George Kerevan: Defence attack was flight of fancy

Scotland could lease the highly regarded JAS-39 Gripen. Picture: EPA
Scotland could lease the highly regarded JAS-39 Gripen. Picture: EPA
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THE knowledge of the expert used at Commons ‘inquiry’ into a separate Scotland’s capability was questionable, writes George Kerevan

THE British army is being cut by a fifth to pay for two giant aircraft carriers with no aircraft. We are also reducing the RAF to its smallest size since the Great War but buying a replacement for Trident, presumably to let British politicians posture on the global diplomatic stage (unless we plan to nuke Buenos Aires).

In Scotland, defence cuts mean we will be reduced to one naval base (for atomic subs), one military airfield (but no maritime reconnaissance planes to protect our oil fields and fisheries), and fewer troops stationed locally than has the Slovenia army.

Despite this cull of UK defence capability, and its virtual withdrawal to a perimeter around London, this week saw Tory and Labour MPs spend time on an “inquiry” into the security implications of Scottish independence. That might be useful if they were looking at how the two nations could cooperate on defence. Instead, it turned out to be thinly veiled platform for attacking independence.

Leading the charge was one of the academics giving evidence to the Commons defence committee, Professor Malcolm Chalmers. He is a former political adviser to Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett, and turns up on panels at various “progressive” seminars.

Professor Chalmers maintains that an independent Scotland could not afford to defend itself properly. Further, he thinks that any crude carve up of existing UK military resources after independence would leave Scotland with huge gaps in its security aparatus that could take decades to fill. Conclusion: independence would leave Scotland vulnerable and de-stabilise security south of the Border.

Norway and Denmark, which are equivalent to Scotland in population and security needs, spend about 1.4 per cent of their GDP on defence, the Nato average outside the UK and France. According to Chalmers, if Scotland spent a similar 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence, that would equal £2 billion per annum. But the Norwegian defence budget is over £4bn and the Danish almost £3bn, because their economies are bigger. Chalmers concludes: “An allocation of this size would leave Scotland with one of the lowest defence budgets in NATO Europe.”

One immediate problem would be that independent Scotland could not afford an air defence system to fend off a 9/11-style attack. According to Chalmers: “A single F-35C aircraft, currently planned for the UK’s aircraft carriers, will probably leave little change from £100 million, with perhaps twice that amount needed for lifetime running and equipment costs.”

The professor notes that other nations in this situation – such as Luxembourg – rely on allies to base fighters in their territory. Gloomy Chalmers warns: “The UK, however, might have other ideas.”

Professor Chalmers suggests that, without UK fighters, Scotland would have to buy cheap Hawk trainers, or take them from the RAF as part of the independence settlement. Hawks are OK for ceremonial fly-pasts but lack radar to intercept Russian Tupolev Bear maritime bombers probing our air defences.

As a former academic myself, I am not as overawed as the media or Westminster backbenchers by Professor Chalmers’ credentials or his methodology. Academics just adore making the headlines. In fact, Chalmers’ knowledge of air defence economics is questionable and makes me wonder about the quality of advice he gave to the Cabinet Office when he was their consultant for the 2010 Defence Review that scrapped all of Britain’s Nimrod maritime reconnaissance planes.

For a start, you don’t need to buy expensive fighter aircraft, you can lease them like you can lease anything else in the modern world. Plus you can lease them from the manufacturer with a maintenance package which minimises those transition costs that our good professor tells us will be so expensive for Scotland.

Both the Czech Republic and Hungary have entered leasing deals with Saab in Sweden to buy the JAS-39 Gripen, probably the world’s best lightweight multi-role combat plane. And it has intercept radar. Both countries have a package of 14 Gripens, acquired on rolling, ten-year leases, which cost around £0.65 billion, and include training and maintenance by Saab.

That’s £65 million per annum for an air defence and ground attack system. Add a sum for pilots and overheads and you are still within £100 million per annum, or 5 per cent of Professor Chalmers’ suggested £2bn Scottish defence budget. I’m happy to concede my numbers are rough, but they yield an order of magnitude that seriously questions Professor Chalmers’ model.

I see merit in the sovereign nations of the British Isles keeping a common air defence system after Scottish independence, with RAF Typhoons continuing to be based north of the border and Holyrood paying a share of their up-keep. However, I worry that with folk like Professor Chalmers advising, Westminster might not play ball.

That said, one must concede Chalmers’ point that there will be significant transition costs involved in an independent Scotland creating its own defence. But is this a killer argument against independence, as (hint, wink, nudge) we can conclude from Professor Chalmers’ evidence to Parliament?

On the contrary, Chalmers underestimates the likely defence funding available to an independent Scotland, citing only £2bn per annum based on the Nato average. But on a population basis, Scotland’s share of the UK defence budget is over £3bn, because Britain spends well above the Nato average on its military.

Of course, Scotland may decide to cut defence spending. But it would make sense to scale down only after the transition period, giving the lie to Chalmers’ refrain that independent Scotland will have “one of the lowest defence budgets in Nato Europe.”

The argument that a rich country like Scotland cannot defend itself adequately is risible. Worse, it detracts from the debate we should be having. An independent Scotland should join Norway, Denmark and Iceland in Nato, because we have common security needs in the North Atlantic and the Arctic passage.

More important, Scotland needs to focus its defence on protecting its seas and oil wealth, and on domestic anti-terror activities, not the Cold War, Blairite interventionism, or whatever passes for a defence policy in the coalition Cabinet.