Dispatch from Madrid: For Spain’s contributions to NATO, look beyond its defense spending

NATO’s recent defense expenditure report was a cringeworthy moment in Madrid. Despite self-applauding recent years of defense spending growth, Spain had the unenviable distinction of ranking dead last among Alliance members for defense expenditures as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), clocking in at an estimated 1.28 percent for 2024. Although consistently investing in equipment expenditures at or above the NATO guideline of 20 percent of its defense budget, Spain’s inability to spend on defense at a rate agreed upon by allies will lend credence to naysayers who question its commitment to the Alliance.

However, while Spain unambiguously falls short of the 2 percent of GDP metric, a careful look at Madrid’s commitment to transatlantic security shows that Spain not only actively participates in the Alliance’s military operations, it also enthusiastically leads NATO missions and supports Ukraine while helping guard Europe’s southern flank.

Spanish public opinion takes a turn

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shook Spanish public opinion. Blessed by favorable geography, Spain did not consider Russia to be a threat to its sovereignty, and most Spaniards did not feel Russia threated European security writ large. The invasion changed all of that. Spanish citizens judged Russia’s actions to be a clear violation of international law.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, only 5 percent of Spaniards held a favorable opinion of Russia in 2023, down sharply from 31 percent in 2020 and 46 percent in 2011. Many Spaniards disapprove of Russia’s malign activity, such as its propensity for election interference, including during the 2017 Catalonia independence referendum. More recently, the alleged Russian assassination in February in Alicante, Spain, of a Russian helicopter pilot who defected has further hardened Spanish public opinion against Russia’s role in the world.

With broad public backing, Spain has given Ukraine unwavering support since the beginning of the conflict. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez optimized Spain’s July-December 2023 Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) to showcase the nation’s commitment to Ukraine. Sánchez traveled to Kyiv on the first day of Spain’s presidency while hosting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the October 2023 European Political Community gathering, with both King Felipe VI and Sánchez individually meeting Zelenskyy. Spain also guided Ukraine’s EU accession negotiation process during its presidency.

Direct Spanish support to Ukraine continues to intensify as the war progresses. Madrid and Kyiv signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement in May 2024, accompanied by a Spanish pledge of one billion euros in military aid. Spain has provided Ukraine vast amounts of lethal and nonlethal military assistance, both bilaterally and through EU mechanisms. Spanish military equipment contributions have included air defense systems, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery systems with associated ammunition, including Patriot missiles, which had been desperately requested by Ukraine.

Given Spain’s underinvestment in defense prior to 2022, the Ukrainian donations have cut into Spanish reserves. This has not dampened Spain’s willingness to support Ukraine, with Sánchez meeting Spanish defense industry executives in March to ask them to prioritize Ukrainian needs over Spanish requirements. Spain hosts an EU training facility in Toledo as part of the EU Military Assistance Mission and has exceeded its mandate to train two thousand soldiers, with the Spanish Army more than doubling its output with nearly five thousand Ukrainian graduates. Spanish leaders also highlight their nonmilitary support for Ukraine, including hosting more than two hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees, earmarking reconstruction funds, and actively supporting Ukraine’s efforts for judicial accountability for Russian war crimes in the country.

Spain’s commitment to NATO deterrence and defense

In addition to supporting Ukraine, Spain bolstered its commitment to NATO deterrence efforts in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Spain deploys a high proportion of its armed forces to participate in NATO operations while actively volunteering to lead NATO missions in all domains. The Spanish Air and Space Force deploys fighter aircraft to either the Baltics or the Black Sea region eight months out of the year on average, and currently leads the April-July 2024 Baltic Air Policing detachment in Lithuania. For the maritime domain, the Spanish Navy commanded NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 1 for the first half of 2024, helming a multination, multi-ship maritime deterrence force in the Baltic Sea.

