Operation Balmis has been the largest deployment of armed forces in Spain in peacetime, with a total of 187,000 troops in 2,300 towns, who have carried out 19,900 interventions in three months. And at the head of the armies, at this time unprecedented in what we have been doing in terms of democracy, has been Air General Miguel Ángel Villarroya.
He was born in La Galera (Tarragona) 63 years ago, and he had been three years as director of the Technical Cabinet of the minister Margarita Robles when he was appointed to the position of chief of the Defence Staff. His appointment took place on 14 January, and he certainly did not imagine that before he had completed his two months in office a global pandemic would be declared, in which the Spanish Armed Forces have played an important role for civil society.
With a calm look and a kind gesture, he finds it difficult to talk about himself and is not much of a friend to be photographed; however, any reticence is dispelled when it comes to talking about the work being done by the Spanish military both inside and outside our borders. He receives Atalayar in his office, in the building on Vitrubio Street in Madrid where the Defence Staff is located, and there he answers concisely all the questions about Balmis, about how the coronavirus has affected the missions abroad in which Spain is currently participating and about the changes that are coming in some of them in the coming months.
What went through your mind when you were appointed to the most important position that can be achieved as a career military in Spain?
When one is told this, he puts his hand in the first time of greeting, says "at your service" and completes the mission. We, the military, are at whatever they tell us to do, and as Calderón de la Barca's famous sonnet said, "neither ask nor refuse". But I felt very honored.
You had not served two months in office when a global pandemic was declared, a state of alarm was decreed, and the largest military operation the Spanish Armed Forces had ever deployed in peacetime had to be designed in record time. How do you deal with something like this?
Like any other mission. I have been serving for forty-something years, and although the crisis has been unprecedented, the way to face a crisis is not. It's what we're trained to do. All we have done is apply what we have learned over many years in exercises, in courses, in forms of planning. We have not done anything else, but it is what we do. The armed forces are an essential tool for resolving any kind of crisis.
What was the most complicated part of this operation?
The days when the death toll was highest, in late March and early April, that we had to start making transfers to the three morgues that were opened in Madrid on a provisional way were the hardest. We had more than 8,000 people on the streets every day, the hospitals were collapsed and our people were also intervening massively in the nursing homes, which have been one of the critical points during the pandemic.
The military were the first to raise the alarm about what was happening in some - not all - of the nursing homes. When do these reports start coming to you?
It was also around this time, at the end of March, that the military began to enter and see what was happening on time. It is not a question of putting the finger on anyone now, much less of speaking badly of the people who take care of the elderly. The truth is that the situation of overflow that existed was of a global nature and the personnel in the nursing homes could not do more than they did. We tried to collaborate with them, and we did what we could.
Within the context of Balmis, actions were planned that have not been carried out in the end, such as joint patrols between the military, the civil guard and the police. Why were they not carried out?
Many things were planned here and several options were given that later proved to be impractical. With the state security forces there was an extraordinary collaboration during the whole operation: we had liaison officers in the JOC (Joint Operations Centre) and we planned the actions in an absolutely coordinated way. The aim was to free up the members of the state forces so that they could carry out their functions of guaranteeing security and public order, and this has been done. At that time, it became clear that entering into border and critical infrastructure patrols was better than joint patrols, and that was simply one of the things that did not work out.
What about Operation Zendal?
It's the same case. When we were planning the objectives, there were several lines of action, and this one was analyzed, it was seen that it was not practical and it was done by another way.
In fact, the home prevalence tests that were contemplated in Operation Zendal, and which prevented the elderly from having to go to health centres, for example, have not been carried out in any other way.
Zendal's objective was to do massive seroprevalence tests for a study, and that was finally done. It's the way it's been done that's changed. In the end, the Health Service designated the Autonomous Communities to carry out this procedure instead of the Armed Forces, and it is the Armed Forces that have decided to do it through Primary Care instead of going to the homes. We were once told that we were not going to do this, so we disassociated ourselves from the process.
