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UK-wide defence review ‘reversed the trajectory’ for military planning on the Rock

Pics by Johnny Bugeja

A wide-ranging review of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign and defence policy published last year has “reversed the trajectory” of military planning here and placed greater focus on the Rock as a forward mounting base, Gibraltar’s new Commander British Forces, Commodore Tom Guy, said in his first interview since taking up the post.

For years beforehand, the military footprint in Gibraltar had been scaled back as the UK Ministry of Defence focused on other priorities.

But the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published in March 2021 nearly five years after Britain voted to leave the EU, highlighted a focus on “persistent engagement” overseas and placed greater emphasis on the role of the UK’s strategic hubs around the globe, including Gibraltar.

"The integrated review really reversed the trajectory of Gibraltar," Cdre Guy said.

"What it set out to do was to analyse and then articulate what Britain's role is in the world post-Brexit. That's what it was all about."

"And the conclusion was that there is a place for Britain in the world, Britain wants to be a global player, and from a Gibraltar perspective, that just makes the strategic importance of Gib even more important."

"As a hub, as a forward mounting base for allowing us to facilitate deployment of forces around the world."

"We're at the gateway to the Mediterranean and in UK-mainland terms, we're that much closer to those areas that we're likely to want to send troops."

Already Gibraltar has seen investment in many areas of military activity, from a revamp of facilities at Windmill Hill and radar equipment at the top of the Rock, to new purpose-built boats for the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron.

The decision to base HMS Trent, one of the Royal Navy’s newest offshore patrol vessels, in Gibraltar is also part of that wider picture, and means the crew can get the support they need and get back out to operations in their assigned area “without having to slog up to mainland UK and then wait their turn in the queue”.

Cdre Guy, who has served at sea on minehunters, frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers, is an anti-submarine warfare specialist who has also held senior shore-based posts in the UK and NATO bases and completed operational deployments to Iraq and Libya.

A month into his new command, he told the Chronicle the MoD’s strategy for investment in Gibraltar was focused on three key areas going forward.

The first is “some much needed maintenance” for berths on the South Mole, including those used for nuclear-powered submarines.

Plans are also being analysed to possibly dredge those South Mole berths to enable Gibraltar to accommodate the UK's new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers alongside, and a planning application has already been filed with the Development and Planning Commission.

Previously, the vessels have docked on the outside of the Western Arm in the Port of Gibraltar, where the draught is sufficient to allow them to berth.

Another area of focus is the MoD's communications infrastructure around the Rock, the network through which the various military sites around Gibraltar communicate.

That network has "grown organically over the years and has suffered from wear and tear, as well as obsolescence" as communications technology has evolved.

The last investment focus is the decommissioned MoD fuel depot at King's Lines, "which has enormous potential".

The MoD is carrying out studies to see what state the depot is in currently, in order to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see if that potential can be feasibly realised.

"We need to establish that actually the UK has got enough use for it and that's work that's going on at the moment," Cdre Guy said.

"But it's there and we're studying all the options."

"We've got to work out the balance of resilience, from an operational perspective, against spending the [UK] taxpayer's money in the best way possible."

There are also plans to revamp the training area on Windmill Hill and Buffadero, putting in additional accommodation facilities to enhance Gibraltar's ability to support training, both for the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and local agencies, as well as visiting troops.

Over the past year, about 1,600 troops from the UK have used those facilities to train in tunnel warfare and conduct exercises that involve maritime and land aspects.
"For those who come out, it's an invaluable base...that offers a unique combination that doesn't exist anywhere else," he said.

"There's a demand signal for that and we have to make sure there's the right investment to keep that going."

Prior to the integrated review there had been a physical reduction of the MoD footprint in Gibraltar, but "the world changes", Cdre Guy said.

"The integrated review captured that and set things on a different course,” he said.

The backdrop to the integrated review was Brexit, but the outcome made clear that even outside the EU, the UK remained very closely aligned to Europe, particularly from a security point of view and as part of NATO.

The war in Ukraine has placed a spotlight on that international cooperation and cohesion in which the UK has played a leading role.

"All of those issues affect Europe and affect the NATO alliance and affect the UK as a sovereign entity, so Gibraltar's geographical position and what it has here makes it really well suited to supporting our forces to deal with that in whichever way the government wishes to," Cdre Guy said.

"The really key thing that the integrated review did was to articulate the importance of Gibraltar as a forward mounting base, and that gives us the task to create what is needed here to support the UK carrier strike groups and indeed any other national or alliance assets."

The change of emphasis for the British military here comes at a delicate juncture as UK, in partnership with Gibraltar, seeks to hammer out an agreement with the EU that will define the Rock’s future relations with the bloc.

But for military planners, the focus remains unchanged, not least because "defence is not on the table" in those discussions.

"Whatever is agreed will be agreed at government level and we work for the government," Cdre Guy said.

"It's for us to continue the mission and I absolutely don't see any change in the mission, which is very, very clear."

"We're here to demonstrate the sovereignty and we'll continue to do that."

"I don't see that changing at all, regardless of whether there's a fence at the frontier or not."

And he added that the war in Ukraine and the upheaval it has caused means “the world's moved on a lot” even since the publication of the integrated review.

"If you look at the changes this year and you look at the cohesion of the alliance, I think that just brings Gibraltar even more to the fore as a strategic hub,” Cdre Guy said.