The Spanish Army notably increased its operational tempo in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Spanish Army immediately augmented its troops in Latvia following the invasion, where it had been participating in NATO’s legacy Enhanced Forward Presence. The Spanish footprint in Latvia is a reinforced company-sized unit equipped with armor, artillery, and air defense enablers. This reinforcement included bilateral support to Latvia in the form of an advanced air defense unit. More importantly, Spain enthusiastically volunteered to be the framework nation for a new battlegroup in Slovakia. The Spanish Army officially took command of the battlegroup on July 1, bringing the same quality of forces to Slovakia as it did to Latvia, while it keeps another reserve battlegroup ready in Spain to augment its forward deployed forces if needed. Finally, the Spanish Marines (naval infantry) will send a company of soldiers to Romania to embed with the French-led battlegroup later this year. Thus, Spain is one of the few NATO members to have land forces defending the Alliance’s territory in the three separate regions along the eastern flank.

Keeping a vigilant eye on Europe’s south

Although Spain’s commitments to the eastern flank speak for themselves, it is Europe’s southern flank that gives Madrid the most cause for concern. Spain is a long-standing contributor to security and defense missions in Africa and the Middle East, often under a United Nations (UN) or EU mandate. Through these experiences, especially in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Madrid consistently raises concerns about Russia’s behavior in Africa, closely observing Russian malign activity, including through Moscow’s Wagner Group or post-Wagner operatives. Spanish diplomats are especially concerned about Russia’s support for illegitimate governments and military juntas, viewing this as a deliberate effort by Moscow to hinder these nations’ development toward freedom and prosperity.

Spain urged NATO to launch its “southern neighborhood” working group and was an active participant in the final report, advocating for a larger yet humbler role for NATO in these regions. Spain led the NATO Mission in Iraq for one year, participates in every EU military and civilian mission in Africa, and is currently the commander for the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) with a force commitment of more than seven hundred troops.

Another Spanish commitment in support of Europe’s southern flank is often overlooked: Spain hosts US forces at its Rota naval base and Morón air base. These installations provide two of the four large runways in Europe for US air power projection (with the other two in Germany), enables the forward deployment of US maritime power in and beyond the Mediterranean Sea, and provides a gateway for three US geographic combatant commands, which itself contributes to European security.

Increasing defense spending for Spain’s benefit

Spain’s support for Ukraine and its reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank do not absolve it from its defense spending credibility problem. While it is likely to try to spin the defense spending discussion toward recent increases, Spain still has a long and steep climb to reach its self-proclaimed 2029 goal of passing the 2 percent of GDP threshold. To accomplish this, Spanish defense spending will need to grow at a minimum of 10 percent each year through 2029, while staying ahead of inflation. This is a real challenge, especially given the fractured nature of Spanish politics, budget processes, and high debt levels. While there is a consensus between the center-left and center-right in support of increased defense spending, both parties would be wise to formalize this and pass budgets so the armed forces can invest over time with confidence no matter which party is in power.

Increased spending is critical for acquiring much-needed capabilities. The Spanish Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the multi-purpose Juan Carlos I, will face irrelevancy as a fixed-wing launch platform if the navy does not procure a replacement for its fleet of EAV-8B Harrier II jump jets. Although Spain joined the French-German Future Combat Air System project, the earliest any production aircraft may join the Spanish Air and Space Force is 2040, beyond the lifespan of its EF-18 fleet. The Spanish Army’s Fuerza 2035 program needs to be funded through completion. Soldier salaries continue to fall behind the cost of living and inflation, and the military may need to grow to employ future capabilities.

In other words, the to-do list is long. Spain’s political leaders need to commit to funding these capabilities if there is any hope for the Spanish military to keep pace with the rapidly changing security environment.

Andrew Bernard is a retired US Air Force colonel and a visiting fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: resident of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez during the press conference at Moncloa Palace on May 27, 2024 in Madrid, Spain. The Ukrainian president had postponed an earlier trip to Spain after Russia's escalating attacks in the Kharkiv region. Photo by Francesco Militello Mirto/NurPhoto.