UK's Armed Forces are knitted into the very fabric of Scotland – Alister Jack MP
We saw dramatic evidence of that again as over 130 service personnel deployed to help communities hammered by Storm Arwen.
Within hours of Grampian Local Resilience Partnership seeking help, men and women from the military were out in the snow checking on people in remote homes.
It’s the latest example of Military Assistance to Civil Authorities (Maca). Throughout the pandemic, the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have built medical facilities, run test centres, administered life-saving vaccines and helped the ambulance service.
So extensive are Scotland’s martial connections that most of us know someone who’s in uniform or has served ‘with the colours’. And most of us also know someone who works in the wider defence industry, a crucial part of Scotland’s economic landscape with an estimated 12,700 people directly employed.
While once an army marched on its stomach, modern militaries rely on a hinterland of civilian businesses for the essential equipment to keep us safe.
National security remains the core function of our armed forces and while the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are now behind us, threats abound.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia flexes its military muscles with alarming frequency; China’s intentions, with its vast and increasingly sophisticated forces, are unclear; North Korea remains a loose cannon; Iran’s nuclear ambitions concern not just those in its immediate geographical sphere.
In short, ours is an uncertain world and Scotland is in the front line.
At RAF Lossiemouth, I met pilots who are the cutting edge of our Quick Reaction Force. They frequently scramble their Typhoon fighters as Russian aircraft streak towards our airspace.
They are often venerable but potent bombers codenamed ‘Bear’, and sometimes Tupolev 160s. These are charmingly known as ‘White Swans’ – but they are supersonic aircraft designed to deliver nuclear devastation.
Their cat-and-mouse game on the edge of British airspace is to demonstrate that the Russian war machine is in fine fettle. They are also probing Nato’s defences, checking we’re capable of responding swiftly.
I also sat in the cockpit of a Poseidon MRA1 aircraft – on the ground and not in its usual environment, scant hundreds of feet over stormy waters at night.
It’s based on the Boeing 737, the workhorse jetliner that whisks us to and from the Costas. Forget in-flight drinks on the Poseidon, though. It bristles with classified electronic wizardry designed to locate Russian submarines lurking off our West Coast, eavesdropping on Royal Navy submarines as they transit from Faslane.
And Faslane is where it is for key strategic reasons. It’s one of the few places on the UK coast with tidal conditions which allow submarines to come and go as they please; where sheltered waters open rapidly to the depths that are the natural hunting ground of our ‘Silent Service’.
Our skies and seas are the backdrop for military activity by dint of our location, but we must not lose sight of the defence footprint away from the roar of jet engines and the quiet menace of dark waters.
Thousands who flocked to COP26, the huge United Nations’ climate change event, would have seen the frigate HMS Glasgow taking shape just over the Clyde. And across the country, military facilities are major boosts to the lifeblood of the communities with which they are intertwined.
The forces love a roll call and the Scottish headcount is impressive. The Ministry of Defence directly employs around 4,000 civilian staff here and UK Defence spent over £2 billion with Scottish firms in 2019/20. Defence procurement expenditure is put at the equivalent of £380 per person in Scotland. That’s a lot of fiscal firepower translating into top-tier jobs.
Moving the spotlight to Army bases, the Future Soldier programme provides more good news. A £335 million investment in the Army’s Scots estate is expected to unleash £1bn in wider economic benefit.
The British Army overall will stand at 100,000 personnel by 2025, 73,000 of them regulars, and the proportion based in Scotland is growing.
Fort George, steeped in history though it is, is not popular as its accommodation is ill-suited to modern tastes. Infantry from 3 Scots, better known as the Black Watch, will bid farewell by 2029 and instead make Leuchars in Fife their home. Kinloss too gets a boost with extra troops and Glencorse, near Penicuik, is being retained.
Faslane is expanding as more Navy personnel arrive and Lossiemouth will see its ranks rise by around 500 in preparation for the arrival of the E-7 Wedgetail, the RAF’s new early warning and control aircraft.
And we are not done yet. The National Shipbuilding Strategy refresh is expected before year’s end and I am confident it will build on Scotland’s remarkable warship success.
Over the last 15 years, Scotland has ruled the waves, delivering six Type 45 destroyers, two aircraft carriers, five offshore patrol vessels, and it already has orders for eight Type 26 frigates from BAE Systems at Govan and five Type 31s from Babcock’s just-completed Frigate Hall at Rosyth.
Today, change is accelerating and our military is evolving at pace. We have cyber soldiers patrolling the battlefield that is the internet; crewless drones scouring for threats; and UK Space Command guarding the heavens above.
The Army will soon deploy Boxer, a new mechanised infantry vehicle – think of it as a battle taxi. Troops within will be protected by threat detection systems made in Glasgow. The next generation of Royal Navy submarines will sense the world via high-tech periscopes called optronic masts, also made in Scotland.
Times change, but the military continues to benefit from being knitted into the very fabric of Scotland.
Scots serve in every branch of Britain’s armed services and the country provides not only safe haven, but unstinting practical support.
Alister Jack is the Conservative MP for Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Secretary
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