A recent rise in tension between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is a cause for concern, although the dispute is very unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. Spain and the UK are both part of the EU and NATO and anyone with a grain of common sense can see that it is in both countries interest to remain firm allies.
There are many shared interests, not least the approx 800,000 British ex-pats living in Spain. (More than 25 times the population of Gibraltar). There is plenty of online hysteria on both sides but Foreign Secretary William Hague appears to be keeping the dispute in perspective while putting the British case. There is a careful balance to be struck between the use of forces to make a point and their presence actually escalating a dispute. The UK must stand firmly behind the wishes of its citizens in overseas territories but avoid rash actions which will simply harden opinion. As a general principle, diplomatic efforts backed by strength are most effective. It is good to remember that a lack of British political conviction and inadequate forces led to the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. Both Gibraltar and Falkland Islands also represent test-cases for the international community’s support for the rule of law & self-determination (which has a strong precedent). US support for the wishes of the Falkland Islanders is luke-warm at present and it will be instructive to see how much international recognition Gibraltar’s plight receives.
Escalating Spanish harassment
While the UK economy is hardly in the best of health, the Spanish government is reeling under the weight of corruption scandals and a disastrous economic situation caused partly by an insane property boom. With around 26% unemployment and mounting domestic problems, like Argentina in 1982, whipping up nationalist fervour and focussing on grievances with a foreign power provide a convenient distraction. Some even suggest that the Spanish politicians don’t really want Gibraltar, just use the issue as a vote-winner. Spanish vessels have routinely been flouting the law by fishing in British Gibraltar territorial waters (A tiny area extending just 3 miles off the coast) for the past 2 years or more, often aided by Spanish Guardia Civil police boats and even Spanish Navy vessels. This behaviour is completely unreasonable, given the hundreds of square miles of Spanish territorial waters close by. Most seriously, Spanish police fired rubber bullets at a jet skier in Gibraltar waters. Hundreds of Spanish and Gibraltarian workers cross the border in both directions for work each day – an arrangement that has economic benefits for both sides. Spain has been deliberately causing delays at the border and threatening to make charges for crossing (illegal under EU border agreements) and close its airspace to Gibraltar-bound flights.
Looking at a map one might think it is quite logical for Spain to claim Gibraltar, a tiny speck of land just 2.6 sq miles at the southernmost end of the country. The rights and wrongs of how the colony came to be owned by Britain are distant history but Spain permanently ceded the territory in the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Like the Falkland Islands, the most important factor today regarding ownership of the territory are the wishes of the residents. Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly by a 98% vote in 2003 to remain part of the UK and remain proud of their British citizenship and welcome the Royal Navy with open arms. Any Spanish claims to Gibraltar based on geography are totally undermined by their ownership of two very similar territories in North Africa; Ceuta and Melilla which have ethnically Spanish populations but are adjacent to Morocco. Spain has also not improved relations with the UK by selling 20 Mirage F1 fighter bombers to Argentina, elderly aircraft but an increased threat to the security of the Falkland Islands.
A strategic gateway
Of course Gibraltar represents more than just a couple of square miles of land, it has a strategic position as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. In times past it was a key Royal Navy base, bustling with warships on their way to duties policing an empire covering half the globe. It was also the lynchpin of the allied victories in the Mediterranean during Word War II. Until 1983 there was a Royal Dockyard capable of major warship refits but as the RN has declined, so has its footprint in Gibraltar. However, it still remains a natural stopping off point for warships on the way to the main RN operating areas of the Med, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Refuelling, victualling and some maintenance can be undertaken while sailors for generations have appreciated a great run ashore on ‘the rock’ – ‘a British town in the sun’. The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the great “choke points” of the world’s oceans that international shipping must navigate. Any disruption to the free flow of shipping here would have a devastating impact on the UK economy.
