Don’t go rushing down to the naval dockyard to see but HMS Tireless has just sailed back in to the bay. I have no idea where the nuclear submarine is in the world, it certainly isn’t Gibraltar, but the luckless vessel has been used by Spain as a reason why US nuclear subs should go to Rota and not to Gibraltar.
Last week I reported in Panorama on the remarks of Senator José Carracao to a committee on foreign affairs where he stated his personal view that US nuclear vessels engaged in operations off Libya should be refuelled and take on supplies in Rota and not the Rock.
When I questioned him on this view he stated that it was logical as Rota was a joint US – Spanish base and he argued that the Cádiz port had adequate security systems for handling a nuclear vessel which he alleged Gibraltar did not.
His second point took me by surprise because if there was a legitimate argument for a nuclear vessel to go to Rota instead of Gibraltar surely it was because it would not have to navigate the crowded waters of the bay or be docked in a populated area but he didn’t mention that.
Pressed on the security issue the Ministry of Defence said: “The MOD can reassure your readers that the security of our, and visiting nations’, personnel and equipment is of paramount importance to us and we continually keep our security measures under review.”
However according to WikiLeaks telegrams published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten the crowded bay is the very argument that Zapatero’s government used to its USA counterpart.
After the scandal of HMS Tireless, the nuclear submarine that spent nearly a year in Gibraltar over 2000 – 2001 because of a breakdown to its refrigeration system, there has been widespread disquiet over nuclear vessels docking at the Rock. Madrid argued that to avoid causing concern amongst the residents of the Campo de Gibraltar and protests from environmentalists US nuclear subs should go to Rota instead.
According to leaked cables the Spanish director for European and North American affairs, José Pons, contacted the US Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre in July 2006 when one of that country’s nuclear subs was due to arrive in Gibraltar. Pons said for the sake of public sensibilities it would be better if the vessel went to Rota.
It is not that Rota was more acceptable to environmentalists than Gibraltar. Francisco Castejón who is responsible for anti-nuclear campaigns at Ecologistas en Acción stated it was more difficult to detect a submarine in Rota than it was in Gibraltar adding: “The Rock is more accessible and the environmental groups work close to the port. The geography of Rota is more steep, has less visibility and the zone is less populated.”
In the event the Ambassador advised the US Armed Forces of Spain’s view but stressed that Spain had no authority over questions related to Gibraltar. The US nuclear submarine didn’t go to Rota but the Rock and when Pons asked for an explanation he was told preparations for its arrival were already advanced with family members already booked on flights to Gibraltar.
An intriguing series of events then took place. It appears that in January of 2007 the US said it would send more submarines to Rota if Spain lessened the bureaucratic procedures for doing so. This soon was put to the test when the USS Minneapolis – Saint Paul docked to land the bodies of two junior officers who had died after an accident days before off the UK port of Plymouth. The nuclear submarine advised it would stay in Rota whilst an investigation was carried out but the Spanish Government insisted on an exhaustive report to ensure the vessel had not suffered a similar breakdown to Tireless. It was at this point that WikiLeaks says that Aguirre told Madrid the USA had taken note of its preference for nuclear powered subs to dock in Rota rather than Gibraltar but added that if the Spanish government demanded detailed information then the Rock would return to being the more attractive option.
On July 3 2008 a telegram revealed that 93 per cent of the warships flying US flags docked in Spanish ports and only 7 per cent used Gibraltar. This was despite the fact the British Government was more flexible in issuing licences. Since then under the recent US-Spanish accord over the use of bases in Spain those regulations have been toughened further no doubt making Gibraltar more attractive still. This may explain why two US nuclear submarines, USS Florida and Providence, recently were sent to Gibraltar rather than Rota.