Spain set for lengthy capability gap following P-3M Orion retirement

After almost 50 years of operational service, the Spanish Air and Space Force (SASF) retired its final Lockheed P-3M Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) on December 17.

The aircraft (serial P.3M-12 ’22-35’, c/n 5304) was the last of three Orions remaining in Spanish military service at 22 Gruppo (Group) of Ala 11 (11 Wing) before it was withdrawn from use. Spain retired its first P-3M on January 20, 2021, followed by the second on April 25, 2022. The third and final aircraft to be withdrawn from use completed the fleet’s final flight at Morón de la Frontera Air Base in Seville during a retirement ceremony, which was attended by the SASF’s Chief of Staff, Gen Javier Salto Martínez-Avial.


The retirement of Spain’s P-3M fleet could bring a lengthy capability gap in the SASF’s ability to conduct maritime patrol and long-range search and rescue (SAR) operations. Spain is due to replace its now-retired Orions with Airbus Defence and Space’s C295 MPA. This platform will contain the latest Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) and mission-specific systems that permit the aircraft to conduct anti-submarine warfare operations. It also seems that these aircraft will come fitted with a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) system, judging from an image released by Airbus.


The final Spanish P-3M Orion receives a water salute upon landing after its final flight
The final Spanish P-3M Orion receives a water salute upon landing after its final flight Spanish Air and Space Force

However, Spain has yet to formally order its Orion replacement as an agreement between the Spanish Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Airbus Defence and Space has yet to be signed. Airbus is currently in the final stages of defining the C295 MPA configuration, with the firm expecting an aircraft configuration freeze and contract signature with the Spanish MOD in Q1 2023. The Spanish defence budget has allocated €580m ($616.5m) for the procurement of four C295 MPAs between 2023 and 2028.


Meanwhile, the Spanish MOD is also planning to replace its fleet of CN-235M Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA) with the C295 MSA, which all parties believe would be a natural replacement for this mission. However, this will likely come after the C295 MPA acquisition.


The Orion first entered Spanish military service in July 1973 with seven P-3As being delivered in total. In 1977, one P-3A was lost to attrition in an incident that killed all 13 people onboard. In November 1988, Spain acquired five second-hand P-3Bs from the Royal Norwegian Air Force to supplement the Air Force’s already established P-3A fleet. While the bulk of the P-3B fleet was upgraded to P-3M standard in the late 2000s, the Spanish P-3As were phased out of operational service by mid-2012 – except for one example, which was used for crew training purposes until November 14, 2017.


Initially, Spain planned to upgrade all five of its P-3Bs, but due to budget constraints just three were converted and the remaining two were withdrawn from use in early 2012. The modernised P-3M variant of the legacy MPA saw the remaining Spanish Orions receive a significant capability upgrade with the integration of a CASA/EADS FITS for maritime surveillance purposes. The fleet was slated to remain operational until 2020, but in reality the aircraft surpassed that by a couple of years. It currently remains unclear when Spain will formally order the successor to its Orion fleet and whether or not it will rely on NATO allies and partner nations for MPA operations while it lacks its own ability to carry out such missions.