ALEX Salmond has set out his vision for an independent Scottish defence force, saying it would consist of the same number of army, RAF and navy personnel as under plans being drawn up by UK ministers.
In the first detailed statement on the shape of the nation’s defences if Scots back independence, the First Minister said the coalition government’s defence review plan of one naval base, one air base and one mobile armed brigade was “exactly the configuration” required for Scotland.
Such a set-up would total about 15,400 troops, an armed force of an equivalent size to that of Kuwait.
The defence review set out by the coalition government last year proposed about 6,500 troops being stationed in Scotland, with a further 6,500 employed at the Trident submarine base in Faslane and 2,400 personnel at RAF Kinloss.
The three Scottish regiments – the Scots Guards, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards – would make up the core of any Scottish army, the SNP added.
But the proposals sparked a fresh political row last night, as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond described the plans to “break off a little bit” of the UK armed forces and hand it to Scotland as “laughable”.
And Mr Salmond – who campaigned against the closure of RAF bases proposed by the UK government – was accused of “complete hypocrisy” by Labour, which said he was “signing up to Tory cuts” on defence.
The SNP and UK governments also embarked on a fresh row over the future of Faslane’s Trident submarines and warheads, as Mr Hammond warned the SNP that Scotland could face a multi-billion-pound “reckoning” over their relocation if it insisted they be removed from Scottish waters.
Mr Salmond’s comments come after former defence secretary Liam Fox laid out a bitterly contested strategic defence review last year, in a bid to cut defence costs across the UK.
The First Minister said: “The configuration of the army in Scotland, the mobile brigade, which is the outcome of the 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.”
He added: “The great argument in favour of having a Scottish Defence Force is two-fold. One, you wouldn’t have to have the biggest concentration of nuclear weapons in western Europe situated in Scotland, which many people support the removal, and secondly of course, we’d have the right to decide whether or not to participate in international engagements.”
Last year, Mr Salmond insisted he was standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the RAF bases in Fife and Moray as they campaigned against the cutbacks. Those cuts will see both RAF Kinloss and RAF Leuchars being turned into bases for the army.
Dunfermline and West Fife Labour MP Thomas Docherty, a member of the defence select committee, said: “This is complete hypocrisy from the SNP. They are signed up to the closure of Leuchars and Lossiemouth despite campaigning against them.” He added: “After years of telling us Scotland has a defence under-spend they are signed up to the Tory cuts and keeping them in an independent Scotland.”
Mr Hammond argued that the SNP plans to adopt the UK forces based in Scotland was unfeasible. He said: “The UK armed forces are a highly integrated and very sophisticated fighting force. The idea that you can sort of break off a little bit, like a square on a chocolate bar and that would be the bit that went north of the Border, is frankly laughable.”
He also gave a stark warning about the SNP’s call to remove Trident from the Clyde after independence.
He said: “It would be an enormous exercise to rebuild the facilities that are at Faslane. It would cost billions of pounds and it would take many years. And, obviously, the cost of doing that would be a factor that had to be taken into account in any reckoning on Scottish independence, if that is the way it goes.”
Mr Salmond responded: “Only somebody with the arrogance of a Westminster politician would say to the Scottish people, apparently in all sobriety, that you’d place and station weapons of mass destruction in Scotland over a period of half a century, impose substantial clean-up costs and then try to send Scotland the bill. I don’t think that’s a feasible position.”
The SNP’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, said that an independent Scotland would not pay any relocation costs for Faslane. He declared: “Why should we? If London really cared so much about nuclear weapons systems perhaps they would have considered public opinion in Scotland decades ago. They didn’t and now they are asking themselves what are they going to do with it.”
However, Mr Robertson also acknowledged that the military opinions for relocating Trident were limited. “They might find it difficult to find locations in England, but perhaps they should have thought about that before foisting it on the people of Scotland years ago,” he said.
The spat highlights warnings voiced by military experts across the UK that a Scottish decision to remove Trident could trigger a bitter diplomatic spat as independence negotiations began.
William Walker, professor of international relations at St Andrews University, warned earlier this month it would be “implausible” to move the submarines anywhere else, ensuring that an eviction from Scotland would “amount to a promise to shut down the UK’s nuclear deterrent and enforce its disarmament”.
Such a demand would, therefore, “discourage London’s co-operation on issues that would be immediately vital to Scotland’s establishment as a viable state, including the national debt, pensions and North Sea oil, and support for Scotland’s membership of the United Nations, European Union and other international organisations” he added.
The UK government is committed to renewing Britain’s four Trident submarines, at a cost of upwards of £25 billion, arguing it needs to keep its nuclear presence on the world stage.
Former SNP leader Jim Sillars triggered fury within the Nationalist movement two years ago when he suggested the SNP should scrap its call for the deterrent to be removed in order to smooth negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
However, Mr Salmond said earlier this week that “an independent Scotland will not have nuclear weapons, and after we become independent Trident weapons of mass destruction will no longer be based in Scottish waters.”