Let me be very clear: the reason I’m writing this is basically as a response to a certain type of Daily Mail/Daily Express reader and the “Send in the army/navy!” response that seems to appear regularly in those newspapers. In particular, that France and Spain should be careful that the UK doesn’t decide to give Johnny Foreigner what for.
I do not for one moment think the following is likely. It’s purely a piece of speculative fiction.
Just a bit of fun. But what if a far-right government in Madrid decided to take Gibraltar by force…
The news that Spanish forces had taken Gibraltar reached London within an hour of the crossing. The Royal Marine garrison on the rock put up a solid defence of their positions, slowing the Spanish advance, but as the fighting descended into street combat the decision was taken by the marine commander to surrender to avoid further civilian casualties. The Spanish flag flew over the rock within three hours of hostilities commencing.
The Prime Minister and the general military staff met in Downing Street just before the surrender, and the Chief of the Defence Staff outlined their options.
“Firstly, a Falklands-style task force will not succeed. Even if we could get the force down the Atlantic coast we would face serious air opposition as soon as we closed on Gibraltar. Our carrier group would come under attack from the Spanish Air Force, who fly F35s, F18s and Typhoons and would be flying from bases much closer and with air defence support from the ground. They would target our carriers as a priority and have a serious chance of hitting if not sinking them. The Spanish Navy is smaller and less well-equipped than the Royal Navy but still has submarines and frigates with modern NATO equipment, again focussing on our carriers and amphibious landing craft. We could possibly prevail off the Portuguese coast, assuming Portugal stays neutral, but we would take casualties, and if any of our key ships are sunk the operation fails. If we manage to land a force in Gibraltar, or close to it, we’ll be fighting to hold a beachhead against a modern Spanish army with modern NATO armour and support vehicles, with air superiority over us, and that’s without even considering force sizes and supply lines.”
“What do you mean?” the Prime Minister asked.
“We would put a force of less than ten thousand on the ground. Spain has a professional army of 80,000 plus reserves of about 15,000. They also have 80,000 paramilitary Guardia Civil to draw on. But let’s be honest; if Madrid wanted to equip and arm one million volunteers to fight us they could, as could we if foreign forces landed here. Our supply lines would go back through the Straits of Gibraltar where they’d be harried intensely. In short, we’d be fighting a losing battle from day one.”
“What about landing a force somewhere else? Maybe northern Spain? Capture some town to use as a bargaining chip to trade?” the Foreign Secretary suggested, listing her head slightly towards the official photographer who seemed to magically appear every time she entered a room. For the historical record, she said.
The CDS opened another file.
“We have considered that. It would certainly be logistically easier. Shorter supply lines, and our carriers and the UK mainland could provide better air cover without getting too close to the Spanish coast. But the core problems would remain. Our fleet would be under constant attack, and our assault force would face a Spanish counter attack made up of a bigger but equally professionally trained and NATO standardised force. I need to stress this: we are not dealing with Argentine reservists sent on an adventure here. This will be Spanish professional soldiers, as well equipped as we are, who have trained alongside us in NATO, fighting to retake their own soil. Or at least, in Gibraltar’s case, that is their perception.”
“Are you honestly telling us that this country, despite being the world’s fifth military power, is essentially powerless to do anything?” the Chancellor asked, looking slightly out of place in his branded hoodie.
The CDS shook his head.
“No sir, what I’m saying is that whilst we can inflict serious damage upon the invading force, we simply do not have the resources to fight a sustained conflict against an economically comparable country. Not on their home soil.”
“What about Trident? I mean, we are a nuclear power. Spain is not,” the Home Secretary said, jutting her jaw out to underline the statement.
The CDS looked at the fleet admiral.
“We can’t nuke Madrid.”
“We can threaten to,” the Home Secretary said.
“No one will believe us. We’ll look ridiculous,” the Chancellor said, eager to shut down his rival out Johnny Foreigner bashing him.
“What is the point having all this equipment paid for by the hard-working families in my constituency if…”
“The Home Secretary has a point,” the prime minister’s chief advisor suggested quietly. The room went silent. He was not known as being a fan of the Home Secretary. Not only had he voted Remain, but he still defended it.
“You’re not suggesting I incinerate Madrid, surely? That would be very uncentrist of you,” the PM suggested, running a hand through his unusually tidy hair.
“Tell us about Prompt Global Strike, admiral,” the Chief Advisor said. All heads turned.
The admiral shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“PGS is a part of the Trident programme that allows us to use a Trident D5 missile to deliver a non-nuclear payload to a target globally.”
“Could we use it to destroy a designated target in Spain?”
“In theory, yes, but I must advise caution. PGS is not something we use lightly because no country can tell whether a launched ICBM is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. This will show up on Russian and Chinese early warning systems as an ICBM launch.”
“Ok, I understand that admiral. But let me clarify: do we have, at this moment, the capability to launch a non-nuclear Trident missile at a specific target in Spain, and can the Spanish shoot it down?”
“Each Vanguard submarine currently carries 16 ICBMs. Two of them have conventional warheads. No, Spain cannot shoot it down. Nobody can. ”
The room broke into disarray.
