Thursday, 8 August 2013

Gunboat Opiates for the Masses?


Its an amusing irony that the recent row in Gibraltar has suddenly given the Royal Navy more publicity about its forthcoming COUGAR deployment in one evening, than it may have got in several months of deployment. The news that the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) is deploying to the Med has been seen as a clear example of gunboat diplomacy by Fleet Streets finest, many of whom seem terribly keen on starting a war in order to fill column inches during a slow news month…

Its perhaps worth noting that this deployment is extremely long standing-  the sort of planning which goes into deploying a major Task Force will usually commence at around 12 months prior to the event, when the rough outline of a plan is put together on the objectives of the deployment, likely ports, aims and intended outcomes and so on. While maritime power is about flexibility, its often forgotten that most RN deployments these days are the end product of months of well co-ordinated planning and staffing to ensure that the UK gets the best possible value from its naval assets.

That large elements of the Task Force would visit Gibraltar should be seen as a given – this vital port very much marks both the start and end of foreign deployments to this day for the RN, and it is sensible to visit a valuable facility and make use of it. People often forget that the UK presence in Gibraltar provides a useful set of berths, stores and a runway to bring much needed supplies in if required. Gibraltar is very much somewhere that the RN likes to make use of whenever possible. Indeed the visits by COUGAR deployments are now a regular feature in the calendar – the RN put several warships into Gibraltar last year as part of COUGAR, and this will doubtless feature as a run ashore for many years to come.

The reality is that this years COUGAR deployment was flagged up in that most sensitive of documents – this months ‘Navy News’, which clearly announced a large task force heading to the region including HMS BULWARK and ILLUSTRIOUS. It genuinely is a pure coincidence that these deployments are occurring right now, although that wont stop people trying to draw coincidences and talk about gunboat diplomacy during what is a political row.

What we can perhaps draw from this is that firstly the RN has enjoyed an unexpected boon of coverage, tapping into the nations subliminal psyche which holds that sending a grey hull is a key means of solving a crisis, no matter what or where the crisis is. There is perhaps work for some analysts to understand why, almost alone among all major powers, the cries of ‘send a gunboat’ seem to resonate most strongly in the UK (albeit to a lesser extent the same applies with the ‘send a carrier’ debate in the US). While deployments of warships can be seen as a useful indicator of interest in situations, it appears to be held most strongly in the UK – there is, at times, a fervent belief that deploying vessels is akin to the legend of waving the ancient banner three times in order for Arthur and his knights to appear – it makes little practical sense, but is somehow strangely comforting to the people. 


 More seriously though, it is very interesting how the routine deployment of a warship can be made into a headline grabbing story, something which is now being portrayed as ‘Cameron sends in the Navy’. While this is unlikely to play any impact in the ongoing situation in Gibraltar itself, it does show how sending a gunboat is perhaps a valuable weapon for internal domestic politics. From now on, political spinners can talk about how Cameron sent the navy to protect the UKs friends and interests – even if the reality is slightly more mundane! Perhaps the lesson here is that there is still very much a future for gunboat diplomacy, but as a political tool used for domestic consumption and not to emulate the late, great, Lord Palmerston? 

14 comments:

  1. I share many of your views about gunboats...quite like to give the ancient banner thing a go though...

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  2. Indeed, when at RAF Lyneham, would would frequently send out replacement parts/stores flights out to GIB, people forget how routine it is for the RN to visit what is one of their most strategic ports.

    Also although good coverage, to the gib people the RN hasn't really been seen in a good light recently (at least the gib squadron), plus the footage of RN small boats floating about as the GC go fasts run loops around them also wasn't quite a good image too... so its a real mixed bag really.

    It will be interesting to see if those GC and fishing boats put up a presence though when the group appears. Its also important to remember that despite the rhetoric from Madrid and others, the actual Spanish military (not paramilitary...) has not put up a presence at all in this spat.

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  3. Civis Romanus Sum!

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  4. And even before the COUGAR announcement, RN ships like the submarines stopped by Gibraltar. The COUGAR 13 task group has less of a punched compared to 1 T-Boat. Only now people seize upon the deployment to call in gunboat diplomacy.

    Sigh.

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  5. Of course, what you say about this particular deployment has nothing to do with the sending of a message to the Spanish. However, it seems, from your analysis, that you don't believe in maritime forward presence? Maybe the British like sending gunboats to places because they know how well it acts as a deterrent (or as a tool of coercion)...

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    1. Hi there, actually I firmly believe in forward presence, providing that it has a reason to be there. A lot of commentators on the net seem to support deployment without justifying the military rationale for it - what effect does it deliver, what military task does it support, what is the value of placing scarce assets there and not somewhere else?
      By all means forward base, but have a reason to do so and not just because it looks impressive on a fantasy fleet ORBAT!

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    2. I suppose the military rationale is that it is reassuring to the British population in Gibraltar, and that they feel intimidated by a far larger neighbour using many forms of state aparatus to impose itself.

      To me, having 4 mcm based in the gulf is overkill. What can 4 ships do, that 3 or 2 couldnt achieve? Then those ships having a second capability to act as a patrol vessel be redirected to efforts perhaps off the horn of africa or to the waters off GIbraltar.

      I fear we have and are reducing our military signature so much in Gibraltar that any marginal increase in the region is immediately seen as an esculation.

      Sellers

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    3. If you live in the 1800s, then that fear is justified.

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    4. Sellers the military signature in Gibraltar has been pretty consistent for the last 20+ years.

      This is a problem that needs to be solved by diplomatic means, moving any extra military presence there probably won't make the Spanish back off and would be merely stooping to their level. This is the kind of petty crap they pull every few years, normally when the countries economy is in the toilet and the government needs something else that the population can get angry about.

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  6. I don't care how long the Navy spent on planning an exercise in the Med, the visit to Gibraltar at this moment in time was deliberately doing a Palmerston by Cameron.
    A really meaningful exercise in the Med would have entailed a non stop voyage at flank speed to the far end and parking up off Sidon. Gibraltar was a side show and I thought it made us (the UK) look slightly silly.
    Any military show of force for whatever effect, must NOT be a sham. There must always be a bullet up the spout and a finger on the trigger, otherwise you're playing, 'wolf'.
    Once again, I believe the Royal Navy was made to toe a Whitehall line and the result has been another loss of naval gravitas and a gift to the Telegraph et al.

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    1. If you want war, why don't you start it?

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    2. I think the RN was right not to alter its plans and carry on as normal. The press will generate hype whatever happens. If the RN had decided to avoid Gibraltar (and indeed Spanish ports) then they would have portrayed this as a sop to the Spanish and a British climbdown.

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  7. If only our press were more grown up. Then it could have been reported as 'By uncanny co-incidence we happen to be sending a flotilla into the med on a long planned deployment which will naturally be stopping at our base in Gibraltar as British squadrons and individual ships have done for centries. This is of course totally unconnected with recent border issues. Here are a list of other deployments presently being undertaken by the Royal Navy across the globe.' I think that sends out the right kind of message to any potential reader foreign or domestic!

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