The pocket-size ‘Gibraltar Squadron’
Although RN warships, submarines and RFAs frequently visit Gibraltar (recently averaging around 25 vessels per year) there are no major vessels based there. The RN’s permanent presence amounts to 21 personnel, two 24-ton fast patrol boats HMS Scimitar and Sabre and 3 Pacific 24 RHIBs. This small force (together with the Royal Gibraltar Police boat Sir William Jackson) is being kept very busy doing a difficult job by constant Spanish incursions. This little fleet is ideal for patrolling the territorial waters and dealing with fishing boats, as well as providing force protection to visiting warships. However, this is not a significant naval force and many are calling for an RN Frigate to be based there. The sorry state of the RN surface fleet, down to just 13 Frigates makes this highly improbable. Although it would be a potent statement, it would not be an intelligent use of slender resources especially when a serious shooting war with Spain is not going to happen. It would also be questionable to deploy a vessel designed to operate in the open ocean for the defence of waters around a harbour. The weakened state of the RN cannot have been lost on Spain which ironically still retains fixed-wing naval aviation with British-designed Harriers while the RN’s sole carrier will arrive with nothing but helicopters.
Penny Mourdant, MP for Portsmouth is actively lobbying government to build two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) partly to keep the BAE Portsmouth shipyard in work but also to boost RN hull numbers. Although outside the very tight MoD core budget, if the Government were to agree to this common-sense proposal, then basing one of the OPVs in Gibraltar should be given serious consideration. Not only would it provide a more substantial symbol of UK commitment to the territory, but the OPV could conduct useful maritime security patrols in the Western Mediterranean and work with NATO vessels in the region. With a similar arrangement to HMS Clyde in the Falklands, the costs would be manageable with crews rotated every six months or so and repairs carried out locally so the ship does not have to return to the UK. Unfortunately, even if the OPVs are ordered it would be at least 3 years before they could be in service. The folly of continual cuts to the RN is now clearly exposed as government has left itself so few options. In the short-term maybe one of the RNs 15 minehunters could be sent but these specialist vessels are already at full stretch with 3 permanently forward-deployed in the increasingly-important Gulf region. Another stop-gap alternative could be an ex-merchant ship conversion.
At the time of writing the 3rd annual Cougar exercise involving the grandly-named UK’s “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) is about to arrive in the Med with 3 vessels to visit Gibraltar. This is a long-planned, routine visit and the arrival of the ships is not a direct response to Spanish provocations. Although it’s ‘business as usual’ and no cause for Spanish excitement, the arrival of RN ships is always a boost to the morale of Gibraltarians who feel somewhat under siege. While these visits are welcome, these ships will of course sail after a few days. As part of Cougar13, HMS Illustrious is scheduled to visit NATO naval base at Rota in Spain and it will be interesting to see what welcome she receives.
Gibraltar will remain an important base for the Royal Navy and a useful staging post for global deployments. More importantly, the interests of the people of Gibraltar would best be supported by strong diplomatic efforts and a more visible naval presence.
I worked in Gibraltar for two years and during that time ( when the border was closed) came to understand the situation faced by the Gibraltarians as opposed to the lazy UK metropolitan idea, that we share sovereignty with Spain.
Then, as now, the Gibraltarians periodically undergo harassment from old thinking Spanish politicians. This is grossly unjust to 30,000 people who are engaged in the everyday struggle to live in peace and make that living in a territory ceded to Britain in Perpetuity.
In those days; most days; you could see sad groups of families who would meet at the border fence to shout across no mans land and exchange news about each other. Today of course the border is still open, albeit now impeded and worldwide communications are vastly improved. Now we learn Spain is threatening to reroute all electronic communications through its own providers and impose a huge 50 euro tax merely to cross the border one way!
This craziness may develop further and I would not put it past some rogue elements in Spain to escalate matters further.
Indeed, when the Falklands came to a head in 1982, I was well aware from my Gibraltar experiences how this might develop. While in Gibraltar their were reports of boats being fired on by the Guardia Civil or others.
Then as now the laid back attitude of the Foreign Office and broader UK establishment worries me considerably. It is one thing to try to calm a situation down. It is another to continue to ignore the worst case scenario.