The state of alarm is over and with it also concludes Operation Balmis as such. What will be "on call" in case there are outbreaks or continued requests for help?
Balmis was born out of a very particular situation and has been linked to the state of alarm, but the mechanisms of action of the Armed Forces are still there, always have been. We see this with the UME in the case of fires, or with the 43rd Air Force Group, which are the fire-fighting planes; we have also seen it when the Army has installed bridges in the latest floods that have occurred... these are the ordinary mechanisms for collaboration with the civil authorities. And that's what's going to remain now. Balmis has used a military operational structure to deal with this crisis, and now such a large military structure is no longer necessary. But the requests that arise will continue to be met, perhaps not from such a rapid pace, because there will no longer be a Single Command to coordinate the five Component Commands that have participated in Balmis, but they will be met. In any case, there is a contingency plan that would be implemented again in the event of a resurgence or if the situation requires it.
Doesn't it influence that units like the UME now have to dedicate themselves to the fire season?
No, they're keeping their checkpoint. Fire season's not going to affect that. The troops of the UME intervention unit will continue to be dedicated to possible cases of COVID-19.
In comparison, what has been the military intervention in the countries of the rest of Europe during the coronavirus crisis? Have there been differences with Spain?
In all the countries around us, their armed forces have intervened; in some they have only assumed security tasks, in others they have provided specific logistical support, or health support... But in Spain the Spanish Armed Forces have acted as a bloc, and as far as I know we are the only country that has done so. Balmis has been the military operation with the most troops and the most dedication in recent times, of which we should be aware, and furthermore we have done so without detriment to the other functions and capabilities that the Armed Forces have. We have continued to provide the security that we provide every day in permanent operations; we have kept ships at sea and early warning aircraft ready to go; and missions abroad have continued, even though we have had to withdraw troops in some countries because of the pandemic.
As you point out, the coronavirus has affected many countries simultaneously and in some of them there are military missions in which Spanish troops participate. What has been done with these missions abroad and how has it been done?
The missions continue. We have temporarily withdrawn some troops because the countries where they were training local troops have restricted these contact activities, and our instructors have had to withdraw. But the missions are continuing, and as soon as the situation allows, we will resume normal activity.
Has each country been analysed on a case-by-case basis or has generalised action been taken?
Each country has set its own standards, and we have complied with the particular guidelines given to us in each place. What we have done in a general way is to apply a preventive quarantine to all the troops who have gone to relieve troops during these months. Then there have been countries that have also required us to carry out a test and an additional quarantine upon arrival at the site.
So, have relays continued to be made abroad during the health crisis?
Yes, in fact, right now we are relieving in Lebanon, we started last week. We have also taken over in Somalia, and in Operation Atalanta we are also in the process of replacing the frigate.
How many troops returned home from COVID-19 and from which missions?
We have withdrawn 100 from Mali, 30 from Afghanistan and about 200 from Iraq, but not because they were infected, but because those countries suspended training activities because of the virus.
And how many have been infected by the coronavirus in foreign missions?
We've had infections in Mali and in Operation Atalanta. In Mali there have been two serious cases, within which they have not been very serious, requiring hospitalization, and they were immediately repatriated along with five other colleagues with whom they had been in contact. Then there were two other positive asymptomatic cases, also in Mali, which were passed on in the area of operation. And one person who tested positive for Atalanta. Apart from that we have had isolated people, but no other cases confirmed. We can say that we have been very lucky because there have been very few people affected by the virus.
I would like to go into detail on some of the missions that are active, such as the one in Iraq. There, before the coronavirus, the context was already complicated: since the American attack that killed General Soleimani in January, the pressure against the Coalition had increased and the local forces were less and less tolerant of the presence of these international troops. Is the withdrawal made in March going to be used to reduce the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq?
