At the SNP conference last weekend, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insisted she was “more certain than ever before” of achieving her dream of Scottish Independence. For now she urged members to focus on “winning the argument” rather than pushing too soon for another vote. Here we look at how Nicola’s ‘dream’ would actually be a nightmare for UK security as a whole. The RN would arguably be the single British institution to suffer most, with both its main submarine base and shipyards under threat.
Theresa May has blocked another referendum for now but her weak and unpopular government and Anglo-Scottish divisions over Brexit, fuel SNP hopes they will get one day get their way. There is limited enthusiasm for another referendum amongst the public in Scotland but opinion on independence remains almost evenly split, exactly the same as the 2014 referendum result, 55 / 45% against. A swing in public opinion of just over 5% is not unimaginable. Should Jeremy Corbyn ever make it into Downing Street, his hard-left, anti-Trident views would conveniently dovetail with those of the SNP. (although the Labour party claims to officially be against independence and pro-Trident). Corbyn’s personal foreign policy instincts are essentially to align with actors who are the adversaries of Britain and the United States. Independence would probably destroy or severely hamper Trident and the nuclear submarine enterprise where US-UK relations are especially close, which would suit the SNP, Corbyn (and Putin).
The nuclear deterrent in peril
Surveys done in 2016 show only 20% of the British public completely oppose Trident, although the figure in Scotland is higher at 38%. Perhaps this is unsurprising as the Scottish public is fed a much stronger diet of SNP propaganda that inflates its costs, exaggerates risks and ignores its benefits. Overall there is still broad public support for the British nuclear weapons and the case for retaining our ultimate insurance policy is strengthening further as the post-Cold War consensus is ebbing away. Scottish independence would see the enforced removal of the Trident nuclear missile submarines from their base at Faslane. Such an upheaval also threatens the 6,700 Royal Navy and civilian workers at Faslane and even if a suitable deep water base could be found in England or Wales, as we examined in a previous article, the Trident submarine replacement program is already at the very limits of what the defence budget can bear. The costs of relocating facilities could well put an end to the UK nuclear deterrent on financial grounds. The loss of Faslane would also require the seven Astute class attack submarines to be re-located to Devonport, together with attendant costs.
If you follow the Glasgow-based UK Defence Journal on social media, you can witness the considerable time they spend correcting misunderstandings and deliberate falsehoods about Trident, shipbuilding on the Clyde and the aircraft carrier project that emerge on a daily basis. In the war of disinformation, the cybernats are entrenched in their position and unwilling to let facts get in the way of their view that London has “cheated” Scotland of its fair share of defence contracts. Not only is this view incorrect, but in their polarised view of the world, no time is given to understand the nuances and complexities of defence issues.
Scotland – the powerhouse of RN warship construction
The SNP website proclaims “Scottish shipyards have been sold down the river by the Tories”. It is true that the Tories have underfunded the navy and we are not building enough warships overall, but the idea that Scotland is not getting its fair share of the work is absurd. English yards have been allowed to close while, apart from submarines, all new UK warship construction is now done north of the border. Although the number has been reduced from the planned 13 ships, the BAES Clyde shipyard is in possession of the richest warship contract in Europe, building the 8 Type 26 frigates. The deliberately slow pace of Type 26 construction guarantees work for the highly skilled Clyde workforce for the next two decades, very few shipyards in the world have this kind of certainty.
The Clyde and Rosyth have had the lion’s share of work involved in the construction of the QEC aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built for the RN. The QEC project is an extraordinary example of engineering from across all parts of the UK, supporting 4,000 Scottish workers. Despite this, the Scottish Government has almost entirely ignored this British success as it does not fit with their grievance narrative. Should Babcock win the Type 31e Frigate competition, there will be further work for Rosyth and Ferguson Marine on the Clyde. The SNP is right to challenge the government on its flawed policy to allow foreign yards to compete to construct the Fleet Solid Support Ship. A UK-only competition could offer the prospect of more work for Rosyth.
In the event of independence, the RN would find its primary shipbuilder is now in a foreign country. Britain has never built its warships abroad both for security and economic reasons. Whether the Treasury would allow billions of Pounds to be spent on the Type 26 in ‘foreign’ yards is very doubtful. Chaos and uncertainty would ensue over how and where the RN would build its warships, potentially severely decimating the frigate programme. Enormous expense and upheaval would be involved in re-establishing English construction facilities. There would be inevitable job losses in Glasgow and Rosyth and the shipbuilding needs of an independent Scotland would be negligible in comparison to those of the Union.
Defending Scottish waters
The SNP does at least recognise the importance of the maritime domain to the UK, Scotland alone has a longer coastline than China. They are rightly critical of Westminster’s failure to invest in maritime forces, in particular, the axing of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and the lack of patrol vessels. Unfortunately, their position is undermined by the fact a newly independent Scotland would face financial problems and even if the SNP had the political appetite, it would be unlikely to increase defence spending above the 2% of GDP it currently enjoys. The SNP claim axing Trident is a big part of the answer to making its public spending plans work. The average annual cost of Trident is around £2Bn per year, releasing Scotland’s £200m ‘share’ would not make a big difference to their public finances as a whole. It would also take around a decade and cost around £10Bn to decommission Britain’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.
