1970s UK assessment of Rock’s military role still rings true five decades on

UK military planners in the 1970s were clear that neither Gibraltar’s constitutional development nor Spain’s sovereignty aspirations over the Rock should interfere with its “full and unhindered use” as a military base for the UK and its NATO allies.

The assessment was clearly set out in a document prepared in June 5, 1972, at the height of the Cold War, but which still resonates today against the backdrop of tensions over the war in Ukraine and Spain’s continued view of the UK’s military use of Gibraltar as a potential threat to its national security.

Just this month at the United Nations in New York, Spain’s ambassador Agustin Santos Maraver bemoaned the UK military presence in Gibraltar and said this “in part, unfortunately” explained the UK Government’s defence of the interests of the Gibraltarians.

The 1972 document, prepared by the Ministry of Defence Chiefs of Staff Committee and titled ‘The strategic importance of Gibraltar to the United Kingdom’, was declassified in January 2003 by the UK National Archives but was highlighted in an online report last week carried by the website Declassified UK, curiously in both English and Spanish.

The document explored Gibraltar’s strategic value to the UK and NATO and while aspects relating to infrastructure are outdated five decades later, the basic assessment remains true today.

“It is concluded that Gibraltar is strategically important because of its dominating position at the entrance to the Mediterranean, being conveniently placed as a base for sea and air operations in both the eastern Atlantic and the western Mediterranean,” the 1972 report said.

“The facilities of Gibraltar allow passage of ships and submarines to be monitored in peace and times of tension and to some extent, controlled in war.”

The language will be familiar to anyone who follows Gibraltar and military affairs in this region, with the Rock’s strategic role recently bolstered by a UK security and defence review that reversed years of stagnation to see renewed military investment and activity.

But it is the analysis of the political backdrop to Gibraltar’s use as a military base that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 1972 document, not least against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc.

The wider context has of course changed in the past 51 years, not least through Spain’s transition to democracy and its membership of both NATO and the EU.

Spain joined NATO in 1982 and some years later the NATO headquarters in Gibraltar was transferred to Naples, though nowadays all maritime operations come under the alliance’s maritime command at Northwood in Middlesex.

“There is no prospect in the foreseeable future of the Spanish government abandoning its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar,” said the 1972 report, prepared while Spanish dictator General Franco was still in power.

“Spain objects to Gibraltar's status as a foreign base on Spanish territory and regards its use by NATO as a potential threat to Spanish security.”

“At the same time, Spain is paying increasing attention to Mediterranean security and recognises Gibraltar's strategic importance in this context.”

“However, she sees these considerations as lending weight to her thesis that Spain should be in a position to exercise greater control over the Straits of Gibraltar, across one part of which she claims her territorial waters extend.”

“Against this background, the Spanish attitude imposes in peacetime certain constraints on the military use of Gibraltar, and military requirements must be balanced against likely Spanish reactions.”

“Spain would object to any significant long-term increase in military activity in Gibraltar; in particular, she would strongly oppose an extension of the airport runway to overcome existing limitations on some operational aircraft and any construction of new military facilities on the neutral ground which the Spanish government regards as illegally usurped by the UK.”

“In practice, Spain per force tolerates the present level of military activity at Gibraltar.”

“However, should it suit her purpose, Spain is able to impede the use of Gibraltar as a British base using political pressure.”

“She has, for example, objected to the concentration of Royal Navy ships in Gibraltar harbour during exercises.”

“She has also regularly sought, with some success, to dissuade other NATO nations from making use of Gibraltar,” the report added.

The document noted however that Spain, while potentially able to “seriously harass” the reinforcement of Gibraltar in a time of tension, would in practice “be unlikely” to impose any significant limitations on the UK and NATO’s use of the Rock, even before it had joined the alliance.

The report noted too that public opinion in Gibraltar was “friendly” to the UK and its military presence, adding that of all the UK Mediterranean bases, the Rock’s domestic political scene “offers the greatest security”.

But it noted too that the evolving relationship between Gibraltar and the UK should not be allowed to impact on its use as a military base for the UK and NATO, which at the time maintained an underground maritime headquarters here.

“The main value of Gibraltar to the UK is in the context of Britain’s support for NATO,” the document said.

“It also provides an ideal position for surveillance and enables regular reports to be made on Soviet naval movements as well as providing facilities from which national operations and training can be carried out.”

“Constitutional developments in Gibraltar would not affect the value of the facilities but could deny their use to NATO.”

“Our military interest lies in ensuring full and unhindered access to them whatever the outcome of any future constitutional negotiations.”

The report concluded: “Although we have referred to the main political factors in this paper, it has been no part of our aim to discuss the constitutional position of Gibraltar.”

“What matters from the strategic point of view is the full and unhindered use of the facilities which Gibraltar offers and any political negotiations must take this into account.”

The report said NATO objectives in were to keep the Strait of Gibraltar open for the “free and uninterrupted passage” of allied naval forces and merchant shipping, to maintain close surveillance of Soviet bloc ships and to have the ability to deny passage to the enemy in a time of hostilities.

“Gibraltar provides an excellent location from which to carry out operations in the pursuance of these aims,” it said.

It also noted there were other nearby bases in the region, including the US base in Rota, but added that there could be “political constraints” on their use both in times of peace and during a period of tension.