Are Royal Navy’s aging Gibraltar assets fit for purpose?

By Leo Olivero
Admiral Sandy Woodward who died in 2013 was the commander of the naval task force that recaptured the Falklands some 32 years ago, said 3 months before his death in written evidence to the Commons defence committee, that “As things currently stand, we’d have serious trouble defending anything much further than the other side of the English Channel,” adding, “ the simple truth is without aircraft carriers and without the Americans, we would not have any hope of doing the same again today.”

The Falklands “are now perilously close to being indefensible”.

Quite frankly I believe if a similar situation with Spain went absolutely pear shape, the Royal Navy would not stand a ‘cat in hell’s chance’ of defending Gibraltar effectively, particularly with the present assets at the disposal of Commander British Forces Gibraltar!

CBF Happy With Assets!

The new CBF has already gone down on record saying there is no need for a larger naval presence in Gibraltar, and that the assets he has are ‘fit for purpose,’ although they were constantly under review. Adding that a Frigate or destroyer would not be able to mobilise in time to deal with an incident. I do hope CBF’s asset assessment is much better than his knowledge of ‘right of innocent passage’ in the strait.

To a degree, CBF is correct in saying his present naval assets are fit for purpose. Of course they are and always will be if the Royal Navy are a merely passive observers during all incursions into BGTW, illegal incursions that are now being classified as ‘innocent passage’. So even if CBF had just one simple rowing boat at his disposal, this would also be fit for purpose because of the present MOD operational stance regarding Spanish incursions!

What are the Actual Assets of the Gibraltar RN Squadron?

The Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, assets consist of HMS Sabre and HMS Scimitar, These two two boats, along with three Pacific Rigid Inflatable Boats.

However, HMS Sabre P285 was originally named MV Grey Wolf and HMS Scimiter P284 was similar named MV Grey Fox. Both were Royal Marine vessels commissioned in 1992 for use in Northern Ireland in counter terrorism and police operations to operate in Lough Neagh and inshore waterways as part of Operation Grenada a joint counter terrorism operation with the RUC. (Irish police)

At the end of 2002 Grey Fox and Grey Wolf were deployed to Gibraltar to replace the two Archer class P2000 patrol boats HM Ranger and Trumpeter these remained with the squadron until 2003.

The previous Archer-class were bigger vessels, which had more presence in BGTW however they were slower than the present patrol boats. Ranger and Trumpeter returned to the UK where they now serve as University Royal Navy Units in Sussex and Cambridge Universities respectively.

Sabre and Scimiter Seen Better Days

HMS Sabre and HMS Scimiter were commissioned in 2003 they are of a commercial design, known as Lifespan Patrol vessel built by Halmatic Limited in UK. 16m in length, with a displacement of 24 tones and are capable of speeds of up to 32 knots. Their armament consists of 2 General Purpose Machine Guns mounted on the stern. The vessels are now over 22 years old and marine war veterans if you like!

In so far as the Gib Squadron other assets are concerned the Rhibs, are Pacific 24s, which are 7.80m in length with a Yanmar water jet engine capable of speeds in excess of 39 knots. These vessels are not Patrol vessels and were designed to fulfill the role of sea boats used on present Royal Navy warships. They are mostly used or more suited for the transfer of boarding parties or when intercepting or searching suspect vessels.

The Present Assets do not do Justice to the Squadron’s Role

Considering the role of Gibraltar Squadron, which is to provide protection to visiting Royal Navy and coalition warships, conduct maritime security patrols within British Gibraltar Territorial Waters and support a variety of operations within the area,

the question must be asked, if this small Royal Navy unit and its assets, particularly the two larger crafts Scimitar and Sabre are ‘fit for purpose’. Also taking into account that both patrol boats have over 11 years been in active operational duties in Northern Ireland, in war zone scenario and have had another 11 years service in Gibraltar.

So justifiably, you would think they have both seen better days!

However, the latter important point is not for me to expertly evaluate, because I am not an expert in these matters. Although I will repeat what I said earlier, that if CBF, the MOD and the British Government are happy with the present RN Gibraltar assets, tools which obviously suit the present UK Gibraltar policy out in BGTW, then, as I said earlier, not only would an old rowing boat suffice, but a small £15 plastic dingy from Saverland in town would also do a good job. The latter, may even be more visible than the RN Rhib who came out alone last week to confront the Spanish warship ‘Vencedora’.

Same UK Mantra is Getting Rather Worn and is Contradictory!

Recently the UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon played a whirlwind visit to Gibraltar where he met Chief Minister Fabien Picardo who again pushed for “a bigger RN vessel at the appropriate time” and for the UK to assert its presence against the “reckless actions of the Spanish Government who continue to send its military vessels into BGTW which has dramatically increased the amount illegal incursions.

Fallon again repeated the same old finely tuned UK Government mantra that ‘Spanish incursions do not weaken or undermine sovereignty even if they do violate it’ which for me has always been quite a meaningless contradictory statement. Because I’ve always thought that violating something or someone was much more serious than weakening something or anyone!

Fallon was also of the opinion thought the RN Gib Squadron and the RGP had enough resources at their disposal. The defence secretary forgetting that the Police and Royal Navy have completely different roles to play in the protection of Gibraltar waters. The Police enforce Gibraltar laws out in BGTW and the Royal Navy protect and safeguard the sovereignty of the same waters surrounding the Rock. So it would be a mistake to think you can pool the assets to perform or execute either role, as it would be dangerous to think that way and actually do it!

However, Fallon did reflect the way many people feel in Gibraltar when he remarked he was concerned at the increase in the number of violations of British sovereignty in Gibraltar with the number of incidents over the last couple of years and the growing seriousness of some of those issues, something he didn’t expect from a full NATO partner. Mr Fallon obviously doesn’t know Spain as well as we do!

Before leaving the UK Defence Secretary again highlighted the strategic importance of Gibraltar in the context of current and future security challenges emphasizing that the UK commitment here is for the long-term. These are encouraging words by Mr Fallon, which are always welcomed. But we’ve heard them all before, and more often than not, and coupled with the present UK policy they are words that increasingly appear worn and ragged when not backed up by any effective

response!FCO Unable to Balance Military Assets With Common Sense Diplomacy

The current situation as it stands from a UK perspective, is that Gibraltar is considered an important forward mounting base for UK military operations. The UK Government is also confident in the military’s current capabilities to protect us from any potential threat and continually monitor the situation and adjust its force posture and resources as appropriate. Including all elements of the situation, and maritime security capabilities available to the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, which are kept under review, or so they say!

There is no doubt the UK takes its Gibraltar responsibilities seriously and frequently but yet clumsily, attempts to balance its military presence, assets and ‘show of military strength’ with the diplomatic aspects which is equally important, but frequently overplayed where Spain is concerned…It’s just not working!

However, here is where the differences lie between the UK and many in Gibraltar, because the present ‘soft diplomacy’ with Spain is ‘tilted heavily against all other decisions and situations that are possible’.

Providing more senior and certainly more modern Royal Navy assets in Gibraltar is one of them!