MADRID — Spain has two aircraft in mind to replace over 70 EF-18A fighter jets, and while the program has yet to formally begin, the informal competition between the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 is just getting hotter.

Madrid is running two separate efforts to replace its aging Hornets, with the first and more immediate effort involving its 20 oldest platforms, currently based in the Canary Islands.

While the contract has yet to be signed, the service expects to substitute those aircraft on a 1-1 basis with Eurofighter Typhoon multirole jets, said Col. Jesus Ferrer, chief of coordination for fixed-wing systems for Spain’s military procurement office.

The second program aims to replace the wider F-18 fleet, operating out of the air force’s Zaragoza and Torrejón air bases. Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is being considered for this program along with more Eurofighters, Ferrer told Defense News Thursday on the sidelines of the biennial FEINDEF conference in Madrid.

“Those are the two options,” he asserted.

Reports have swirled in recent months surrounding Lockheed Martin’s European ambitions for the Joint Strike Fighter program. Eight countries on the continent are either committed to or already operating F-35s, with Switzerland becoming the latest prospective buyer in June. A highly anticipated fighter jet program in Finland and opportunities on the horizon for the Czech Republic and Greece, as well as Spain, are only stoking the flames more.

But it’s still early days for Madrid’s program. The air force submitted a report with their operational requirements for a new fighter jet this past summer, an official told Defense News on the conference floor. Now, the ministry of defense is weighing the requirements against the potential replacement aircraft.

The wider F-18 fleet is scheduled to remain in service until at least 2030, and Spain’s procurement office is just beginning the aircraft feasibility studies, Ferrer said.

It may come down to one major factor: Whether the Navy opts to buy about a dozen F-35B vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft. “If they get the F-35, one option for the Spanish air force will be to purchase the F-35, but we are weighing all the options,” Ferrer said.

But the Typhoons also remain very much in play. “The Spanish air force is very linked to the Eurofighter world,” he noted.

A contract for the 20 Canary Islands-based aircraft may arrive by next year, pending government approval of funds, Ferrer said.

The air force needs to speed up the process of modernizing its fleets, the service chief of staff said in a Thursday panel at the FEINDEF conference.

The service has recently acquired aircraft that will last for decades to come, including the Airbus A400M military transport aircraft, NHIndustries NH90 helicopters, and Typhoon fighters, noted General Javier Salto Martínez-Avial. But other platforms, such as the F-5M trainer jets and the oldest F-18s, should have been renewed years ago, he added.

“To be able to make progress ... this needs to be done. We have to renew our material … to substitute what we have in the Canary Islands,” he said.

U.S. industry executives at the FEINDEF exhibition played down reports that Lockheed was involved in a veritable sales campaign, saying conversations were informal. Still, they said, for the Spanish navy to replace its Harriers the service would have to order the F-35B variant by 2024 in order for the planes to be ready in 2028, when the old jump jets are close to being phased out.

That is, if the Spanish navy opts to continue carrier-based, fixed-wing operations in the first place.

Lockheed, for its part, brought an F-35 cockpit simulator to the show here, inviting Spanish navy officials to take a gander.

Sebastian Sprenger contributed to this report.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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