This week two of the RN’s 32-year old P2000 patrol boats were loaded onto a ship for delivery to Gibraltar. They will replace the existing Gibraltar Squadron patrol boats, HMS Scimitar and HMS Sabre, pending the delivery of brand new vessels.
A long wait for new boats
In June 2018 the MoD issued a request for expression of interest in tendering to construct two new Gibraltar Patrol vessels. The new craft will have improved performance over the existing boats, having a top speed in excess of 35 knots and be capable of day and night operations and all weathers up to Sea State 6-7. Despite two years without any further news, we understand that the project remains on track to deliver as planned, probably in late 2021. An official announcement is likely to be made shortly about which contractor has been selected and the design of the new boats.
Although Gibraltar is known for fine weather, the area can be subject to strong winds and the sea conditions are tough on small boat hulls at high speeds. To meet the military specifications and provide a stable weapons platform requires more than just purchasing an off-the-shelf boat design.
In the meantime, HMS Dasher and HMS Pursuer will be transported to Gibraltar by MoD-chartered Ro-Ro vessel, MV Hurst point. The 18-knot P2000s are both older and slower than the 32-knot vessels they are temporarily replacing but are bigger, have better accommodation and longer endurance. Unfortunately, if their primary role will be to deter Spanish incursions and intercept fast smuggling boats, then they are not as well suited as Scimitar and Sabre. (It should be noted that P2000s have served in Gibraltar previously).
HMS Scimitar and Sabre are the smallest ships commissioned into the RN, having been run hard since they were built in 1993 for counter-terrorism patrols in Northern Ireland. They are known to be close to the end of their useful lives and will be returned to the UK.
Despite their age, HMS Dasher and Pursuer are in good condition, along with all the RN’s P2000 vessels they have recently undergone a life extension programme which will allow them to serve into the 2030s. The old twin Perkins CV12 engines were replaced by two Cat C18 ACERT diesels with new gearboxes and generators fitted. New stern tubes, shafts and propellers have also been installed. The exteriors have been repainted with high-performance epoxy paint and a modern fendering system has been fitted.
HMS Dasher and Pursuer were previously assigned 1st Patrol Boat Squadron(1PBS) and attached to the University RN Units at Bristol and Glasgow respectively. The 1PBS has recently been re-named the Coastal Forces Squadron (CFS) in line with the wider fleet transformation programme but full details of this reorganisation have yet to be formally announced by the RN.
Prior to 1PBS service, Dasher and Pursuer were allocated to the Faslane Patrol Boat Squadron between 2010-12. Before being based in Scotland they both served in the Mediterranean between 2003-10 as part of the RN Cyprus Squadron. Their main role was to prove force protection for warships and commercial vessels. For this task, they were both fitted with Kevlar armour which remains in place today, along with and mounts for up to three General Purpose Machine Guns.
In February 2020 the RN published an article stating that a batch II OPV, HMS Trent, would be permanently forward-deployed in Gibraltar. Subsequently, the article was amended and the official line remains today that no decision has yet been made.
Should one of the OPVs eventually be based in Gibraltar, this would be very much welcomed by residents of the territory but she would be unlikely to play much part in policing Spanish incursions into local waters. An OPV would likely spend most of the time further afield around the Mediterranean and West Africa with Gibraltar being used for maintenance and crew rotation. Although a warship has a greater symbolic presence than a boat, patrolling the small area of territorial waters around the Rock is a job for much smaller, more nimble vessels. Changing patrol boats that are a like-for-like replacement will have little wider impact but the optics of basing a new warship in Gibraltar would much more be politically sensitive.
Spanish incursion problem unsolved
Spanish vessels continue to flout international the law by repeated incursions on an almost daily basis into British Gibraltar territorial waters (A tiny area extending just 3 miles off the coast). This includes ships of the Spanish Navy, (playing the national anthem over loudspeakers), police and commercial vessels which often make dangerous manoeuvres which can be a hazard to other shipping. Brexit has been seen as a green light by the Spanish to further put pressure on Gibraltar with 18 naval incursions alone recorded in the last 6 months. A notable low came in 2016 when a Spanish Police vessel twice tried to cut across the path of a US Nuclear submarine in Gibraltar territorial waters. HMS Sabre fired warning flares in response.
How to respond remains the subject of a hot debate. Opening fire or deliberate ramming of Spanish vessels is out of the question as it would merely create an international incident and escalate the problem. In the wider sense, Spain is a NATO partner and has many other shared interests which the UK government has to consider when balancing action on Gibraltar. The RN Gibraltar Squadron seems outmatched when confronted by Spanish navy corvettes or OPVs but the RN is generally content that patrol boats are the best suited to the work.
The rights and wrongs of how Gibraltar 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 have voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the UK, remain proud of their British citizenship and welcome the Royal Navy with open arms.
Spain refuses to recognise Gibraltar has any territorial waters, a position at odds with the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) which gives the right to claim the waters up to 3 nautical miles from the coast. (The full 12-mile rule does not apply due to the proximity of the Spanish coastline). Any Spanish claims to Gibraltar based on geography or complaints of ‘colonialism’ are totally undermined by their ownership of very similar territories in North Africa; Ceuta and Melilla which have ethnically Spanish populations but are adjacent to Morocco.
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 more vigorous diplomatic efforts as well as a highly visible naval presence.
(Main image: HMS Pursuer and HMS Dasher lashed to the deck of MV Hurst Point, 18 June 2020. Via: AW Ship Management)