Independent Scotland must be on its guard with armed forces issue

Defence may not be Alex Salmond's strong suit, but he and his party must address the issue of how the country's armed forces would operate in an independent Scotland. Picture: Getty
Defence may not be Alex Salmond's strong suit, but he and his party must address the issue of how the country's armed forces would operate in an independent Scotland. Picture: Getty
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THERE is, says Stuart Crawford, a former army lieutenant colonel and SNP parliamentary candidate, something just a little rose-tinted about the way his colleagues deal with the issue of defending an independent Scottish realm.

Policy dictates that, come independence, Scotland will boot out the nuclear-armed submarines based at Faslane, on the Clyde, which, for years, have been such a source of anger and resentment for many, Nationalist or not. “The picture they like to paint is that we get independence on Friday and on Saturday morning, four subs will sail out of Faslane and off into the distance”, Crawford declares. “Common sense tells you that is just not going to happen.”

Or take the idea that Scotland’s British Army regiments will become the basis for a new Scottish army.

“Has anyone asked the soldiers whether they want to transfer? No-one has and they might well say no,” notes Crawford.

Of course, there could be a distinct and functioning Scottish armed forces in an independent Scotland, he argues. But has the SNP, led by First Minister Alex Salmond done the spade-work in mapping out exactly what it would look like? He adds: “My basic line is that there is a lot of nonsense being spouted on defence by people who don’t know anything about it. I think nothing turns the First Minister off more than defence. It’s just not his bag at all.”

This weekend, the SNP’s attention remains centred on the mechanics of the independence referendum, planned for 2014, with Scottish and UK ministers locked in a wrestling match for control over how that vote takes place.

On Wednesday, Salmond will address a global audience from Edinburgh, when he launches the SNP’s independence consultation, firing the starting gun on the party’s campaign. Again the focus will be the conduct of the referendum. But as people across Scotland wake to the reality of the referendum – and with little time for technical debates about process – more attention is turning to what independence would mean in reality.

First up, the debate is arrowing in on the most fundamental issue to face a newly-born independent country: how will it defend itself?

Salmond last week put flesh on the bones of that vision, arguing that the Scottish regiments would continue to provide security for Scotland after secession. But his opponents smell blood, with veteran Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell claiming the SNP would leave Scotland defended by little more than a “militia”. Appropriately enough, the question of Scotland’s security as an independent nation has been cast in the fog of political war. So what would really happen?

The ball got rolling last Thursday when Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson traded blows over the airwaves. Robertson spelled out that an independent Scotland would not help foot the bill for any relocation of Trident subs – a figure easily running into billions. And, he confirmed, the Scottish army regiments would come under the aegis of the new Scottish defence force. Military personnel in Scottish regiments would get the choice to decide whether they want to serve in the Scottish force, or remaining British force.

Hammond let off both barrels. “The idea that you can sort of break off a little bit [of the British Army], like a square on a chocolate bar and that would be the bit that went north of the Border, is frankly laughable.” Meanwhile, on Trident, he warned that if Scotland forced the rest of the UK to move it at exorbitant cost there would be a financial “reckoning” in negotiations that would follow a “yes” vote.

With Hammond having struck a belligerent tone, it wasn’t long before Salmond weighed in. This was the typical “arrogance” of a Westminster politician, he declared. He then spelled out the SNP’s plans. “The configuration of the army in Scotland, the mobile brigade, which is the outcome of the [UK Government’s] defence review, looks exactly like the configuration you’d want for a Scottish defence force – so that’s one naval base, one aircraft base and a mobile armed brigade.”

The SNP points out that the UK Armed Forces plan to base one of its five new Multi-Role Brigades in Edinburgh makes things far easier as regards a transition from UK to Scottish command, as it is planned that the new 6,500 Brigades will have full logistical back up. Robertson argues: “This is exactly the kind of army capacity that Scotland needs and the transition to Scottish command will be greatly eased.”

The comments sparked claims of hypocrisy on Friday – only months earlier, Salmond had lobbied against the closure of Scottish RAF bases at Leuchars and Kinloss. Now he appeared to be accepting the UK government’s own plans to scale that back to one in Lossiemouth. But the focus of attention is now turning to the implications of the SNP’s proposals effectively to take ownership of the Scottish chunks of the British armed forces.

The SNP vision is one where Scotland and the rest of the UK, while separate, would continue to co-operate. Robertson has previously argued that it would be in both countries’ mutual interest to “share basing, procurement and training facilities” with England. The rest of the UK would, after all, have an interest in ensuring Scotland was well defended, to prevent the British Isles having a weak link. So Scottish soldiers still might find themselves being trained and based alongside English compatriots. The difference would be that Scottish commanders would decide whether or not to deploy them or not on any foreign adventures. Everything would, therefore, carry on the same as before, except that Scottish soldiers could be reassured they would not be going to Iraq again.

Robertson says today that, under his plans, Scotland could match the military strength of its northern European neighbours “including fast jets, ocean going vessels and highly trained personnel”. Faslane would stay as Scotland’s naval port; and the army would be boosted by troops stationed in England “coming home”. He points to estimates showing a Scottish force would cost £2.2 billion “which is a billion less than Scottish taxpayers are contributing right now to defence spending in the UK”.