I believe it would be ‘good housekeeping’ to take steps to immediately increase our RN presence in Gibraltar. Next step and the least that could be done would be to order two more patrol vessels similar to HMS Clyde to bolster our extra ordinarily weak presence in the Mediterranean and base them at Gibraltar. Maybe the FCO has n’t noticed that the North African coastline is in some disarray not to mention Syria. Would this patrol vessel not also provide some cover for our base on Cyprus?
We are not yet looking at the possibility of UK forces being based even further away in the Gulf are we?
Who knows where our wonderful politicians may not next become embroiled and ask our grievously thinly stretched RN to become involved? Give the RN Nothing and they wont be able to Start.
I forgot. We can always adopt the FCO usual positions:
1. Sit on our hands.
2. Cower; and send the Spanish some of that Foreign Aid budget to buy them off.
The very model of a modern foreign policy no less.
So yes we see that the rogue elements have done their underwater flag waving. These are a pathetic bunch of para- militaries. But they do need constraining.
We should quietly reinforce Gibraltar with an extra company of troops and do whatever is deemed necessary in the way of naval support.
It will be interesting to see if the Spanish ratchet it up militarily.
Northern Ireland is an “overseas territory” yet flying the Union Flag in the street leads to arrest. #doublestandard
Northern Ireland is not an Oversea’s Territory, it’s part of the Union. Do some reading up on the Subject matter before you post, you are making yourself look like an idiot.
Gibraltar is spanish. Gibraltar is a colony not a country. Doesn’t share sovereignty with spain because Gibraltar doesn’t have that.
Gibraltar is a den of corruption and opacity.
No-one in their right mind would suggest that this will develop into a full blown war, but, I suspect that there is a possibility of a small disillusioned unit or two in the civil guard going rogue, so to speak.
Such an event is entirely possible and in order to counter any possible malicious and threatening incursion into Gibraltar territory, the naval detachment must be adequately equipped.
The sheer hypocrisy of the Spnish position, considering that Ceuta lies something like 15 miles directly south of Gibraltar, is absolutely astonishing.
However, the UK government should not over-react and it has not. The Spanish position is beyond ridiculous. They have neither the legal or moral argument to demand the return of the Rock and surely the whole world can see this.
Time thevWest butted out of MiddlevEastern problems. We are not the conscience of the world. Why don’t the Arab states sort out Arab problems. People in Iraq were a damn sight safer shopping in Saddams days than they are since the Coalition of the Willing interfered. Same in Afghanistan. No more young western lives should be lost. Send the bloody politicians!
I struggle to see what an OPV can do in the tiny territorial waters that the two Scimitars cannot. Remember that in the 1970s the border was closed, even when a Type 12 (or one of the class derivatives) was sent as a permanent guardship. If a Frigate wouldnt reopen a border, why would an OPV doing exactly the same job as before make any difference at all. I’m all for a bigger Royal Navy, but I don’t understand the near mystical value some attach to a hull to do a job thats already being done. People would be outraged if someone suggested hiring more civil servants to do a job already being done – how is this any different?
In Spain they have traditionally thought size matters.
In any case the recent problem appears to be that the Spanish Navy and Guardia Civil have been tearing through Gibraltar waters as an act of willful harassment and annoyance and to establish some sort of ‘right of way’.
Now of course shipping does have a right of way in international waters but the Spanish are regularly intruding as unwelcome guests in Gibraltar territorial waters. Rather annoying wouldn’t you say?
The present RN presence is a couple of 24 ton launches. These have a snowballs chance in hell of physically ‘bumping’ a Spanish 1500t patrol vessel. While I would often advise against this drastic course of action it would certainly be a deterrent if the Spanish think they can continue their antics unmolested indefinitely.
The River class OPV’s are quite sturdy vessels and could be maneuverable enough and robust enough to see off the Spanish Navy RN fashion.
I really hope it doesn’t come to this; but it might. Always better to be prepared.
I think living in the UK we have gone a bit soft and the Spanish have probably detected this.
I for one am a believer in the Nelson Touch although this might be a touch risqué for some.
Didn’t Nelson indeed signal his Captains that they could do no wrong by putting their ships alongside the enemy? I would, it might be rather fun.
