A US nuclear-powered submarine that recently spent 12 days in Gibraltar participated in the attack on Syria at the weekend, according to the US Department of Defense.
The Virginia-class submarine USS John Warner fired six Tomahawk missiles at chemical weapon sites in Syria, Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr told journalists during a briefing in the Pentagon.
Video footage released by the US military shows the submarine firing one of the missiles while submerged somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.
A total of 105 missiles were fired from US, British and French air and sea platforms in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The strike was in response to a suspected gas attack believed to have been carried out by the Assad regime in Douma on April 7 which killed at least 45 people including children and sickened hundreds more.
The attack in Douma took place two days after the USS John Warner sailed from Gibraltar and there is nothing to suggest that the visit here was in any way linked to the Syria strike. At the time, the UK Ministry of Defence described the US submarine’s visit as a scheduled stop.
But the latest events once again highlight the Rock’s continued strategic importance as an operational platform and intelligence-gathering outpost for the UK and its allies at the western end of the Mediterranean overlooking one of the world’s key maritime chokepoints.
The Rock’s port and airfield make it a useful logistics node in the wider military network, particularly for submarines operating in the Mediterranean close to conflict zones in the Middle East and north Africa, and at a time of tense relations with Russia.
On Sunday, the Sunday Times reported that a UK Astute-class nuclear powered submarine was involved in a “cat-and-mouse” pursuit with Russian submarines and warships in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Royal Navy submarine was not involved in the attack on Syria but, according to the newspaper, was deployed in the area at the time and was being shadowed by Russian vessels including two Kilo-class Russian submarines known as “the black hole” because they are so quiet.
“The Astute-class submarine is believed to have spent several days trying to evade detection in a tense and dangerous contest,” the newspaper reported.
“Russian and British submarines have increasingly stalked each other in the north Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean in recent years as tensions have grown.”
“This is believed to be the first time an underwater duel has taken place in the build-up to strikes.”
The Sunday Times did not name the Royal Navy submarine and the UK Ministry of Defence never comments on submarine operations.
But Astute-class submarines, in common with other Royal Navy vessels, are regular visitors to Gibraltar as they deploy in and out of the Mediterranean.
Since 2010, a total of 34 submarines have visited the Rock, according to data collected by local ship spotters. They include UK, US and Dutch vessels.
Iain Ballantyne, the editor of the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review and author of the recently published ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, said Gibraltar provided a secure place for nuclear-powered vessels.
Gibraltar’s airfield and specialised Z berth enable NATO submarines to pick up supplies and carry out changeovers of crew for vessels on long deployments, while the waters around the Rock are important for training.
“I think with the Russian threat, especially in the Mediterranean, now rising again you will see more American and British naval traffic,” he told the Chronicle yesterday.
“If President Putin was to, for example, reinforce his naval forces with ships and submarines from the Northern or Baltic fleets following the strikes on Syria by the UK, USA and France, he would have to send those units through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar.”
“It’s obvious that the Rock is a perfect place to act as a base of operations right by that chokepoint, which it did for NATO submarines versus the Russians frequently during the Cold War.”
“There was a time, from the early 1990s until recently, when US Navy calls both at Gib and the UK, such as Devonport, declined.”
“It is certainly noticeable that American warships are now more regularly calling at Devonport, so it will be the same for Gibraltar, which has such a superb strategic and geographic position for UK and Alliance defence purposes.”
Russian warships have also been seen regularly sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar in recent years as they moved to and from the Black Sea or Russia’s base in the Syrian port of Tartus in the eastern Mediterranean.
Before the recent increase in tensions between Russia and the West, Russian Navy vessels also routinely the Spanish north African enclave of Ceuta as a refuelling port.
On rare occasions, even Russia’s sophisticated Kilo-class submarines stopped off in the Spanish port. In 2015, for example, the submarine Novorossiysk was photographed during a short stay in Ceuta.
While this raised eyebrows in some quarters at the time, Russian vessels also visited other European countries in the Mediterranean including Malta and Cyprus before tensions escalated.
“With regards to Ceuta specifically, it’s a long way from the Kola Peninsula or Baltic to Syria or the Black Sea, and so those Russian submarine crews needed a run ashore and for their diesel-electric boats to take on fuel and supplies,” Mr Ballantyne said.
“However, the Russian involvement in Syria has really poisoned relations with the West since 2015, though the Crimean annexation of 2014 was the beginning of the new freeze.”
“It is the thought that Russia is now clearly very hostile to NATO and is waging ‘war in peace’, as some experts have termed it, against the West that puts a chill into the thought of Kilos calling at Ceuta.”
“This is especially so when they may later fire missiles in Syria and then come out to, allegedly, try and hunt down NATO submarines that so recently have called at Gibraltar.”
Main photo shows the USS John Warner arriving in Gibraltar on March 25, 2018. Photo by David Parody