Peter Lee: Fighting fit for Scotland

Soldiers from the 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland parade to celebrate their return after deployment in Afghanistan. Picture: Getty
Soldiers from the 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland parade to celebrate their return after deployment in Afghanistan. Picture: Getty
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Should the people vote for independence, the question of our armed forces can be addressed quite simply, by sticking to what Scots do best

FOR three days the suspected Taleban prisoner had sat in stony silence, staring at his British inquisitor and pointedly ignoring the Afghan translator sitting only feet away. The tone of the questions was informal, almost genial, and food had been accepted and eaten.

Finally the bearded, fetid captive leaned forward, unblinking, and spoke in a whisper.

“I will kill you if you stay [in my country].”

The human intelligence officer involved, a Scot as it happens, described it as the moment he realised we couldn’t beat these people. He wanted to leave as much as the prisoner wanted him to go.

That encounter encapsulates the very essence of war and provides the basis of a radical approach to defence in an independent Scotland.

The 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described war as a clash of wills. It is an elegant notion whose simplicity is often overlooked in the heady brew of political grandstanding, a failure to grasp the economic realities ahead and the desire to maintain the military status quo.

In Afghanistan, even if British and American soldiers win every tactical engagement with the enemy, the political battle of wills has already been lost.

Trillions of dollars have been spent on the war in Afghanistan over the past decade, pitching the most powerful armed force the world has ever seen against a tiny rag-tag collection of poorly equipped but highly motivated and creative fighters.

Yet which side is showing the greatest determination to succeed, bearing in mind that Barack Obama and David Cameron have already pre-announced the withdrawal of forces by 2015? Exactly.

Arguments have already started about how existing UK armed forces should be reconfigured in light of any Scottish vote for independence, ranging from the fate of nuclear deterrence to the ownership of the battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland and how many fighter jets should be retained.

But most of this unrealistic talk is still shaped by our historical legacy as part of a former colonial power, our Cold War opposition to the now defunct USSR and the arrogant “West is best” assumption that has fuelled our interference in the affairs of other countries.

It also fails to take into account the very real possibility that as Europe declines economically in relation to other continents we will not enjoy in the future the relative wealth of the recent past.

Current levels of UK defence spending and unfunded procurement liabilities are unsustainable – especially when viewed against the backdrop of crippling sovereign debt, of which Scotland would have to take on its share.

We must accept that there will be much less money available for defence in the future than there is now and that our misguided overseas military misadventures must stop. Most crucially, Scotland should abandon the traditional reliance on a large, so-called full spectrum military capability – independent land, naval and air forces – to repel invaders and prevent occupation. A small, integrated Scotland Defence Force is the affordable way forward.

Consider the following four Scottish defence issues: nuclear deterrence; the navy and protection of maritime resources (oil, gas and fisheries); the future of air power; and the configuration of land forces.

For nuclear weapons to be part of Scotland’s future arsenal Scots need to be willing to say “yes” to the following two questions: Are you prepared to spend tens of billions of pounds on Trident over the coming decades when it could be spent on other pressing social needs? Are there any circumstances where you would be willing to launch nuclear missiles and indiscriminately kill – either instantly or slowly – hundreds of thousands of ordinary people like yourself? If the answer to either or both questions is no, or there is even a slight hesitation, then nuclear weapons should be abandoned: there would be no point having them.

Three of Scotland’s most important natural resources – oil, gas and fisheries – are found at sea and would need to be protected from theft, piracy and vandalism. A small number of patrol ships, augmented by two Special Boat Service squadrons, one regular and one reserve, would fulfil this role.

The accompanying graph shows the rate of decline in UK oil production. As the fields are drained, the security priority would increasingly have to shift to protecting what will become our most valuable resource in the long term: fresh water.

Under the proposed scenario there would be no place for expensive fast jets. Why stop Russian over-flights when satellites can see so much anyway? Aircraft would be limited to a modest helicopter fleet that would support both the army and navy, together with three or four Hercules aircraft to provide a logistics capability.

The most far-reaching proposal, however, concerns the size of any future army and the way it would train and fight. It has already been suggested that an independent Scotland should keep the five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and re-badge them as independent regiments once more.

Unfortunately, this number of soldiers would not be sufficient to repel a threat from a major military power. The adjacent table highlights where Scotland would realistically place in the defence spending league. Membership or partnership with Nato is the most logical choice for mutual protection. However, let us take a worst case scenario and imagine that Scotland was left isolated in the world.

Only two regular battalions would be required, supported by three territorial battalions whose personnel would be drawn from key public and private institutions. All school leavers would be offered incentives to undertake three months of basic military skills training. The army would not train to fend off a large invading force because if a medium-to-large military power wanted to occupy Scotland it probably could – at great cost to us.

Instead, the battalions would develop specialist skills and train to fight unconventionally using the hit-and-run tactics of the current Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan. Such tactics would include the sophisticated use of explosives and complex sniper ambushes, portable anti-aircraft weapons and state-of-the-art electronic jamming to bring down surveillance drones.

All soldiers would be trained to, at the moment of invasion, merge into communities all over Scotland. They would prepare in advance to fight against a superior occupying power from small independent cells using pre-prepared caches of weapons, explosives, communications equipment and other resources. This is not a head-for-the-hills and hope for the best strategy. Instead it would be a carefully planned and resourced long-term insurgency strategy designed to wreak havoc on any power that attempted to occupy Scotland.

History is littered with examples that illustrate Scots’ determination in the face of hostile political intent. From harassing an expansive Roman army, to the exploits of Wallace and Bruce and opposing an unjust poll tax. Apart from the celebrated victories, like the Taleban prisoner I began with, Scots have been willing to endure suffering and the pain of defeat along the way.

In effect Scotland would say to the world, “Come on if you think you are hard enough!” Come and occupy us if you want but if you do we will grind you down and make you pay such a high cost in lives that you will eventually leave. Lest anyone think that such an approach belongs in the realm of fantasy, consider the evidence that has unfolded before our eyes in Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq, over the past decade. Like Afghanistan, Scotland has never been conquered by an invading force and held indefinitely.

If an independent Scotland is to emerge in the future it will not be able to afford to recreate the all-singing, all-dancing military structures of the past.

What the Scots need is courage, imagination, determination, deadly unconventional military skills and a willingness to endure more pain than anyone foolish enough to think that they want our land and resources more than we do.

• Dr Peter Lee is a native of Dunfermline and a lecturer in the ethics of war at King’s College, London. His book, Blair’s Just War: Iraq and the Illusion of Morality, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.