Gibraltar Military Strategy

By Joe Garcia
Based on address at conference organised by the University of Malaga

Under the Gibraltar constitution, all governmental questions are the responsibility of the elected Government of Gibraltar, with the exception of defence and security which are the responsibility of the UK government.

Gibraltar has always been a key factor in Britain's military strategy, not only in a purely British context but also in respect of international security.

The strategic value of Gibraltar is derived from its privileged position on the Strait that carries its name and from where control can be exercised of everything that enters and leaves the Mediterranean, not only on the surface but also underwater.

Military chiefs take the view that this territory is ideal for aero-naval operations in the eastern Atlantic and the western Mediterranean.


During the Second World War, and more recently in the Falklands conflict, Gibraltar played an important role.

With the passage of time, it started to become apparent that Spain's military strategy was geared to exercising control in the area of the Strait.

Towards the end of the era of General Franco, a secret study by Britain's defence chiefs pointed out that Spain was paying increasing attention to Mediterranean security: The Spanish military felt that they were in a position to exercise greater control over the Strait.

Control of the Strait was to become a priority consideration for Spain. During her negotiations to join the integrated military structure of the Atlantic alliance, Spain pushed ahead with this concept, but for reasons which are not difficult to discern, her plans were not included in the Nato command located in Spain.

Although the British like to say that Spain already exercises certain maritime control, the Spanish government considers that the British presence in Gibraltar constitutes a limitation to Spanish plans of fully controlling an area which she considers to be of special interest for her.


In the year 2002, when London and Madrid prepared a plan for Gibraltar's joint sovereignty, there was talk about allowing a Spanish military presence in Gibraltar. The British military opposed it.

The then foreign secretary Jack Straw, when announcing the agreement that had been reached in principle, noted that joint sovereignty would apply in a civil sense, but not to the military. For such reasons,the Spanish rejected the planned deal.

The Gibraltarians, in a referendum, were against any agreement on shared sovereignty.


The American dimension comes into play. The leaked letter by the then defence secretary Geoff Hoon spelt out that the prospect of shared sovereignty had given rise to increasing concern in the armed forces of not only the UK but also of the US.

At the time I was asked by a Washington foreign affairs journal, whose editorial board was headed by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, to write a long article on Gibraltar. This publication double checks everything and only publishes what it thinks is possible. In the article, the following was said: The status of the Rock still matters, not just to the people of Gibraltar, but to the United States, as well.

A few years ago, when I met the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, I asked him about the seemingly disproportionate influence generated by such a small place as Gibraltar, and he told me that Gibraltar was one of the main five choke points Nato had to contend with.


When a visitor arrives at this small but important place, he may not see any military activity. Why, then, is this stone in the British Crown so important? What does Gibraltar hide?

The Command British Forces speak of five core functions:

1) Nuclear Powered Warship berth.

2) Access to the Airfield.

3) Intelligence Gathering Facilities.

4) Headquarters and Command, Control and Communications.

5) The Royal Gibraltar Regiment.

The regiment is 90% Gibraltarian who train to the same level as any British regiment. Its soldiers see service in areas of conflict in any part of the world, at present in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its senior command has been decorated by the USA. The regiment takes part in joint exercises annually in Morocco.`


But it is the nuclear-powered submarines that can cause the biggest impact on Anglo-Spanish relations.

Just two years ago Britain told Spain: The flexibility to deploy the submarines worldwide is critical to our Nato defence role, as it is to our own defence, and therefore serves the defence interests of both our countries.

It was further stated that "The naval base at Gibraltar plays an important role in supporting the world-wide capability of the Royal Navy's submarine fleet."

And the Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos replied: The Spanish government, in the spirit of the relations between countries which are friends and allies, understands that the United Kingdom requires that its nuclear-powered submarines undertake calls at its naval bases outside the United Kingdom for operational reasons in accordance with its global defence policy.

As the Anglo-Saxons say, in the final analysis, what is important is that the Strait remains at the service of western defence, in a part of the world potentially prone to conflict.

The latest UK Strategy Paper states that Britain has a continuing need for Gibraltar. Nato also is keen to retain availability of Gibraltar's naval base and airfield.


Despite all these considerations, it so happens that the British military presence in Gibraltar is today the smallest in its long history of 300 years of British Gibraltar.

Forty years ago, MOD spending was 60% of the Gibraltarian economy; today,it is only 6%.

A commercial economy advances, and in some respects, replaces the military.

For example, more cruise liners call at Gibraltar than warships - 227 cruise ships last year to 73 warships, including the famous nuclear-powered submarines.

Today, we all belong to Nato, and we are friends and allies as recognised by Moratinos. However, all the problems associated with the Rock have not been resolved, but some conflicting points have been ironed out.

As the Spanish government says in its Defence Strategic Review: The very positive evolution of bilateral relations between the two countries allows, for the first time, to detect the possibility of progressive solution to the problem.

A positive note, or wishful thinking?