The SNP frequently complains that “no major warships are based in Scotland”. It is true the frigates and destroyers are based in Portsmouth and Devonport but the lack of numbers already leaves the English bases arguing over their share of the shrinking fleet. In an ideal world where the RN had sufficient escort numbers, some would be based in Scotland but in the current financial climate, another frigate base cannot be justified. The support infrastructure for each class of ship would have to be duplicated and it also would complicate manning issues. Escorts have not been based in Scotland (Rosyth) since the late 1980s but surface ships now maintain a frequent presence in Scottish waters. For example, at the time of writing HMS Westminster has been operating from Faslane as the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) around Scotland and in Arctic waters for several weeks while HMS Diamond was patrolling in the North Sea and visited Invergordon last week.
Overall armed forces personnel numbers have declined in Scotland but this is just a reflection of the national picture, just ask the people living in the Plymouth area about the shrinking defence estate. Despite the threat of independence, considerable investment continues at Faslane which will shortly become the RN’s sole submarine base. Further investment and new jobs are being created at RAF Lossiemouth to support the new P-8As. £10M has been spent on recommissioning the Remote Radar Head at Saxa Vord in the Shetlands to improve coverage of the airspace over the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. A resurgent Russian navy has seen a renewed focus on naval operations in the North Atlantic, GIUK gap and the Arctic which increases Scotland’s strategic importance for NATO.
The ‘Scottish Navy’
According to defence policy formulated before the 2014 referendum, the ‘Scottish Navy’ will consist of two frigates, four mine countermeasures vessels and a ‘command platform’ all taken from the Royal Navy. There is also vague talk of talk of constructing OPVs and auxiliary support ships ‘shared with the UK’. The new navy is supposed to number about 2,000 personnel, initially to be drawn from Scots already serving in the RN. This assumes that Scots serving in the RN will be allowed to transfer when required by Scotland and that they would actually want to leave one of the world’s foremost navies to serve in this baby navy. As a hasty paper exercise it is easy to create a navy based on what the SNP considers to be its share of RN assets. Whether this division should be done on the basis of GDP, head of population or even length of coastline is another discussion, but the devil is in the detail. Taking a couple of frigates and basing them in Scotland may sound simple, but like most defence assets they require a complex logistics and support tail. Ammunition and spares are managed by a UK-wide system run by the MoD and a sophisticated training pipeline is needed to produce competent crews, not something that can be replicated easily.
Taking a global view
The Royal Navy is a globally-deployed force reaching overseas to support the wider interests of the UK. The SNP’s vision of defence appears to be rather more parochial, although it vainly hopes to have some wider relevance through NATO. Perhaps understandably turned off by Britain’s problems in recent overseas interventions, they see defence as something that can be done purely in their own backyard. This is a failure to recognise an independent Scotland would still be as reliant on global maritime trade as the UK. Unable to project power overseas they would simply be passing the burden of protection on to navies of other nations or hoping for the best.
As well as making dubious assumptions that an independent Scotland could remain in the EU, the SNP also expects to be able to join NATO. After adopting an aggressive anti-nuclear stance and having just paralysed the nuclear forces of a founding NATO nation, whether Scotland would be welcomed to join the alliance is doubtful. In reality, both Scottish and UK security would be weakened by independence, most significantly because whether Scots recognise or approve of it or not, the nuclear deterrent that protects us would be gone. Taking other assets from an already over-stretched RN to build a Scottish waters fleet will simply undermine the ability to support the wider interests of both countries. For example, it may be useful and symbolic to have a few more minehunters in Scottish waters for contingencies, the truth is that the threat of mines in the Persian Gulf is a much more immediate threat to Scottish economic interests.
It is obvious Scotland would be heavily reliant on London’s co-operation for its defence forces to have any credibility, at least for the first decade post-independence. In the meantime they would need to be making considerable investments in duplicating support infrastructure just to field this small force.
Separation would weaken both nations, undermine global credibility while duplicating costs to both country’s taxpayers. For the RN breaking up the Union would be disastrous from both an operational and support perspective, further weakening an over-stretched service. Historically many Scotsmen have served with distinction in the British armed forces. Their engineering and shipbuilding prowess was at the heart of naval power and this still holds true today, albeit on a lesser scale. Scotland already rightly has a great deal of independence over its domestic affairs but we are stronger and safer together, both economically and strategically. Those in Westminster also need to work harder to demonstrate that Scottish interests are best served by remaining in the Union, greater investment in RN would certainly help this cause.
- Sturgeon starts new route to Scottish independence after setbacks (Reuters)
- Royal Navy Faced With Tough Sub Choices If Scotland Leaves UK (USNI, 2014)
- SNP defence policy to close ‘open door’ to Russia (The Scotsman)
- Scotland’s future – post-independence policies (Scottish Government, 2013)