"Clearly it's important from a UK sovereign perspective, but it's really important to consider the UK's role as a NATO member as well."

"It'll be really interesting to see how the greater NATO cohesion translates into an easing of difficulties and therefore more use here."

For HQ British Forces Gibraltar, the “overarching challenge” will be to make the case for the resources necessary to meet “the level of ambition” triggered by the integrated review and events since.

That, and the constant need to deliver within the wider constraints of the MoD budget and demands elsewhere.

"We need to get that level of ambition really defined and agreed, and then it'll be for the team here to work out how best we deliver that, so that we can do it with enough people but not too many people, enough money but not too much money, and the recognition that, in reality, we're competing," Cdre Guy said.

"From an MoD perspective, there's a finite amount of money for defence and we just have to recognise the realities of that."

"But it's a good news story and the challenge will be working on expansion rather than contraction, and that's not something that people are used to."

"So it's a great, great challenge to have, and we need to be careful of not being victims of our own success too much and making ourselves so busy that we can't actually deliver."

"It's about getting the balance right."

The new CBF praised the contribution of the MoD’s locally employed civilian workforce, who play a critical role in ensuring HQ British Forces Gibraltar can deliver what is required of it.

Although he is only a few weeks into his command, Cdr Guy said he was “genuinely delighted” with the people he had met so far and their readiness to step up the task.
Looking ahead, he saw no immediate changes in the size of the workforce despite the growing workload.

"As an enterprise, there's a lot to do here and we don't have very many people to do it, so we've got to manage what we've got quite carefully," he told the Chronicle.

"And as part of getting to where we want to be, we're making some changes to the workforce but it's moving people around rather than numbers up or down."

"It's all part of the continued evolution and making sure that we can deliver that forward mounting base and keep the forces here in as fit a state as we can."

UK is ‘very clear’ with Spain where boundaries lie at sea around Gibraltar

The Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron will continue to respond to Spanish incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters by demonstrating British sovereignty “very clearly” and leaving no doubt as to where boundaries lie.

Commodore Tom Guy, the new Commander British Forces in Gibraltar, said the squadron’s two new purpose-built patrol vessels, HMS Dagger and HMS Cutlass, underscored the UK’s commitment to Gibraltar’s British sovereignty.

But he stressed too that Spain remained a close ally, despite differences in respect of Gibraltar.

"We have to recognise that two allied nations have differing perspectives on one particular aspect of their broader relationship, one which is really fundamentally important to us here in Gibraltar," he said.

"We will continue to deal with [incursions] as we have done in the past, through a very, very clear demonstration of the UK's position on the sovereignty of the British Gibraltar territorial waters."

"We need to be careful not to just become normalised and accept [incursions], because that's when you start to get an erosion of [sovereignty], but we absolutely don't."

"We're very clear on where the boundary is, on where the boundaries of behaviour are as well…”

He said the Gibraltar Squadron’s new vessels were “impressive and exactly what we need” and were fast and effective on the water now that sea trials were completed and the boats were operational.

“It's been hard work for the team,” he said.

“Bringing in a new type of vessel into service, it always is.”

And he highlighted too how the joint nature of the command meant there were opportunities in Gibraltar to find ways for navy personnel to work with colleague from the army.

For several months now, soldiers from the Royal Gibraltar Regiment have been serving on Gibraltar Squadron vessels.

"We've got ships with guns, and we've got soldiers who can use guns," Cdre Guy said.

"So as part of the 'one team' [ethos], we've got joint army and navy teams out there demonstrating our sovereignty."

‘Absolutely no shortage of will’ to ensure no disruption with air traffic control

The Ministry of Defence and its air traffic control contractor, NATS, have recognised the need to review operations in Gibraltar to ensure there is no repetition of the disruption faced by air travellers in recent weeks.

Short-notice staff shortages at air traffic control due to sickness led to several flights being diverted or delayed, causing outrage among those affected.

The MoD is responsible for the runway and subcontracts air traffic control to NATS, a UK-based company that also offers similar services at airfield in other UK territories and bases, as well as in the UK itself.

The disruption arose from a combination of unforeseen staff sickness and limits on the number of hours personnel were able to work at any one stretch.

It raised questions as to whether the air traffic control service was adequately resourced, with NATS confirming to the Chronicle last month that it had recruited additional assistants to bolster its service here.

"They've had some illness that has caused them some difficulty, and they're limited by law in the number of hours that controllers can work for," Cdre Guy said.

"I absolutely wouldn't wish to downplay it."

"Digging into this, which we did, the message that I got loud and clear was that everybody understands the importance of keeping Gibraltar International Airport open, the importance commercially and reputationally."

"So there's absolutely no shortage of will to make it all work."

"The reality is that the numbers of air traffic controllers in the system here are predicated on a specific formula based on the airfield and how it operates, which absolutely should deliver to 100%."

"But there are occasions when that has failed."

He added: "The unique nature of Gibraltar has been recognised by the contractor."

"The formula might look like it fits but [the MoD told NATS] could you please go away and re-examine that formula in the light of this extra context."

"That's the bit that we're waiting for."

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article referred to HMS Dauntless as one of the Gibraltar Squadron’s new vessels. It should have read HMS Cutlass. The article has been corrected.