C17 at RAF Gibraltar with Rock

Lima Charlie: Club Med - Why Gibraltar And Cyprus Are Vital For The British

Here, our expert defence analyst looks at what contribution these regions make to the work of the MOD and Armed Forces

C17 at RAF Gibraltar with Rock

For centuries the Mediterranean Sea could have been regarded as a British lake.

Imperial control over the critical ports of Gibraltar and Malta, the island of Cyprus and the Suez Canal provided the British Empire with the means to control access to these vital waters.

The region has played host to some of the most critical battles in British history, from the siege of Gibraltar in the 17th Century to the defeat of Napoleon's navy in the Nile in 1798 to the resolute defence of Malta in World War Two.

Even after 1945 and decolonisation, the UK remained a major player in the region, determined to pursue national interests even to the extent of the foreign policy disaster of the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was not disbanded until 1967, and British Forces did not finally leave Malta until 1979.

Although the ending of the Cold War saw a decline in force levels, the region remained of significant strategic interest to the UK – the 1990s saw major naval deployments in the Adriatic Sea, supported by land-based aircraft flying from Italy in support of operations in the Former Yugoslavia.

In the 2000s, a major naval operation was mounted to evacuate UK entitled persons from the Lebanon, while in 2011 the UK participated in airstrikes over Libya using facilities throughout the region.

Today, the British presence in the Med is built around two core sites, Gibraltar and the British Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.

These two locations are home to several thousand permanently based personnel, their families and supporting infrastructure.

As 2018 draws to a close, Cyprus in particular hosted visits by senior Royal Family members and high-ranking military officers to thank personnel for their service, and learn about their work.

While these locations are clearly important to the UK, why in an age of defence cuts and budget troubles does the UK continue to place so much value on these facilities and what do they contribute to the work of the MOD and Armed Forces?

The reason these locations are so valuable to the UK comes down to two key factors – location and capabilities.

From a strategic perspective, Gibraltar sits jutting into the Mediterranean, providing the perfect location to exercise control over the narrow straits, just a few miles wide, and that channel all merchant ships wishing to enter or leave the region.

HMS Queen Elizabeth Arrives in Gibraltar

Meanwhile, Cyprus is strategically located in the Eastern Med, within a short distance of the Levant nations (e.g. Lebanon, Syria, Israel and so on), and within range of the northern coast of Africa. This makes it a superb location to conduct aircraft operations from, being a short distance from many of the worlds current trouble spots.

Gibraltar is host to a variety of useful logistical and basing facilities that enable the UK and its allies to operate. The naval base is significantly smaller than in its heyday, with the dockyard ceasing refits in the mid-1980s.

Despite this, it provides the UK with secure basing and wharves, plus useful stores depots and logistics support. This includes a nuclear submarine berth (known as a ‘Z’ berth), which permits both Royal Navy and allied submarines to visit as required.

The big advantage for the Royal Navy of Gibraltar is that it is three days sailing closer to a crisis spot, making it a useful forward operating base during a crisis. The large runway at Gibraltar airport (which also hosts RAF Gibraltar) is capable of handling some of the largest aircraft in the RAF's inventory such as the A400M.

This means in a crisis, it is possible for Royal Navy warships to pull in to port and be quickly restored and supplied using material flown in from the UK.

Operationally it provides an outstanding location to ensure the UK can respond quickly to a crisis. 

This was most spectacularly demonstrated in 1982 when warships sailing for the Falklands were able to use the facilities to help prepare for deployment and store for war without returning to the UK. To this day the base remains able to provide similar support, a capability that can make a real difference in time-sensitive operations.  

Gibraltar plays home to a valuable range of other units, including the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, a roughly battalion-sized infantry unit supported by other land elements that are responsible for both defending Gibraltar and working overseas with the British Army, including on Operation Herrick.

There is also a small Royal Navy presence built around two fast patrol boats (HMS Sabre and Scimitar) that support the work of the Royal Gibraltar Police in securing the sovereignty of UK waters.

maintaining is particularly crucial given the enormous amount of marine traffic that sails in the region. The squadron is often in the news due to efforts by Spain to enter Gibraltarian waters and assert their own views about the sovereignty of the territory.

There have been some calls online to base larger Royal Navy vessels, such as an Offshore Patrol Vessel permanently in the region. The challenge with such a proposal is that these larger warships require more crew and can take longer to set sail. They are also less manoeuvrable than the small fast patrol boats currently in the squadron.

The value of the current organisation is that the two vessels can be at sea quickly and are able to steam faster and are more manoeuvrable than larger vessels – in the extremely crowded anchorages and waterways in the local area, this makes a distinct advantage. 

The UK has settled on maintaining the small Gibraltar squadron for the short term, backed up by regular ‘sovereignty patrols’ of the waters by larger vessels when they visit. There are regular port calls by practically every British warship and Royal Fleet Auxiliary transiting the Med, making the location one of the most regularly visited ports of call for the Royal Navy and its allies. 

Rock Gun Flag Gibraltar

Gibraltar represents a valuable location, able to exert control and monitor the sea-lanes, as well as provide logistical support in a crisis. The permanent garrison may be small (barely a few hundred personnel), but it is an enormously important ‘force multiplier’ for the capabilities of the British armed forces. 

