During the Cold War, it was pertinent for all major European powers to field some form of modern aircraft carrier to quickly respond to Soviet actions anywhere in the world. Initiatives eventually led the British, French, Italians and Spanish to commission at least one such vessel and these eventually served long and distinguished careers for their respective owners. For the Spanish Navy, its endeavor became the "Principe de Asturias" (R11), a conventionally-powered vessel realized in the 1970s.
The Principe de Asturias was ordered on May 29th, 1977 (though as the "Almirante Carrero Blanco" before undergoing a name change). She saw her keel laid down by Empresa Nacional Bazan of Ferrol (to become Navantia) on October 8th, 1979. Upon completion, she was launched on May 22nd, 1982 under the sponsorship of Queen Sofia and, following successful completion of sea trials, formally commissioned into service with the Spanish Navy on May 30th, 1988. During her time at sea, the Principe de Asturias made her homeport out of Naval Station Rota located at the southwestern tip of Spain near the Straight of Gibraltar and served as the flagship of the Spanish fleet. Her primary air wing would be a mix of McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II Vertical / Short Take-Off and Landing ground-attack fighters and various navalized helicopters.
The AV-8B represented an improved 1981 American follow-up to the ground-breaking British Hawker Siddeley Harrier of 1969. 323 of the AV-8B were ultimately produced and these for the United States Marine Corps, Italian Navy and Spanish Navy. V/STOL aircraft allowed the capability to be launched or retrieved as if a helicopter while providing performance and handling of a subsonic jet aircraft. Additionally, its wing spans allowed for a plethora of munitions options to be fitted. Coupled to armed helicopters, the Principe de Asturias with its Harrier arm could prove a formidable surface vessel for the period.
As completed, the Principe de Asturias featured a displacement of 16,000 tons. She measured 643 feet from bow to stern with a beam of 80 feet and a draught of 31 feet. Propulsion was managed through 2 x Bazan-General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines arranged ina COGAG (COmbined Gas And Gas) configuration in which each gas turbine was mated to individual reduction gear boxes, these boxes feeding into clutches and furthermore leading up to a singular gearbox driving the single propeller shaft at the stern. Such an arrangement allowed the vessel to make more efficient use of one or both gas turbines as the situation required. Maximum speed was 26 knots in ideal conditions with an operational range reaching 6,500 nautical miles. The Principe de Asturias was crewed by 830 total personnel including 600 of the base officer/enlisted crew and 230 making up the air wing.
Structurally, the Principe de Asturias of a largely conventional carrier arrangement. Its surface was primarily reserved for the flight deck and hangar elevators allowing access to the deck below for storage, munitions, fuel and maintenance. The island superstructure was set aft of amidships and offset to the starboard side. The flight deck was inline to the vessels bow and stern (not angled) and differentiated by the ski ramp fitted at the bow. The ramp allowed the Harrier II aircraft to receive additional lift when taking off conventionally. The vessel (officially) supported up to 29 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft while it typically carried just 12 Harrier IIs and a collection of 6 navy helicopters.
For self-defense (apart from any fleet warships supporting the vessel), the Principe de Asturias was granted 4 x FABA Meroka Mod 2B Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWSs) and 12 x 20mm Oerlikon L120 anti-aircraft cannons. Processing and sensor systems included a Raytheon SPS-52C.D series 3D air-search radar facility, an ISC Cardion SPS-55 surface-search radar, the ITT SPN-35A aircraft control radar, the FABA SPG-M2B fire control radar system, a SELEX Sistemi Integrati RTN-11L/X missile warning radar and a Selex RAN 12 L target designation radar suite. The vessel also carried an electronic countermeasures suite and the Sensytech AN/SLQ-25 "Nixie" decoy system.
The financial crash of the Spanish economy eventually caused the Principe de Asturias to become a high-profile casualty of its subsequent defense cuts. As such, the vessel was formally decommissioned on February 6th, 2013 after a relatively long service life for the Spanish Navy. Originally planned for the scrap heap, the Spanish government has since fielded calls from interested global parties in regards to purchasing the Principe de Asturias outright. As such, the Principe de Asturias remains intact and awaiting her true fate as of August 2013.
The service that the Principe de Asturias once provided the Spanish fleet will now be handled by the SPS Juan Carlos I, a helicopter carrier/amphibious assault ship complete with ski ramp for STOVL operations. The vessel will ultimately replace its stock of Harrier IIs with the new Lockheed F-35 Lightning II assuming the Spanish Navy can afford the very expensive (and ballooning) 5th generation fighter. Many modern navies are resorting to more contained aircraft/helicopter carrier designed to help reel in defense spending - thus not making the Spanish situation anything of a special case.
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