“So if we were to identify a key symbolic or economic target in Spain we could destroy it. Say Madrid airport, or the Cortes or the Royal Palace? We could announce this publicly in advance to allow for them to be cleared of people so there needs to be no casualties, and give a ninety minute warning to launch. We’ll inform the Russians and Chinese beforehand, indeed we’ll even surface the submarine just before the launch so that they can verify it. In fact, we could issue a list of key economic targets, power stations, airports, ports, and tell the Spanish we’ll keep hitting them until they withdraw from Gibraltar. That’s global power.”
“The empire strikes back,” the Home Secretary said, slightly breathlessly.
The admiral interrupted the chief advisor.
“We only have two current PGS capable missiles.”
“Can’t we prepare others? I mean we do have four Vanguards, and only one is needed to maintain deterrence patrol. If we hit, say, ten targets in Spain that would do enough damage. I mean, imagine if someone hit all four London airports, Buckingham Palace, the Stock Exchange, and a couple of power stations and railway terminals. We’d be in chaos.”
“That would take a while, to remove and refit the warheads.”
“In fairness, once we did it the first time, provided we picked the right target, Madrid would know we were serious. We probably would not have to do it again,” the Prime Minister said.
He turned to the admiral.
“I want options on this within the hour.”
That night, the Prime Minister addressed the country, with a special Spanish language edition being transmitted directly to the Spanish media. The ultimatum was clear: if Spanish forces were not withdrawn in total in 24 hours, the UK would hit Adolfo Suarez Madrid airport. The PM carefully explained that although a non-nuclear warhead would be used, and therefore there would be no radioactivity, the power of the warhead combined with the kinetic energy of a direct missile impact would destroy a large part of the airport, and so a 10km evacuation zone should be declared around the target.
The PM was inundated with almost universal condemnation from other NATO leaders. The US President was in contact within 30 minutes of the broadcast.
“Whilst we have great sympathy with the Gibraltar situation, mr Prime Minister, the United States cannot condone the use of ballistic weaponry in this way. We strongly advise that you accept the offer of the European Union to broker a diplomatic solution. The spectacle of a NATO member bombing another is grotesque.”
“I would remind you, mr President, that they invaded our territory!”
“Yes, I understand that, but nevertheless this is upping the ante. It’s bad enough that you have isolated yourselves by withdrawing from Europe, and now this…”
“We were invaded!”
“Yes, I get that. Now look, the EU is proposing a joint authority…”
The PM slammed the phone down in a temper.
The calls with the German and French leaders were not very different: it was obvious all three had agreed a joint NATO line.
“Do you know, I think they’d prefer us to invade Spain and go down to a bloody but honourable defeat,” the PM said, as they gather in a Cabinet Office Briefing Room to watch the launch.
All day, scenes from Madrid showed the airport being evacuated, and now it stood empty, its halls eerily displaying hundreds of cancelled flights. The Spanish Parliament openly debated the idea of Spanish fighters bombing Penzance and Falmouth. One over-eager local government official had tested the air raid siren in Truro and caused mass panic.
Despite officially protesting, both Russia and China had accepted the invitation to send naval officers to inspect the missile before launch, and observe its launch from the submarine. France had not been offered as the Royal Navy feared the French, although officially neutral, might tip off their EU allies as to the location of the UK submarine.
As per the agreement with Russia and China, the submarine surfaced off the coast of Scotland five minutes before launching, giving Russian and Chinese satellites time to verify the launch and ensure the trajectory was not a threat to their countries. It then dived beneath the surface to permit launch of the missile.
Across the world, millions watched as the countdown began, a satellite feed from the submarine being directed by military satellite to global media.
When it reached zero, nothing happened.
The admiral listened intently through headphones as the room sat in silence.
“Those fucking bastards,” he said, before pulling off the headphones.
“The Americans have turned off the guidance software. We can’t launch.”
“What?” The PM asked.
“They are American missiles, and they seem to be able to remotely deactivate the guidance system. The chaps on the submarine have never seen anything like this before.”
“But it’s an independent deterrent. Surely we can launch without US permission?” The Home Secretary asked.
The admiral looked at her.
“We can launch alright, but the targeting won’t be accurate. I can’t guarantee we’ll hit our precise…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake: does it matter which part of the airport we hit?” She said, in exasperation.
“Madam, I can just about guarantee we will hit Spain and then maybe Madrid.”
An aide stepped in, holding a phone.
“The president, sir.” The PM put it to his ear.
“I’m sorry we had to do that. You left us no choice.”
“You bastard. We have followed you fuckers through thick and thin, and now you humiliate us like this.”
“Look, my people are briefing that you delayed at the last minute because I asked you as a personal favour. I’m flying to Brussels on Monday, and Paris and Berlin will be there to sit down with you and Madrid to work this out. We had to do this. Madrid has been talking to the Russians since you announced. There’s talk of Russian ABMs in Spain in return for a Russian naval base in the Med and on the Atlantic coast. The Chinese are sniffing around too. We can’t allow it, it’s as simple as that. Paris and Berlin are with me on this. So is the rest of NATO except for Hungary and Turkey. Hungary and Turkey, man. This is simply too important. See you in Brussels.”
The phone clicked dead.