Following the collapse of its American empire in the early 19th Century, and particularly following the resounding defeat at the hends of the Americans in 1898, Spain turned inward. Spain remained neutral during the Great War, the only large European country to do so. The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. In what has been called "a prelude to World War II," it is estimated that 600,000 people lost their lives, some of whom were Americans fighting in "International Brigades" on the Republican side. Spain also remained neutral during World War II, but abandoned its long-standing posture of neutrality in 1982 when it joined NATO. And in the 21st Century Spain is poised to return to the world stages as its military forces transition from a posture of Territorial Defence to a Force Projection posture.
Spain's long-established policy of neutrality ended with its conditional accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1982. Spain's membership, subject to conditions that circumscribed the Spanish role, remained in doubt, however, until it was ratified by a public referendum in 1986. Spain abstained from participating in the NATO integrated command structure, continued to ban nuclear weapons from Spanish soil, and excluded the use of Spanish forces outside its own territory. The Spanish government also insisted on the removal of a wing of United States fighter planes based near Madrid, which had formed a part of NATO's South European defenses.
During the Sixteenth Century, when Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe, the Spanish armed forces enjoyed a formidable reputation. The military decline that set in during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) brought an end to Spain's ascendancy. During the nineteenth century, the ineffectiveness of the Spanish armed forces was demonstrated repeatedly by humiliating defeats abroad. A decadent monarchy and the weak and corrupt civil governments of the time cemented the military's involvement in domestic politics; interventions by an inflated and underemployed officer corps became a recurrent feature of Spanish political life.
From the creation of the national army in 1808 through the end of the Franco era, the Spanish military and political system was dominated by the army. As a consequence, the military became a kind of "palace guard" and generally performed gendarmerie functions. The result was that the armed forces became marginal organizations incapable of performing the mission of protecting the country and its interests from outside harm. Diplomacy and other countries with like interests were expected to fill that role.
At the conclusion of the 1936-39 Civil War, the victorious Nationalist army of General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (dictator of Spain, 1939-75) was a large and hardened fighting force. Franco maintained direct command over the army, which he employed as an instrument for suppressing opposition to his regime. The country, however, exhausted economically after the Civil War, could not afford a large military establishment. Its size was steadily reduced, and it lacked the means to fight a modern conflict. Beginning in 1953, military assistance furnished by the United States in conjunction with the base agreement between the two countries helped to reverse the deterioration of the armed forces.
The constitutional monarchy that emerged on Franco's death in 1975 was threatened by the rebelliousness of many senior officers who had failed to come to terms with the new democratic climate. Nevertheless, under the 1978 Constitution and subsequent enactments, the mission and the structure of the armed forces were gradually transformed. Funds were allotted for new equipment and for improved training. The career system was rationalized and pay increases were granted. The three individual service ministries were replaced by a single Ministry of Defense with a civilian at its head. The Chief of the Defense Staff (Jefe del Estado Mayor de la Defensa--JEMAD), the highest military officer, acted in a supportive role to the minister of defense in carrying out military policies.
Further reforms were introduced by the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, who came to power in 1982. The army was reconstituted as five divisions comprising eleven brigades, plus four independent brigades. The distinction between forces earmarked to protect against external threats, and regional defense units, organized to maintain internal order, was abandoned. The navy and the air force, less burdened by personnel costs, were farther along in their modernization programs than the army by the end of the Cold War.
In spite of the modernization program, by the end of the Cold War Spanish armed forces, especially the army, were still deficient in relation to other NATO nations. Defense spending remained well below the average for the alliance. Nevertheless, Spain was potentially capable of making a significant contribution to NATO's defenses. Moreover, its accession to the treaty was expected to invigorate the Spanish military establishment and to contribute to its emergence as a modern force with a well-defined mission as part of Europe's collective security.
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