Independent Scottish Defense Would Amount to Little

Philip Hammond’s assessment of an independent Scottish defense force is accurate.

A parade of Scottish Royal Marines at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, April 3, 2012
A parade of Scottish Royal Marines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, April 3, 2012 (MOD/Will Haigh)

Britain’s defense secretary, Philip Hammond, made light of Scottish plans for an independent defense on Thursday, arguing in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, “Taking random units and putting them together does not make an army. Half a destroyer would be no use to anyone, neither would be one frigate.” If crude, it is a fair assessment.

The Scots will vote in a referendum next year about whether they wish to secede from Britain. Opinion polls show there isn’t majority support for independence although the separatist Scottish National Party is by far the dominant political force in the region. It promises to commit £2.5 billion per year to defense if Scottish voters decide to break away from the United Kingdom.

Paul Cornish, a professor in strategic studies at the University of Exeter, writes in The Daily Telegraph that that’s significantly less than the £3.3 billion that Scotland currently contributes to British defense spending, totaling some £35 billion — which is hardly enough to finance the country’s defense needs as is.

What could Scotland’s taxpayers get for their money? They are very unlikely to be in the market for large warships, modern combat aircraft and so on, because of the considerable costs — plus, it is difficult to see what contribution two or three frigates, or half a dozen combat aircraft, could usefully make to the security of Scotland’s land mass and interests.

A desire to keep some of the famous Scottish regiments of the British Army in a separate Scottish defense organization has been expressed, although their large numbers of non-Scottish recruits may not be allowed to continue. Which would suit the lower budget requirements.

Seeking a free lunch, Scottish claims could be made for a handful of legacy pieces from the former joint armed forces, perhaps even a large surface ship which Philip Hammond claims is about all Scotland’s contribution to the budget can afford.

Cornish suggests that a fleet of small vessels could be bought and maintained for a “brown water” navy. Some rotary wing and transport aircraft as well as a small gendarmerie or land force, perhaps a few thousand, could be added. That compares to over 200,000 active duty personnel currently in the armed forces.

There’s also the question of buildings, facilities and equipment that a rump British state wouldn’t be likely to simply give away. The vast majority of assets, personnel and institutions would naturally progress into English control should Scotland gain independence, due to the divisions in funding and the areas where they are based.

The River Clyde running through Glasgow holds a sizable portion of Britain’s military shipbuilding, or rather BAE Systems Surface Ships, part of the defense contractor that provides most of British military materiel, does. Whether these will be maintained in an independent Scotland is debatable. Past attempts to regenerate shipyards outside Scotland have not proved wholly successful but the Royal Navy does not, indeed, cannot order its larger warships from foreign yards for security and employment reasons (although supply tankers may soon be built in South Korea and cold weather patrol vessels have been purchased from Norway). There is no reason why this should not continue and production transferred to somewhere south of the border if Scotland secedes.

Nuclear powered vessels will also require new facilities as the deterrent must have a safe port at home suitable to their needs. Currently based at Naval Base Clyde, the Vanguard class submarines and their planned replacements will have to be controlled from some other port which may lead to the refurbishment of disused facilities or even making new ones, as Devonport and Portsmouth, Britain’s two other operating naval bases, are busy and do not enjoy some of the features of the Clyde locale: access to the North Atlantic and deep waterways removed from busy civilian shipping lanes.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and nationalist party leader, is reluctant to embrace the atom maintaining it would be “inconceivable that an independent nation of 5,250,000 people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.” This removes the possibility of the Royal Navy borrowing the Clyde base.

The anti-nuclear line is one towed by the party generally and it would seem the Scottish population at large. The facilities, including the Faslane base nearby, are subject to a permanent “peace camp” of activists. This raises questions as to what may happen to Scotland’s defense in other ways.

Seeking to have NATO membership, Scottish lawmakers will have to accept the nuclear aspects of that body and the potential of hosting American armed forces which may or may not include nuclear assets, depending on how NATO continues to persist as an alliance.

England, forced to pay for the relocation of millions of pounds worth of nuclear related assets and shipbuilding, the loss of Scottish recruits and so on, will probably be disinclined for much positive military diplomacy with Scotland and therefore unlikely to throw many contract bones or enter happily into defense arrangements apart from those Scottish leaders wrangle with NATO.

Moreover, Salmond’s vision that Scotland only use military force when the United Nations permit it and his desire that it be covered by NATO at the same time could flag it as an unreliable security partner before it is even independent.

Yet such arrangements with other states will be necessary for the security of the remainder of Britain. The point in acquiring Scotland in the first place was to remove any threat to England from the north, allowing efforts to be focused elsewhere. Scotland has since served as a shield, housing advanced air and sensor stations that secure the island from air attack (although one wonders who from); stations that will have to be relocated if Scotland votes to become independent, leaving the rest of Britain to depend on the competency of an air force worth less than £2.5 billion.

An arrangement similar to American and Canadian cooperation in defending North American airspace might be found although it would mean basing English personnel in Scotland which the nationalists there seem wary of.

As Britain looks more to cooperation with France in military activities and may find it even more desirable to do so after splintering with Scotland, the old French ally L’Écosse would likely be left out, unable to make any such ties. Not liking American nuclear weapons or English servicemen enough to host any and not offering anything useful for international efforts, Scottish defense diplomacy could end up being equal to possible conflict fighting capabilities — which may be very little indeed.

Given the prospects for Scottish international relations capital, needs, assets and interests, however, that little may be just about right to suit requirements.

Comments

  • What a truly one-sided, doomsday’er article.

    Only concerned by US-Anglo military interests; rather than the interests of the ‘region’ of Scotland.

    YES in 2014: a more progressive, peaceful and democratic future for the Scottish people.

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