History – The Need For Air Bases in Spain

Rotation of strategic bombers through Europe

After WW2, Soviet activity in Eastern Europe unsettled the western allies. President Harry S. Truman decided to take a hard line with Russia, lest the situation evolve into a new war. In Germany, Furstenfeldbruck Air Base near Munich, Giebelstadt near Würzburg, and Rhein-Main near Frankfurt were rebuilt to accommodate Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. Strategic Air Command (SAC) wanted its B-29 fleet as close to the Soviet Union as possible because of their limited range and it was decided to rotate a portion of SAC’s B-29 fleet through Europe.

Spanish map showing possible strategic strike locations for the U.S. and the USSR You can follow a dotted line from a military installation on either side to its potential target

map strategic strike locations


The 1950s Even with the Korean War raging in the early 1950s, Europe received a higher priority of air power than Korea by the Truman Administration and the Department of Defense. In September 1950, the NATO Military Committee called for an ambitious buildup of conventional forces to meet the Soviets in the event of a conventional war. The USAF transferred thirteen combat wings from Tactical Air Command plus one air depot wing from Air Material Command, and relocated the units to US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) during the period from April 1951 through December 1954.

Agreement with Spain Negotiations for bases in Spain were conducted between June 1951 and September 1953 under the direction of a Joint United States Military Group, commanded by Major General A. W. Kissner. The negotiations were concluded with the establishment of the Spanish-American air bases, including Morón Air Base, via a 10 year agreement between the US and Spanish Governments. The negotiations were formalized with the signature of Ambassador Dunn of the United States on 26 September 1953.

La Vanguardia newspaper 1953(Translation of headline: “A Historic Day for the West”)

la_vanguardia_03(Loose translation – over the main headline: “Two Generals’ Victory in the Name of Two Great Peoples”) (Translation of main headline: “Spanish and American Accord for the Maintenance of Peace and International Security”)


The Sixteenth Air Force served both Strategic Air Command and United States Air Forces in Europe. Established as Joint United States Military Group, Air Administration (Spain), on 20 May 1954. Activated on 20 May 1954 at Madrid, Spain, it was attached to the Joint U.S. Military Group, which oversaw implementation of the 1953 Spanish-American Defense Cooperation Agreement.

In 1956, the administration was redesignated as Headquarters, 16th AF, and aligned directly under Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. Existing Spanish air force bases were expanded near Madrid, Sevilla and Zaragoza. In 1957, the 16th AF was realigned under the Strategic Air Command. Main operating bases in Spain were used for SAC B-47 rotational alert aircraft.

Spanish map showing nuclear missile sites and military installations of the U.S. and USSR The map is entitled “Las Bases en el contexto de la Guerra Fria,” roughly meaning “Bases in context of the Cold War”


The End of the U.S. nuclear presence in Spain

On January 16, 1966, a B-52 bomber, returning to its North Carolina base following a routine airborne alert mission, collided with the fueling boom of a KC-135 tanker over the coast of Spain while attempting to refuel. The jet fuel in the KC-135 exploded, killing all four men aboard. Four members of the B-52’s seven man crew were able to parachute to safety. Of the four unarmed B28 hydrogen bombs being carried, three crashed on the ground in the vicinity of Palomares and one fell into the sea. Four days after what came to be known as the Palomares Incident”, the Spanish government stated that “the Palomares incident was evidence of the dangers created by NATO’s use of the Gibraltar airstrip.” NATO aircraft were subsequently banned from flying over Spanish territory either to or from Gibraltar. The U.S. announced that it would no longer fly over Spain with nuclear weapons, and on 29 January the Spanish government formally banned U.S. flights over its territory that carried such weapons. Three months later, the mission of the Sixteenth Air Force and Morón Air Base changed to communications support, “fair weather” flying operations of Temporary Duty (TDY) RF-4 and RF-101 reconnaissance units, and the support of the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.

The Morón Air Base continues to be operational in supportive roles. Morón holds the distinction of being the largest tanker base during the Kosovo war. The installation hosts Air Mobility Command, Air Force Space Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations units. Additionally, the base plays an important role in NASA’s shuttle program as the only combined emergency and transoceanic abort landing site. The Zaragoza Air Base, initially serving as operational support for the SAC B-47 Stratojet alert force, was modified to caretaker status in 1966 but was returned to active status in 1970 and hosted the 406th Tactical Fighter Training Group. The base finally became defunct as a USAF presence when it returned control to the Spanish government in 1994. The Torrejon Air Base also changed focus from strategic to tactical after the phase-out of the B-47 in the mid 1960’s. During the Viet Nam War, the 401st Tactical Fighting Wing stationed in Torrejon deployed two of its three squadrons to South Vietnamese bases. To keep up full operational capability, aircraft and personnel were transferred from Homestead AFB and Myrtle Beach AFB. By the late 80’s, Spain and the U.S. reached a new agreement that included reducing the presence of the USAF in Spain. The former base agreement had become a symbol of the United States’ cooperation with the Franco regime.  It was important to many Spaniards to eliminate the vestiges of this history. In accordance with the 1988 agreement, the USAF portion of the Torrejon base was turned over to the Spanish government on 21 May 1992. The Torrejon facility continues to exist as a base for the Spanish Air Force.