@Sir Humphrey I completely agree with 4th watch that in this case size matters. Deployment of an OPV would be symbolic of serious commitment by the UK to defend Gib and its waters. As suggested in this post, diplomacy is the most important tool and RN vessels in themselves are obviously not going to re-open the border, rather provide support to the negotiating position. RN vessels are of course directly relevant to the fishing disputes in Gib waters and Sabre & Scimitar are ideal for this but the presence of a warship would give them greater authority. Also a forward- deployed OPV could be very useful in the Med for all sorts of tasks. There is nothing ‘mythical’ about more hulls!
Gents, thanks for the replies. I will return to my original point though – if size matters, why did having a Guardship in the 1970s not solve problems straight away?
I have no problem with the concept of putting something somewhere to do a real job, but when I look at what we ask the RN to do now, having an OPV to patrol 12sq miles of water, and do some non defined and non specific tasks beyond ‘work with our allies’ seems a waste of resources. What happens if the Spanish respond with a Frigate – do we do the same?
I’d much rather a 4th OPV was out elsewhere – say the Windies taking a Frigate of the APT(N) slot, than sitting in Gib drinking the donkeys flip flop dry!
I am not sure there was a problem with territorial waters in the 70’s. I think this is a recent construct chiefly brought about by the Spanish hoodwinking the EU into granting Spain the control of ‘conservation’ of the waters around Gibraltar.
I would hate to think the EU did this knowingly, who knows?
The principal reason to my mind as to why a OPV is best suited to the task is in its nature.
First is the question of cost ( as always), because there is a grave shortage of Money in the defence budget.
Second is availability. There are simply not enough frigates available and to buid a new one is impractical. All warships now are built in batches. The smaller ones are easier to do as a one off because they are so much simpler and in the case of the River class the jigs are available; one hopes!
Third apart form cost , a frigate is not really suited to close work as was demonstrated in the Icelandic Cod Wars. Meaning also it needs tug boat for support to exit safely its moorings at short notice. Most significantly it has a wide turning circle. I would also think its plating is to thin for the sort of knocks and so forth that are likely.
An OPV can also do most of the tasks that are necessary in that part of the world apart from anti submarine work and full scale warfare.
It could carry a lynx helicopter for instance and have facilities for say 30 marines. It would also have the range to go out into the Atlantic to the Azores or West Indies if need be or indeed take in the whole Mediterranean.
As far as maintenance is concerned it would obviously have the dockyard at Gibraltar as a resource but in any case it is a very stand alone sort of vessel.
To my mind it comes out as the right solution and indeed the Government needs to justify WHY THEY WONT deploy a Clyde type OPV to Gibraltar when good housekeeping cries out that they should.
But seriously, why would you escalate militarily there? Surely you cannot fancy your chances picking up a fight with Spain in the west Mediterranean… its just not a suitable area. And assuming you do sent an OPV or whatever what if they reply with either a bigger hull or even worse with aerial assets assets or a combination of the above
Of course no one is intending to escalate this thing ; merely stand up for ones self. Air assets or a bigger hull would do Spain no good in this sort of confrontation. See the Icelandic Cod Wars. Not sure you understand this point, it wasn’t a war but rather a maritime barging match in which large British frigates were outmaneuvered by cheeky Icelandic trawlers type OPV’s.
thank you for your reply “4th watch” but personally I see an issue with your reasoning :
you mention the point : “In Spain they have traditionally thought size matters” and I fully understand what you are implying with this comment but then you suggest committing something like a River Class OPV. Is it not completely obvious that the Spanish with reply promptly with something similar without also having to face most of the logistical difficulties that you will face in moving it closer? Also you need to consider that what you call stand up for ones self is not really going to be interpreted this way in Spain where the media for example will go mad on the subject. Even if the Spanish government did not want to react they would most certainly forced to by media and public opinion.
Again what is an OPV going to change in this confrontation when a week after you bring the OPV the Spanish will definitely park anything between a Meteoro and Descubierta in Algeciras, which are both similarly built designs although the Meteoro is considerably chubbier?
