Between 16 and 19 September 2019 the Armada Española (Spanish Navy) carried out the amphibious exercise Marfibex-92. More than 1 300 men and women of the Spanish Navy and Spanish Army were involved in this exercise as well as 3 ships, 8 landing craft, 9 aircraft and more than 50 vehicles. The main objective of this exercise was to train the ability to put ground forces on land from the sea with support of aircraft and other units. Participating aircraft of the Spanish Navy were AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft, Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King and Agusta-Bell AB-212 Twin Huey helicopters. The III Marine Corps Battalion and support units participated as the landing force. The maneuvers of this huge exercise took place in the waters of the Bay of Cádiz, at the Rota Naval Base and at the Training Camp of the Sierra del Retín. This type of amphibious exercise serves as a starting point for the units of the Spanish Navy in their periodic training in amphibious operations so they can response to crisis situations and humanitarian aid operations. One of the ships that participated in this exercise was the Spanish aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I (L-61). During the Marfibex-92 exercise this ship served as an amphibious assault ship for the marines and aircraft carrier for the Spanish Harrier attack aircraft and Sea King helicopters. In addition to the Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier, the two Spanish Galicia class landing platform dock ships Galicia and Castilla also participated in the Marfibex-92 exercise.
One of the participating squadrons in the Marfibex-92 exercise was the 9th Aircraft Squadron(9a Escuadrilla Aeronaves), which is the only Spanish Navy fixed-wing fighter squadron.This fighter squadron uses the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II ‘Matador’ vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft and is based at Naval Station Rota in the Province of Cádiz, near the town of El Puerto de Santa María. The 9th Aircraft Squadron is very versatile and can participate in many missions such as Combat Air Patrols (CAP), Close Air Support (CAS), armed reconnaissance and attacks against land and sea targets with an assortment of weapons and in-flight refueling capability for prolonged missions. During the Marfibex-92 exercise three AV-8B Harrier ‘Matador’ fighter jets carried out landings and take-off at the Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier to qualify their skills and provided support to the marines and other units involved in this exercise. Also present during the Marfibex-92 exercise was the 5th Aircraft Squadron with their Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King helicopters and the 3rd Aircraft Squadron with a Bell UH-1N Twin Huey helicopter. Originally the 5thAircraft Squadron was used for anti-submarine warfare but as of 2001, their mission changed to transport, all-weather amphibious assault, search and rescue and medical evacuation. During Marfibex-92 these helicopters were used to transport marines and logistics from the Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier and the amphibious transport docks Galicia (L51) and Castillia (L52) to their training site.
The L-61 LHD Juan Carlos I (Landing Helicopter Deck) plays a very important role in the fleet of the Spanish Navy. This vessel, which is named in honor of the former King of Spain Juan Carlos I, has a 12° ski jump for STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing aircraft)operations and a flight deck of 202 meters. It weighs 26.000 tons and measures 230,8 meters.At this flight deck there are eight landing spots for AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft or medium-sized helicopters and four spots which can be used by heavy helicopters such as the CH-47 Chinook or V-22 Osprey. After slight adjustments to the flight deck, the Juan Carlos I could also be used in the near future as an aircraft carrier for F-35B Lightning II fifth generation fighter jets. Underneath the flight deck there is a multi-functional garage and hangar on two levels which can be used as maintenance area for the aircraft or as storage zone during amphibious assault missions. When it’s used in the aircraft carrier mode, this vessel can carry up to 30 aircraft. Juan Carlos I is capable of transporting 144 containers as well as evacuated civilians. It has two operation theatres, a dentist’s room, a sick bay, a consulting room, a first aid room, an ICU, an injury selection area, an X-ray room, a lab and a chemist’s room. An elevator connects the dock, flight deck and cargo decks to the hospital to transport invalid personnel. The stern well deck of the Juan Carlos I measures 69 by 16,8 meters and can accommodate four LCM-1E amphibious mechanized landing craft. These amphibious landing craft can deliver marines and ground vehicles like tanks to a beach. The ship provides accommodation for 900 marines and can carry 46 Leopard type tanks or similar battle tanks.
Construction of the Juan Carlos I began in May 2005 simultaneously at the Navantia Shipyards in Ferrol and in Fene, Galicia. After 3.100.000 hours of production and 775.000 hours of engineering this flagship of the Spanish Navy was launched in March 2008 and was commissioned on September 30th, 2010. On June 20th, 2007 the Prime Minister of Australia announced that Australia would purchase and build two ships of the same design as the Juan Carlos I to become the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks. The first of these ships (HMAS Canberra) was commissioned on 28 November 2014, the second ship (HMAS Adelaide) was commissioned on 4 December 2015.
The author would like to thank the Spanish Navy – Comandante del LHD Juan Carlos I Francisco José Asensi Pérez and his entire crew, for their hospitality and most interesting tour on the ship during this exercise.
Text & Photos: Kris Christiaens