Operaciones Especiales de la Legión (BOEL - the Legion’s Special Operations Battalion) was established to perform advanced reconnaissance for the Spanish Foreign Legion. On July 1, 1997, the Army General Regulation 2 integrated the GOE Valencia III (Alicante), the 3rd GOE Ampurdán IV (Barcelona) and the BOEL Maderal Oleaga XIX (Málaga) as part of the MOE. The MOE also list one HQ element and three UOEs (Unidades de Operaciones Especiales - Special Operations Units) for antiterrorist operations.

Area Defense

These are isolated military strongholds in the Atlantic and Africa. The Belares Garrison lists one motorized infantry regiment and three infantry battalions while the Canarias Garrison counts with its own Field Artillery, Air Defense, Logistical, Engineers, and Communications Groups. The Melilla Garrison has a HQ Group, a General HQ Battalion, the Regulars of Melilla 52nd Group, I Tercio Gran Capitan I of the Legion (with IV Battalion and V [Mechanized] Battalion), Cavalry Regiment Montesa II with two armored squadrons (MBTs) and one APC squadron. The Ceuta Garrison also counts with a HQ Group, a General HQ Battalion, Field Artillery, Air Defense, Logistical, Engineers, and Communications Groups; in addition, it lists the Regulars of Ceuta 54th Group, II Tercio Duque de Alba of the Legion (I Battalion and II [Mechanized] Battalion), Cavalry Regiment Alcantara X with two armored squadrons (MBTs) and one APC squadron.

The Support Force refers to Training and Doctrine Command, Personnel Command, Logistical Support Command and General Inspectorate; while the Ready Reserve comprises 3 Infantry Brigades (Maestrazgo III, Urget IV and San Marcial V), the Jarama I Cavalry Brigade, 1 Artillery Regiment and 1 Combat Engineer Regiment.

Air defense for all army formations is entrusted to small cannons, basically Oerlikon 20mm gun batteries, and 35mm models. These are complemented with Mistral man-portable missiles, and Aspide missile batteries. For medium air defense tasks there are batteries equipped with Hawk missiles.

The Spanish Army is becoming one of the best-trained and equipped forces in Europe and is introducing new weapons for its infantry and armored forces.

The author acknowledges Dionisio Garcia Flores, Director of Fuerzas Militares del Mundo magazine, and the command and members of the BRIPAC for their valuable assistance.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N6 (March 2007)
and was posted online on February 7, 2014


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