By contrast, Cyprus is a significantly larger setup, housing approximately 3,500 UK personnel. Most of them live in two enclaves known as ‘Sovereign Base Areas’ (SBA), which remained British territory when the rest of Cyprus was granted independence in 1960. The two sites were retained for defence purposes in perpetuity, and today occupy about 3% of the land area of the island.

There are three key reasons why the SBAs in Cyprus remain of long-term strategic value to the UK today. The first is the ability to house a reasonably sized military force as a regional ‘strategic reserve’ that is acclimatised to the warmer Eastern Med and Middle Eastern weather.

The British Army maintains a small force built around two infantry battalions and supporting units both to protect the SBA and provide a ‘theatre reserve’ for the region. 

In the event of the UK needing to surge troops into the Middle East, for instance during Operational Telic in Iraq, then the units based in Cyprus are not only closer to the operation, but also acclimatised to regional conditions, and hopefully will find it far more easy to function in the heat. 

Cyprus also reportedly plays a valuable role in hosting intelligence and communications facilities that support wider operations – for instance, Mount Olympus, the highest point of the island is still an active UK military base for communications purposes.

For the Royal Air Force, Cyprus plays host to the largest RAF base outside of the UK. During the Cold War, the station played host to a variety of nuclear-capable bombers including the Canberra and Vulcan. Today the role of the station is to be a vital staging and forward operating base that plays a critical part in enabling success on overseas missions. 

Because the base is located on UK sovereign territory, it means that the UK is not dependent on the permissions of other nations to carry out missions from it (a major consideration when basing aircraft or military personnel overseas). This gives the UK considerable flexibility in deciding how it uses the facility, both for British and allied forces.

During Operation Herrick the site played a key role as a stop off for the strategic airlift force flying to and from Afghanistan. This made a significant difference in helping sustain the airbridge to and from theatre.

The site also acts as a base to support air operations in both North Africa and the Middle East. For some years now the RAF has been operating Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, supported by a variety of other platforms such as Sentry AEW and tankers, out of Cyprus in support of Operation Shader.

The short flying distance to Iraq and Syria has made a material difference in enabling UK pilots to provide support to operations on the ground. 

The value of this is that the UK can base and operate airpower out of its own airbase and influence events in the Eastern Med region.

This is a significant force multiplier as it removes the reliance on foreign basing, and reduces the requirement for tanker aircraft too. It is likely that RAF Akrotiri will remain one of the busiest stations in the RAF for many years to come, hosting a variety of units deployed on critical missions across the Eastern Med. 

The Royal Navy does not currently have any warships based in Cyprus, although for some years between 2003 and 2010 a pair of P2000 patrol craft were based there as the ‘Cyprus Squadron’ to provide additional force protection and support. There do not seem to be any current plans to resurrect this capability. 

Overall the UK military presence in the Mediterranean represents a very substantial capability that permits the ability to conduct military operations in the region, and also support wider operations beyond. Both Cyprus and Gibraltar are likely to be of increased importance to the UK in the years ahead, given the challenging security situation in the wider region.

The general instability in Northern Africa, particularly in Libya and the wider mass migration of people towards Europe poses a long-term challenge to European security. The Royal Navy has been heavily involved across the Med in supporting operations to rescue migrants and try to tackle this complex challenge.

Migrants waiting to board HMS Richmond in Mediterranean

In the Levant, the ongoing civil war in Syria and the complex and challenging situation in Iraq will continue to necessitate overflights and air patrols by the RAF.

The potential for wider regional challenges, for instance in the event of civil war in Lebanon, or conflict between Israel and its neighbours may yet highlight a need to conduct another evacuation of UK citizens.

Alternatively, the continued instability in North Africa may require similar evacuations, or support for discrete operations, perhaps linked to Counter Terrorism work.

In those circumstances, the maintenance of a base at either end of the Med providing assured access, good runway and basing facilities and capable military forces becomes ever more critical. 

There are challenges though – during operations in Syria there was a real concern, reported in the media that Cyprus would be in the range of enemy missile strikes.

The Royal Navy deployed a Type 45 destroyer near to Cyprus to provide air defence cover, while RAF Typhoons have also deployed to provide air to air capability too.

The resurgence of Russia as a threat also poses real challenges too – Gibraltar is particularly critical in being able to observe and monitor the presence of Russian warships sailing to and from the Med.

The risk is that the more these sites are used to conduct operations that are not always politically popular, it could generate ill will against the UK as a result.

While the UK is under no obligation to return the SBA’s to Cyprus, it needs to ensure that it is not in a position whereby popular support for the UK presence on the island is at risk.

Given the increased power of information campaigns, and how Russia and other potential foes can manipulate information as ‘fake news’, ensuring that the UK position is not compromised due to an effective information warfare campaign will be particularly critical. 

The biggest strategic challenge facing both locations must be Brexit. While the UK is hopeful that it will continue to maintain a close security partnership with EU neighbours after Brexit, the fact that the bases in Cyprus and Gibraltar share a land border with EU member states raises the potential for challenges.

Ensuring that there is as straightforward a transition as possible is vital to maintaining the effectiveness of these facilities.

In a strategically uncertain world, where the UK has found itself deployed on hugely challenging combat operations in the Med and the Middle East, the presence of facilities in Gibraltar and Cyprus makes an enormous difference to the ability to contribute and play a major part.

The presence of thousands of personnel, along with ships and aircraft operating in the region for the long haul means that the British military bases in the Mediterranean will continue to be some of the most vital assets the MOD possesses.


This article is the latest contribution in our Liam Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.