THE commander of a US nuclear submarine threatened to ram a Spanish customs vessel trying to block its path unless the Royal Navy vessel escorting it took action.
Last week it emerged that a Royal Navy patrol boat fired warning flares across the bow of the Spanish vessel during the altercation just outside Gibraltar waters.
It has now been revealed that the Royal Navy’s unprecedented actions were ordered by USS Florida’s no-nonsense captain Nathan Martin who warned the Royal Navy to sort the situation out or he would intervene.
It was the first of two such actions by Spanish vessels that day.
The second, in British waters, involved a Garda Civil police boat.
The US submarine was making a routine visit to Gibraltar’s submarine base on April 16.
It had already surfaced but was still in international waters when its path was intercepted by a Spanish customs vessel.
Strict security protocols, partly prompted by the successful Al Qaeda attack on the US destroyer USS Cole in 2000, require the captain of any US warship to prevent uninvited vessels from getting too close to their ship.
Despite being escorted by the Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Sabre, the Spanish vessel crossed the submarine’s path several times.
Captain Martin was nearing the end of his 77-day operational tour on the submarine when the altercation took place.
Last night a senior Royal Navy source with access to the “After Action” report about the incident, sent to the First Sea Lord and senior operational commanders, said it was a very difficult and tense situation.
The source said: “The US commander was very concerned about his vessel and our officer was worried about sparking an international incident, a wrong decision could end your career in a situation like this and spark confrontation.
“The US has very strict protocols about vessels getting close to their nuclear submarines, in a very nononsense manner he made it clear he wanted things sorted or he would resolve the incident, and all he could do was ram the boat.
“It was a very tense situation. The Spanish had not responded to our transmissions on the emergency channel to steer away and the US commander was not prepared to wait any longer.
“He made it very clear in his radio transmission that he wanted our people to act, or he would sort the situation out himself and, while he remained polite, he was very direct in conveying the message that he wasn’t prepared to allow the Spanish vessel to continue harassing his boat.
“If our patrol boat had not fired flares, there is no question from the report that he would have rammed the Spanish vessel.”
Incredibly, Spanish authorities failed to heed the lesson. Later another Spanish boat belonging to the Garda Civil also harassed the submarine, this time in British waters.
No flares were fired on this occasion.
Last night Admiral Lord West, former First Sea Lord, said: “Nuclear submarines are very unmanoeuvrable when they are on the surface, and it is very stupid for the Spanish vessel to go in close like that. The Spanish clearly resent the Americans using Gibraltar, but this is not the way for a fellow EU and Nato member to behave.”