David Sanchez reviews military visits to the Rock over the last 12 months…
By David Sanchez
As this is my last article for 2018 I have decided to split it in two, I will be summarising the military movements for the month of December and after that will devote a few paragraphs to looking back and analysing what has been a year of mixed results for our defence presence here on the Rock.
Firstly in the air December saw a virtually run of the mill month with three RAF A400 visits with ZM414 on the 03rd, ZM409 on the 22nd and ZM407 on the 28th. Another much welcome C130 Hercules visit occurred on the 08th with ZH875 once again paying us a visit.
The picture at sea was mostly dominated by a larger than usual number of submarine visitors, something not seen in our shores too often in recent history.
Right at the start of the month the namesake of the Royal Navy’s newest class of nuclear powered attack submarines, HMS Astute arrived on the 2nd ending a two-year hiatus for visits of this most impressive boat. The familiar MoD charter cargo vessel visits were also a regular feature with Anvil Point arriving on the 4th and followed by the submarine support ship Northern River conducting a Boat Transfer the next day.
Our second Royal Navy submarine arrived on the 08th with the older, but still venerable Trafalgar-class boat HMS Talent calling in. Although serving the fleet for many decades before Astute was even designed, the veteran boat was a most welcome visit by a type that will soon be eclipsed by its replacements. The next day, keen-eyed ship spotters saw an Astute class submarine conducting a boat transfer off Europa Point, once again I would not venture to identify this boat due to the strict rules governing the operational security of submarine operations and this occurrence is only included here due to the coverage it has already received in various sites on social media. The same day Northern River called in at the Naval Base.
Although we haven’t had as many United States visits as past months in December, we had two Department of Defense Maritime Security Program vessels call in for bunkers with M/V Endurance arriving on the 13th and M/V Norfolk calling in on the 29th.
Lastly the MoD transports Hurst Point, calling in on the 19th, Eddystone on the 29th and Anvil Point rounding the year off by calling in on the 31st ended proceedings with a flurry of such visits.
As can be seen, December was an average month in the air but the twin submarine visits more than made up for this at sea and ensuring that the month kept us all busy with among the most interesting types of arrivals.
Taking 2018 as a whole, it is my opinion that it was a very mixed bag. Among the highlights at sea was the groundbreaking visit of HMS Queen Elizabeth on the 09th of February, ensuring that this well-covered and seminal event will be talked about for decades and gives a glimmer of hope to our often forgotten naval base. Twin United States Navy submarine visits (John Warner on the 25th of March and Newport News on the 30th of August) were taken alongside the visits by sister ships USNS Carson City and Yuma and the first visit of SS Wright in October to show evidence of slow, painful growth in this area in the face of the traditional stranglehold on foreign naval visits to our shores now enjoyed by third nations.
In the air we were once again left waiting for the all too elusive return of RAF fast jets to the Rock. Again the much-anticipated Battle of Britain flypast never materialised but plenty of rotorcraft and transports from both the Royal Navy and RAF did visit. Similarly nearly all branches of the United States military paid us flying visits, the highlights of which were the two arrivals by US Navy C130T Hercules ‘164993’. It seems that whilst there is scope for optimism on the maritime front, the middle to long term future of air operations to the lay enthusiast seems to centre around transport movements and the much demanded thrilling sight of fast jets roaring around the Rock are a thing of the past. The main theories as to why range from the operational to the financial to the conspiratorial, with the Treasury and our friends the Foreign and Commonwealth Office being the most talked about culprits.
Finally returning to the naval picture I am glad to report that we have had nearly 10 more visits than last year. The figures would have been even more impressive had we not suffered a most unusual and worrying dry period between February and June where practically nothing called in, prompting many both here and in Spain to comment whether this was a sign of things to come. I usually avoid getting political but it has been a bad year for naval incursions with this annoyance taking a slightly bolder tone. In order to calm restless minds and fully respecting other commitments by the fleet, such massive gaps of presence are not ideal to say the least.
To end on an optimistic tone, the fiscal status of our armed forces for now is in a better place if half the official reports are to be believed and there is cause for optimism in the New Year. The entry into service of the P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the highly mysterious replacements for HM Ships Sabre and Scimitar are causes for excitement. It is also hoped that the increasing US military presence will not dry up like the Dutch and Canadian visits did, under pressure from those who do not wish to see us increase in relevance.
As we chime in 2019 I will keep my lens trained both up and down and will continue to keep you all updated.
Many thanks for the support from so many of you during this year and I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2019!
David Sanchez is a local military enthusiast and photographer with a degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies.