Tensions Rise over Gibraltar

Updated: Jun 8

On April 26, 2020, tensions between the Spanish government and United Kingdom flared over the Rock of Gibraltar. On that single day, there were four logged maritime incursions and multiple overhead passes of the Bay of Gibraltar by a Spanish Air Force C-235. The blatant violation of British sovereignty comes as the United Kingdom struggles with Brexit and an ever-growing pandemic.



Before one delves into the current situation, the historical importance of the Rock must be understood. Gibraltar has proven to be a hotly contested piece of strategic territory since 711 AD, when the Moors of Tarik ibn Ziyad (طارق بن زياد‎) settled the area due to the security and protection it provided. Centuries later, the significance of Gibraltar has not faded. Only 4.2 square miles in total, the position of Gibraltar guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean is unparalleled, and its rightful ownership has been bitterly contested by the British, Spanish, and French governments for well over 300 years.


In 1704, a joint Anglo-Dutch fleet with 2,000 Marines and Sailors took possession of Gibraltar from the Spanish during the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1713, Spain permanently ceded the territory to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in return for Britain's withdrawal from the war. Since then, however, Spain has sought to regain sovereignty over what it sees as its rightful land. In 1779 through 1782, for example, one of the longest sieges ever recorded in history took place at Gibraltar, with the outnumbered British garrison on the Rock withstanding strong Spanish fire and the Royal Navy taking great risks to break the enemy blockade and provide support and relief.



During the Second World War, the Spanish government, although publicly neutral, routinely assisted German intelligence, the Abwehr, in intelligence collection and sabotage activities. The Abwehr were thus able to monitor Allied shipping and merchant traffic in and out of the Mediterranean, and prior to 1943, able to successfully impact operations at the Rock's naval base.


Today, Gibraltar is currently home to over 33,000 civilians and roughly 1,200 of the United Kingdom's servicemen. The Royal Navy also maintains a small squadron at Gibraltar, with the HMS Sabre and HMS Scimitar, Scimitar Class patrol vessels, and several Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats, also known as Zodiacs, in service. The presence of the garrison, however, has not deterred the Spanish government. From 2010 through March of 2020, the UK has complained to the government in Madrid about nearly 4,000 unlawful land, sea, or air incursions in the territory of Gibraltar.


Obviously, the diplomatic protests have proven quite ineffective. A quick analysis of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's actions and statement reveal the fact that respect for the United Kingdom's citizens and interests are of high priority for his government. If the blatant disrespect for sovereignty continues to be the policy of the Spanish government, the UK may be forced to increase Gibraltar's Royal Navy squadron and deploy air-defense missile to its territory alongside a larger contingent of ground units.


Tension between the United Kingdom and Spain also impacts the United States. Any US flagged vessel or American aircraft, be it civilian or military, can not enter Spain directly from Gibraltar. A ship must have a port of call at in different nation before transiting to Spanish territory, while aircraft must land in another country before landing at a Spanish airport.


The territorial dispute has notably interfered with the movement of US Naval assets on two occasions. In 2017, the USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport, was intercepted by a Spanish vessel as it attempted to dock in Gibraltar. A Royal Navy patrol craft escorting the USNS Carson City was forced to chase off the intruder.


More worrisome for the United States was an incident in May of 2016 in which a Spanish Patrol boat approached the USS Florida, an Ohio-class cruise missile submarine, off Gibraltar. Once again, any serious harm to the American-Spanish alliance was averted when the HMS Sabre fired warning shots across the bow of the unauthorized vessel as it tried to cut across the path of the submarine.


Thus far, both the United Kingdom's Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense have yet to comment on the April 26, 2020 incident. Both Spain and the United Kingdom are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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