DEFENCE ministers have admitted the UK has been forced to pull out of key Nato naval defence groups in a sign of just how stretched the Royal Navy has become.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has acknowledged it has not provided a frigate or destroyer for Nato’s maritime group defending the North and East Atlantic since 2009.
Written answers also reveal the Royal Navy stopped providing either of the ships for Nato’s second standing maritime group in the Mediterranean since 2010.
And they show that having previously supported three of four minesweeper groups, it now provides just one minesweeper.
The revelations come just days after First Minister Alex Salmond was accused of talking down the navy, for arguing that its priorities are wrong.
In his speech last week, Mr Salmond said: “At present, what we have, we don’t need. And what we need, we don’t have.
“The navy does not have a single major surface vessel based in Scotland. It is absurd for a nation with a coastline longer than India’s to have no major surface vessels.”
The SNP said the MoD’s written answers showed the First Minister’s comments were justified and described the revelations as “shocking”.
Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman, said: “These answers are truly shocking. The fact the Royal Navy has not provided a single vessel to the Nato maritime group responsible for the East Atlantic since 2009 is beyond belief.
“This lays bare the over-stretch of the Royal Navy and the past UK government’s over-riding concerns about projecting power instead of being good neighbourhood Nato partners.
“We expect that an independent Scotland in Nato would participate the same way our close friends do.”
Speaking about the groups, Nato Allied Maritime Command’s deputy commander, French Vice-Admiral Christian Canova, recently said: “They are not just a symbol but a real force doing real operations. Standing naval forces are the cornerstone of Nato’s maritime strategy, demonstrating the will and presence of the alliance”.
But the MoD said the changes to the UK’s commitment were agreed as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review three years ago.
A spokesman last night said: “The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review removed the Royal Navy’s requirement to provide a standing contribution to the standing Nato maritime group 1.
“But, as already stated, the Royal Navy maintains a strong relationship with Nato through the Nato maritime headquarters, based in the UK, which is permanently commanded by a Royal Navy vice-admiral.”
A senior source close to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the SNP was “not being straight” with voters and under the party’s plans Scotland would only have a small navy.
The source said: “The SNP seem to forget under their plans they would only be able to afford 1.6 destroyers or frigates, half an Astute submarine and one sixth of an aircraft carrier.
“The Scottish Government’s defence budget wouldn’t allow Scotland to mount maritime tasks in the Atlantic as well as protect Scottish interests overseas. They still lack a credible defence plan.”
Scotland would need ‘shelter’ from stronger allies in any conflict with Russia, warn academics
An independent Scotland would be “at a deep strategic disadvantage” to Russia in the conflict that is expected to emerge from climate change, according to Icelandic academics.
Scotland would need “shelter” from stronger allies, which will “incur costs different from, and not necessarily lesser than” those of contributing to UK defence, legal and political experts from the universities of Iceland and Akureyri have advised.
But small Nordic states have been living with similar risks for decades while independence would allow Scotland to pursue new tactical alliances more suited to its national interests, they argue in the Icelandic Review of Politics and Administration.
Alex Salmond last week set out his vision for defence in an independent Scotland, which he said would take account of its size and future responsibilities as climate change opens up new shipping lanes and energy sources.
The academics said: “Like all Nordic states, Scotland would be at a deep strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis the main potentially problematic actor in the region, namely Russia.
“It would have less than a 12th of the population of, and far less military strength than, its nearest neighbour - the remaining UK (rUK).
“It would also be more exposed, geopolitically, than rUK to the wider Arctic zone which is expected to witness rapid development and turbulence – if not actual conflict – because of climate change.” The added small states are “disproportionately vulnerable” to external threats.