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Spain-UK Dispute Over Gibraltar Flares Up After Warning Shots Incident With US Nuclear Sub

The Spanish vessel had twice cut across the bow of a visiting US nuclear submarine, the USS Florida, when the escorting British patrol boat decided enough was enough.

by Ryan Faith
May 9 2016, 2:45pm

Imagen vía Wikcommons

In mid-April, a British fast-patrol boat, the HMS Sabre, fired warning flares across the bow of a Spanish Guardia Civil (think Coast Guard) ship. The Spanish vessel had twice cut across the bow of a visiting US nuclear submarine, the USS Florida, when the escorting British patrol boat decided enough was enough, screwing with a visiting US warship was uncalled for, and shot a few flares high and inside to brush the Spanish off.

The port of Gibraltar is a frequent stop for US submarines in need of a little maintenance work. The Florida itself sailed into Gibraltar on April 16 — and was intercepted by a Spanish vessel, resulting in the firing of warning flares. The Florida got similar treatment from Spanish customs boats as well, an encounter that also ended in the firing of warning flares. Earlier this year, Britain filed a formal protest with Spain over incursions by Spanish warships that reportedly risked the safety of a British vessel.

But this is all just part and parcel of the life and times at the wonderfully idiosyncratic outpost of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is, depending on how you look at it, either a giant rock, a tiny peninsula, or a pretty big pain in the ass. It sits at the southernmost tip of Spain, where the massive Rock of Gibraltar overlooks the very heavily used shipping lane passing from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through (you guessed it) the Straits of Gibraltar. Morocco and the rest of Africa sit on the other side of the Straits.

The Straits are a little under nine miles wide at their narrowest point. That's narrow enough for a well-sited gun emplacement to sink any and all merchant shipping passing through. Most of the traffic is headed to or from the US and Western Europe with Middle Eastern oil and Asian manufactured goods. According to locals, a great deal of hashish is (or at least was) smuggled across the Straits in powerboats weaving their way between the cargo ships.

Related: New Dispute Between Spanish and Gibraltar Police Allowed Drug Traffickers to Escape

Meanwhile, the Rock itself is a huge, gigantic chunk of limestone — almost 1,400 feet tall — that is essentially an immense fortress. In person, it's almost cartoonishly well suited as a fortress; as you come from the north, across the border with Spain, the rock is an immense, thousand-foot-tall cliff face pocked with firing positions and gun emplacements. The entire base of the rock is surrounded by a very tall wall and even more fortifications. Trying to take the rock by frontal assault would be, in the best possible case, a horrifically bloody and savage fight.

This turns out to be a really good thing for the residents of Gibraltar. Gibraltar was first fortified in 1106. In the last 600 years or so, it has endured 14 sieges and the occasional intense bombardment. More recently, the Spanish and British governments have been in a 300-year-long pissing match about who owns this key piece of terrain. The Brits got Gibraltar from Spain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht; that's more than a century before the US took the colony of Florida from Spain in 1822. Today, Gibraltar is counted as a British Overseas Territory.

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In the intervening three centuries since the Brits ended up with the Gibraltar, they've been digging and tunneling in like their lives depend on it (and they have, after a fashion). Today, the tunnel network inside the rock is more than 34 miles in length (it is rumored that there are even nukes stashed down there somewhere). At any rate, I'm guessing you could probably hold the rock against anything short of a nuclear attack with a pack of Boy Scouts and a couple dozen water balloons.

Moreover, its location at the mouth of the Mediterranean makes it a key naval base for ships entering or leaving the Med. The reason the Florida was stopped there in the first place is that it broke down and needed some (non-nuclear) repairs. The Florida is a nuclear-powered submarine converted from use as a nuclear missile sub to one of the US's few guided missile submarines; it carries 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and is almost ideally suited for the task of blowing apart an enemy air-defense network in the opening hours of a war.

The comings and goings of submarines to and from the Royal Navy Base have been a bone of contention for some time. In 2013, a British submarine, the HMS Tireless, developed a leak in its coolant system and limped its way to Gibraltar for repairs. As people are inclined to do when you use "leak" and "nuclear" in the same sentence, the Spanish got pretty touchy about all this; there's no way a radioactive leak in Gibraltar wouldn't spread to Spanish waters.

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But this belligerent back and forth actually obscures one of the more fascinating things about the whole deal: After centuries of fighting (and occasionally killing) over the rock, London is a bit less adamant (or at least rude) about keeping the Rock than the Spanish are about grabbing it.

The problem is that the residents of Gibraltar aren't buying into the Spanish plan one goddamn bit. They're proud of their status and insist that their right of self-determination matters more than what Madrid and London happen to say. In a 2002 referendum, 98.5 percent of the voting residents of the Rock rejected even joint UK-Spanish sovereignty. Propelled further by fears that London would sell Gibraltar down the river anyway (or lose it betting on horses or whatever), in 2006 the local government changed the Constitution to basically say that if anyone was going to decide who was going to have sovereignty over Gibraltar, then it damn well better be the people living there!

And so, the Spanish (for whom this remains a sore spot) keep playing silly buggers with things like being really uptight about air space and planes landing at Gibraltar's tiny airfield, or harassing intruders in or close to their territorial waters. This results in periodic episodes like the one involving the Florida. The result of these shenanigans, if anything, has been to slowly persuade London that Gibraltar might be right about these Spaniards: Who wants to hop in bed with a bunch of people who can't even keep their local law enforcement ships from playing chicken with foreign nuclear submarines?

When you get down to it, these episodes tell you a lot about national sovereignty. Spain wants Gibraltar bad. The UK hasn't (historically) shown huge amounts of interest in keeping it. But the residents apparently have a real aversion to becoming paella-loving Spaniards. Thus, the Spanish and British ships commanded by Madrid and London are fighting over an issue of sovereignty that the local residents have reserved entirely for themselves.

Or, maybe it's just that the approximately 30,000 Gibraltarians could put up a hell of a fight if anyone came in uninvited.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Correction: The story has been amended to more accurately reflect the current state of Gibraltar's sovereignty.