But all these plans are under heavy artillery barrage this weekend. Dr Phillips O’Brien, director of the Scottish Centre for War Studies at Glasgow University, describes as “impossible” the idea that Scottish regiments would, cut off from the rest of the UK, have any real operational capability. The point is that actual soldiers are just the tip of the iceberg: they need huge logistical and intelligence support behind them – currently provided by the Ministry of Defence. “Where do the logistics come from? You can’t just take one tenth of the logistical support from the UK. You would have to set up a whole new Scottish infrastructure to service that,” he says.

Wouldn’t the UK share that logistical support, to help the Scots, and to ensure that their northern border was well protected? No, he replies – because the SNP proposes to take Scotland out of Nato. “Why would the government of England want to spend any money on Scotland when it is not a member of Nato?”

Of course, Scotland could muscle up and deliver its own logistical and intelligence support for its regiments. But why would it bother, the experts ask, for as a non-Nato state it would be making clear its intention not to project force itself.

“It is unlikely that Scotland would play the role that the UK is trying to play globally. It wouldn’t make much sense to do that. The British military is made as a projection force. It is made to be at the cutting edge of Nato. It is unlikely that Scotland would do that,” O’Brien says.

The squaddies on the ground would twig all this quickly, say others. They would suspect that the Scottish force had basically become a Home Guard and a UN peacekeeping corps, hugely at odds with the UK armed forces. It isn’t what they sign up for, argues Clive Fairweather, a former Colonel with the SAS. “I joined a Scottish regiment as a pimply 17-year-old to get away from Scotland. I still think that applies – it’s about money and adventure. If I had the choice between a Scottish force and a more professional, more strategic force, I think I’d go to England and Wales.”

He believes most soldiers in Scottish regiments, confronted by the same choice in a few years’ time, would do the same. The SNP says it would give Scottish regiment soldiers the choice to remain in the British Army; according to this analysis, many of them would take it.

The basic problem, says Crawford, is that no-one in the SNP has asked the basic question: what do you want a Scottish armed forces to do? Are Scottish troops to be asked to do the same as they do at present? Or is Scotland to become Switzerland? And exactly what threat would the armed forces in Scotland be countering? O’Brien asks: “Who is Scotland’s enemy? It is hard to see anyone for the next 20 years. It would be better just to come out and say we don’t envisage a threat and we just want to look after ourselves.”

His view, therefore, is that an independent Scotland would be well advised to shut Faslane. Its Navy presence need only amount to a few patrol boats in the North Sea to monitor the oil and fishing grounds. And, he says, it would be better off not bothering with an air force at all. “Why would you keep Faslane? It’s a very large and well equipped placed for a nuclear carrying force. What else are they going to do there? I have no idea. I would keep a smaller base and I suspect the best place for it would be on the east coast. I can’t see why you’d have an air force.”

But then, Crawford notes, that would suggest a marked reduction in Scotland’s military footprint – at a time when the SNP is keen to assert that, even as a non-nuclear, non-Nato country, it would maintain defence jobs.

“The SNP wants Trident out and I don’t disagree with that. But they also want to keep the jobs. They can’t have it both ways. Either it is Trident out and we are sorry about the jobs. Or they say the jobs are more important than the ideology.”

That, however, is a statement which the ever-cautious SNP so far looks reluctant to make – at least this side of the referendum. This side of the vote, the party is determined to remain in campaigning mode. In response to criticism about their defence plans on Friday, Robertson instead riposted with figures about the military spending shortfall that currently exists in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. The impression given is that Robertson and Salmond are already thinking ahead to the negotiations which will take place between Scotland and the rest of the UK if people in Scotland do back independence. The UK’s defences have been paid for “in part”, the SNP argues, by Scottish taxpayers. It claims there are military assets worth £5.9bn based in Scotland. And with that shortfall in spending, the SNP will want to ensure it has the strongest set of cards possible ahead of the negotiations as it argues for a good share of those assets – or equivalent value thereof.

And the biggest bargaining tool of all is Faslane. A number of military experts now argue that there is no alternative site in the UK for the subs and the warheads. The latter are based in Coulport, on Loch Long. So would the SNP be so adamant about their removal, given the enormous value the UK might place on an amicable deal to keep them there?

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, research director and director at the Royal United Services Institute, who co-authored a book on Faslane and independence in 2003, said: “The key question for the Scottish Government after a referendum is whether they want to have a close partnership with the rest of the UK or do they want to be more antagonistic? My gut feeling is that given the degree of dependency Scotland would have, they will want a civilised divorce”.

He added: “You can envisage a situation in which they put this issue on hold and say we will negotiate it later and put off the question of timing. That is what has happened in Russia which still has nuclear weapons in Ukraine, in Sebastapol. They pay a lot of money to Ukraine and it is still there 20 years on.” The SNP is tight-lipped on this point. But, intriguingly, its policy papers do note that while it will insist on Trident’s removal, such a withdrawal could be “phased”.

So perhaps opponents of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil may have to wait a few more years after independence before seeing them disappear. It is difficult to tell: it is a truism that a good negotiator never reveals his hand until the right time to do so. Scots hoping for some straight answers on the shape of an independent Scotland may therefore be disappointed. Only two and three-quarter years to go.