Principe de Asturias. Spanish navy photo

Why Does One of the World’s Smallest Navies Want One of the World’s Biggest Warships?

Angola’s bizarre, rumored aircraft carrier ambition


Angola is in the process of acquiring the recently-decommissioned Spanish aircraft carrier Principe de Asturias, according to one news report. The entire Angolan navy has just 1,000 sailors. The 643-foot-long Principe de Asturias needs 830 sailors to fully function.

No, this does not make a lot of sense. After all, Angola has no overseas military alliances and no major naval rivals. But if true, it is consistent with the country’s ongoing re-armament, which also includes a squadron of Russian-made heavy jet fighters formerly used by India.

Necessary or not, Angola is potentially buying one of West and Southern Africa’s most powerful military arsenals.

Principe de Asturias commissioned in 1988 and for the next 25 years served as Spain’s flagship, carrying a squadron of Harrier jump jets and helicopters on peacekeeping patrols and training missions.

At just 16,700 tons displacement fully loaded, she’s among the smallest of the world’s aircraft carriers. Many of America’s flattops exceed 100,000 tons displacement. But Principe de Asturias still ranks among the world’s largest and most powerful warships, thanks to her ability to launch jets and helicopters.

While not exactly old, this year Spain replaced the diminutive flattop with a new, jet-compatible amphibious assault ship. Principe de Asturias was to be dismantled this year, but sudden interest from Angolan officials reportedly put that plan on hold. According to Spanish news Website Digital El Confidential, an Angolan delegation visited Ferrol shipyard to inspect the laid-up carrier.

Spanish officials have declined to confirm Angola’s interest. “There are still countries interested in buying the aircraft carrier, but nothing firm,” a government rep said.

Spain will reportedly sell Principe de Asturias to Angola along with four decommissioned patrol ships. The Angolan navy currently possesses only a handful of Russian-made attack craft each weighing in at just a few hundred tons displacement. The Spanish acquisitions, if they are truly more than rumors, will expand the Angolan fleet by an order of magnitude and compel the navy to add thousands of new sailors.

Whether Angola can recruit and train the required personnel is far from certain. It’s equally unclear whether the African state can afford to operate Principe de Asturias on more than a token basis. In 1997, Thailand commissioned a small flattop based on Principe de Asturias’ design but has found it nearly impossible to keep the carrier and her Harriers in front-line service.

In her final years in Spanish service, Principe de Asturias and her planes and copters reportedly cost as much as $100 million a year to operate. Huge and sparsely populated, Angola sits atop vast mineral wealth that accounts for much of the country’s income but is concentrated in the hands of elites.

Angola hasn‘t indicated that it is trying to also purchase helicopters and Harriers to fly from the flattop.

The carrier is not Angola’s only high-profile military acquisition. The developing country is also getting 18 used Su-30 twin-engine fighters from Russia. Previously operated by the Indian air force, the Su-30s were returned to Russia when New Delhi upgraded its air arm. While lacking the latest avionics, the Su-30s are still among the world’s most powerful fighters, roughly equivalent to the U.S. F-15.

As with the Principe de Asturias, it’s far from certain that Angola can recruit pilots and afford to fly the Su-30s. West and Central African states have a strong tradition of paying mercenaries from Ukraine and other European countries to pilot their warplanes.

Besides being wasteful in a country that’s still one of the world’s least developed, Angolan arms acquisitions actually pose a security threat … to Angolans. The main mission of the 100,000-strong armed forces—the army is the largest of the military branches—is to maintain internal security. Angola suffered a decades-long civil war that ended in 2002. Armed groups are still active in the countryside.

But it’s hard to say how exactly an aircraft carrier helps maintain internal security. If Angola really is buying a flattop, it’s anyone’s guess why.

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