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?