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Has the United States ever had any military bases in Spain?

The U.S. still operates two military bases in Southern Spain, but gave up control of two Air Force bases to the Spanish government in the early nineties.

Has the United States ever had any military bases in Spain?
Joseph McMahon
The U.S. still operates two military bases in Southern Spain, but gave up control of two U.S. Air Force bases to the Spanish government in the early nineties.

The United States operated four military bases in Spain from 1953 until 1992, when the custody of the Air Force base at Torrejon and the Zaragoza Air Force base was passed over to the Spanish government. The Naval Station Rota and the Moron Air base are still operated and maintained by the US government and are strategically important enclaves in Southern Europe.

After World War II, Spain was isolated by the U.S., U.K. and Russia and was excluded from the United Nations, which was established in 1945. It wasn’t until 1953 when U.S. President Eisenhower signed the Pact of Madrid, which provided the Americans with a naval base in Rota and three Air Force bases in Moron, Torrejon and Zaragoza in exchange for military material and economic aid.

The building and putting into service of the four bases in Spain allowed the country to open up after almost 15 years of isolation brought on by the Civil War. The social and economic impact on the areas was significant near the bases in Southern Spain, Torrejon, outside of Madrid and Zaragoza, located between the capital and Barcelona.

Despite the creation of jobs, infrastructure and social and cultural interaction, not all was perfect as many Spaniards were disappointed that the U.S. had validated Franco’s fascist regime. As depicted in Spanish film director Luis Berlanga’s masterpiece “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall,” the arrival of the Americans benefited some, but probably not the extent that many had hoped for.

Rota Naval base

The base is the gate to the Mediterranean Sea and includes an airfield and a port. The location is very useful and strategic near Gibraltar and it is midway between Southwest Asia and the United States.

The base opened in 1953 and at its peak in the early 1980s it was home to over 16,000 U.S. sailors and troops as well as their families. In the 1990s, as in the other US bases in Spain, the American presence decreased, although Rota was used by C-5 and C-141 planes in the Gulf War in 1991.

Rota Naval base is currently used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, but it is commanded by the Spanish Vice-Admiral and the American flag is only flown on the 4th of July. The Naval Station Rota provides support for US and NATO ships and offers safe and efficient movement of U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force flights in the region

Moron Air Force base

The Air Force base at Moron had already been constructed when the U.S. signed the Madrid Pact in 1953. The base was renovated and upgraded and operations commenced in 1958 with the first rotational fighter squadron of North American F-100 Super Sabres commanded by Lt. Col. Chuck Yeager for temporary duty to conduct air defense maneuvers. The base operated primarily as a reflex base until 1962, but an accident in Palomares in which two planes crashed resulting in 7 deaths of crew members and four hydrogen bombs landing near the fishing village of Palomares. Two of the bombs detonated resulting in contamination of a 2 Km2 area nd one fell into the Mediterranean Sea and was recovered two and a half months later.

After the accident, U.S. B-52 bombers were not allowed to operate at the base until 1983. The base was used heavily in 1991 in the Gulf War and later for operations in Kosovo in 1999. Activity increased at the base in 2001 as operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were supported from the base. More recently, in 2011, operations in Libya were conducted from the base in Southern Spain.

The U.S. military was granted permanent presence on the base through an agreement with the Spanish government in 2015. Up to 3,000 American troops and civilians of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Africa can be stationed there and the number of aircraft can be increased to 40 according to the terms of the agreement.

Torrejon Air Base

Torrejon Air Base was opened in 1957 outside of Madrid and hosted the Sixteenth Air Force and the SAC’s 65th Air Division where it cooperated with Spanish Air Force units in the Air Defense Direction Centers. The division also controlled the operations of numerous attached tactical fighter squadrons that were deployed to Spain for temporary duty.

The base gained relevance in the 1970s and 80s supporting operations with NATO partners in Italy and Turkey and was used especially for refueling for the regions of North Africa, the East Atlantic and Southern Europe.

As internal pressure arose on Spain’s government to not renew the contract with the U.S. government, the USAF portion of the base was turned over to the Spanish government on May 21 May, 1992, ending nearly 40 years of American presence at the base.

The base is still used at times for official visits, where Air Force One landed, for President Biden’s participation at the NATO Summit in Madrid.

Zaragoza Air Base

The Zaragoza Air Base is no longer operated by the U.S. Air Force as it ran the same fate as its counterpart in Torrejon in 1992. The base is still used by the U.S. government when required by NASA as an alternative landing site thanks to its two long runways. Although the Americans no longer operate the air base, the USAF has been allowed to use the facilities as Spain is an important NATO member. The air base has been used on several occasions in recent years, such as 1991 during the Gulf War, in 1999 for operations in Kosovo and in 2005 in Afghanistan.

Zaragoza, like the other cities near American bases in Spain, was greatly influenced by four decades of American presence in the city. The chronicle of those 40 years was documented in an article in the local Zaragoza newspaper, which highlighted the contributions made by the Americans to the capital of Aragon. For many “Zaragozanos” it was a time when they were introduced to rock and roll, American fast food and sports like baseball, golf, bowling and basketball. “They played basketball that was different to what we played here, like the jump shot, for example. They were incredible compared to us,” said Jose Luis Rubio, president of the Zaragoza Basketball club.


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