And what can a OPV do if every time they leave GIB port they are followed around by the Spanish and maybe even have a couple of f18s break the sound barrier 100 feet over their heads every now and then..
I mean the way I see it if you decide to go one up on them they can cancel your temporary advantage with relative ease and then you should you wish to maintain any advantage you are forced to go one up all the time, ie when the OPV appears to be inadequate you really need to move a type 23 in , they move a Santa Maria, you bring a type 45 they bring an f100.. 🙂
I think there is considerable wisdom in both governments decision to keep the issue on the Guardia Civil/ GIB police level.
yes I appreciate the lesson learned from the Icelandic thing but then again I think its not applicable here because the Spanish have many options at their disposal, all of which are going to cost you considerably in resources if you give them the opportunity to apply them.
I hear what you are saying about Spain ratcheting upbut think they have probably done the ratcheting already.
My point is Britain has generally neglected Gibraltar and the Overseas territories for too long. All these places are very relevant in a maritime sense and several are uniquely strategically positioned which gives an added responsibility. Gibraltar with its civilian dockyard could easily maintain an OPV.
I think sending an OPV is the least we can do and why shouldn’t we? As said in the main article it can roam free in the Med and out into the Atlantic.
Maybe the Spanish will even follow it round, let them, they will get bored with the expense. Besides that would be a valuable training aid and it will even prove the old maxim and value of ‘a fleet in being’. Alternatively joint excercises with Spain- excellent.
In any case NOT to have a guard ship ( now UK even has no MPAs ) in a place like Gibraltar is so laid back it proves to me we have let our priorities get way out of sync.
Talk of sending OPVs or even aggregate to Gib is silly. A far better idea is to base much of the RFA there permanently, such as the four new Mars tankers when they come into service. By their very nature tankers are forward deployed anyway. Politically we must reach out a hand of friendship to Spain which has suffered terrible economic hardship as a direct result of the EU and the Euro. When the UK leaves the EU I hope Spain follows. Both our countries have much to gain from closer co-operation economically. The Province of Andalucia is poor and an open border with a rich Gibraltar is what is needed. Where are our politicians who can look forward 100 years and not back 300?
Broadly I am very much in favour of what you are saying.
I think it would be entirely feasible both to base at least some of the RFA Mars tankers in Gibraltar. I also think we do need to build a good relationship with Spain. I don’t think it is the intention of HMG or Gibraltar Government to have an ongoing dispute with Spain but it is rather in the interests of both to have a very good relationship.
I do think however that there are some fairly hostile elements on the right in Spain that need to be watched closely and to strike the correct balance security wise for Gibraltar is most important.
The importance of Gibraltar as a forward base for the UK as we look outwards still hold good. I am surprised we have run down our position there quite as far as we have done. I think this has been a strategic mistake.
Yesterday 31/10/13 there was a potentially dangerous naval clash between the Guardia Civil and the RN and Gibraltar Defence Police. see Gibraltar Chronicle News.
Be interesting to see where our overseas territories come in the next defence ‘spending’ review! Mr Cameron should take note of the current escalations and aggresiion shown by the Spanish and start to reinforce Gibraltar and the Falklands.
I agree and hope maybe the overseas territories can help with % of the manning etc of an enlarged OPV squadron. Some kind of logistical JV and building of a wider friendship and in those far off places. Through its dockyard and experience maybe Gibraltar could possibly act as the forward base.
If the existing 3 Rivers were retained it would be icing in the cake so to speak. Maybe this is the start of something.
heavy incursion yesterday 18/11.
I would guess Spain is close to formally declaring not to recognize the 3 miles British Gibraltar Territorial Waters
FCO idleness is what has let this thing escalate.
My OPV would have pushed the survey boat away from blocking the entrance to Gibraltar harbor. Possibly the Spanish boat would have been boarded and arrested.
I believe it is only a matter of time before a Spanish boat enters the harbor and drops anchor while the crew has a siesta. Then what?
Do we have a Red line? ‘England (and Gibraltar) Expects’ more than the present inertia from HMG.