In Iraq right now there are two coexisting missions that are making a transfer from one to the other. There is the Coalition Against the Daesh - which was responsible, among other things, for the training of Iraqi forces - and then there is the NATO operation, which is taking over the functions of the other mission. This transfer has been disrupted by Covid, which has forced the suspension of training, and only special operations have remained in operation. The Coalition has therefore decreased its activity, but NATO has not yet been able to take it over due to the health crisis, and there has been a gap with regard to what was planned.
On the other hand, the Coalition considers that the DAESH has been defeated militarily in Iraqi territory, although the truth is that it is still there and retains some remaining capacities for action, and it is not necessary to say anything else. But in any case, it is declining in activity. We currently have 265 troops there and we are waiting to hear what NATO has to say so that we can proceed to incorporate more. And then the 150 who are in Besmayah are due to return by dismantling the base that we have there and which will be closed this summer.
Is the Besmayah base not contemplated in the new NATO mission?
No. Besmayah is an Iraqi base that was ceded to the Americans, and the United States verbally ceded its operation to us afterwards. But now Iraqi forces have asked for its return and it's going to be done. That's the process we're in.
The mission in which most Spanish troops are deployed is Lebanon. It is another country where tension is growing every day, with uncontrolled street protests since October and now with Israel's announcement of its annexation of the West Bank from July 1. How does this affect Spain?
We are affected by the global instability in the area: Israel's intentions with the West Bank, the return of Hezbollah that is returning to Lebanon after having participated in the war in Syria, and also the incidence of COVID-19 in the country. Everything affects. But the Operation Libre Hidalgo in which we are participating is part of a United Nations mission, we are blue helmets and we are part of a very large contingent, whose mission has not changed for the moment. The mandate has to be renewed in August, and I do not know whether the new mandate is going to remain the same or introduce changes. For the time being, Spain will continue to do what the United Nations considers to be the case, we and the other countries involved, from India to Italy or France. The environment has changed but the mission remains unaltered.
Since last January, France has been intensifying its military presence in the Sahel. Is Spain going to do the same? What is the real threat that this region poses to our country?
The Sahel is Spain's and Europe's backyard, and any instability there has a direct impact on us. We are very close, which is why we need a stable Sahel. We need neighbours who are able to develop in peace and freedom, something that will not happen if the terrorist organisations are able to operate there. Moreover, it is a transit area through which all kinds of traffic pass: people, drugs and contraband. And we must stabilise it, Europe must be there. In fact, the EUTM Mali mission has changed its mandate, the 5th mandate (which comes into force in 2021) has undergone a great variation: the area of action has been greatly increased, it used to be only Mali and now it includes all the G5 Sahel countries, and the number of troops is going to need to be increased to take on this expansion. There will also be a change in the type of training that will be given; we are going to move from training individuals to training instructors, not just Malians, from the whole of the G5 Sahel, so that they will be able to train their own troops. This will be done with mobile training teams, which will certify that the local units are receiving the correct training and will help them on the ground. This is a new change in philosophy and requires more troops. Spain is already planning to increase the number of troops, probably significantly.
Without leaving Africa, has COVID-19 in any way affected Operation Atalanta which is being carried out in the Indian Ocean to protect tuna vessels from piracy?
Yes, it has been affected by the issue of personnel replacements, both for the planes that are in Djibouti and for the ships. Specifically, we had a positive case of COVID-19 when we were relieving one of the ships, and we had to repatriate everyone back, start another quarantine and start again. It was a little upset, but it was resolved. And what is true is that in many ports there are now conditions for our ships to call in, because they are afraid there might be infections.
Bearing in mind that the situation has not been gratifying in any way, and that there have been at least 30,000 deaths in our country, has anything positive come out of this health crisis?
This is indeed a national tragedy and we cannot say that there is anything gratifying about it... but it remains for us to know that we have fulfilled our mission. It seems that the Spanish are grateful to their Armed Forces for the way we have done it, and we, as we have always said, are satisfied with the duty done.
In conclusion, I would ask you to give an assessment of how the last three months have been for you, in which you have led the Spanish Armed Forces in the midst of the greatest global health crisis of recent times.
They have been demanding, exciting and tragic, and above all, tragic.