Scottish independence defence plan ‘falling short’

The committee criticised UK ministers for failing to draw up contingency defence plans. Picture: PA
The committee criticised UK ministers for failing to draw up contingency defence plans. Picture: PA
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A POWERFUL committee of MPs has strongly criticised both the Scottish and UK governments over their failure to prepare adequate defence plans in the event of independence.

A report by the defence select committee published today warns of a lack of detail in the Scottish Government’s proposals and questions how an independent Scotland would deliver viable armed forces within its stated £2.5 billion budget.

MPs also raise doubts about the time-scale for removing Trident from an independent Scotland, and warn of the impact on the defence industry north of the Border.

The committee criticises UK ministers for failing to draw up contingency defence plans for independence. It follows an investigation into the Scottish Government’s proposals for a defence force, assuming a Yes vote in the referendum next September.

MPs urged governments in London and Edinburgh to set out more information to help voters understand the implications. They said that the level of detail offered by the SNP on defence for an independent Scotland “falls far short of requirements”.

The committee said there remain “many unanswered questions” and set out 18 points which it said the Scottish Government needs to answer in its white paper planned for later this year.

The report states: “We recognise that the process of negotiation following a Yes vote would be lengthy and complex. For those very reasons, it would be remiss of the UK government not to make preparations in order to inform its negotiating position.

“We recommend that the UK government begin now to prepare for the impact of possible Scottish independence. It would not be wise to begin contingency planning only after the referendum.

“This does not imply that we believe there should be negotiations with the Scottish Government prior to the referendum, but rather that it would be prudent for the MoD to scenario-plan.”

People across Britain deserve to be presented with as full a picture as possible, the report concludes. “To date, the information published by both the Scottish Government and UK Government falls far short of requirements,” it states.

MPs looked at the SNP’s blueprint for an independent army, navy and air force over the course of a year.

The report found that the proposed £2.5bn budget cannot be properly judged at this point. It calls for more detail on the navy and raises a number of questions about the size and scope of a Scottish army, including costs, troop numbers and base locations.

On plans for an air force, the report states: “We do not currently understand how the Scottish Government expects, within the available budget, to mount a credible air defence – let alone provide the additional transport, rotary wing and other support aircraft an air force would need.”

Transition of the Trident nuclear deterrent on the Clyde could not be achieved quickly, it finds.

But the Scottish Government has made the removal of nuclear weapons a key part of its independence plan.

“Even with political will on both sides, the replication of the facilities at Faslane and, crucially, Coulport (Argyll), at another site in the UK would take several years and many billions of pounds to deliver,” the report states.

MPs also considered jobs and the shipbuilding industry, concluding that the scale of the defence force would “barely provide enough work for a single yard”.

Overall, the defence industry would face a difficult future, according to the report.

Tory committee chairman James Arbuthnot said: “Crucially, we are not making recommendations to the Scottish people – the decision on independence is a matter for them. But we do think that Scottish voters need to see answers to the questions that we are asking the Scottish Government to provide in their upcoming white paper.

“It will be for the Scottish Government to make its case that an independent Scotland can sustain an appropriate level of defence and security.”

The committee also warned that while the SNP accepted Scotland would have to reapply for Nato membership, the process would be “long and complicated”.

On Nato membership, the report also warned that a decision to ban Trident from the Clyde could make reapplication more difficult.

Scottish Government veterans minister Keith Brown said UK defence policy did not work for Scotland.

“For example, our geographical position and wealth of offshore and other natural assets make it a priority for Scotland to secure and monitor an extensive maritime environment,” he said.

“And yet, under the current arrangements, there is not a single major Royal Navy surface vessel based in Scotland and the RAF has no maritime patrol aircraft since the scrapping of the Nimrod fleet.”

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, Labour MP for East Renfrewshire, said the SNP plan would leave Scotland unable to adequately defend its interests. “Experts continue to line up to expose the flaws in the SNP’s plans,” he said.

“Industrial job losses, capability gaps, funding black holes and shrunken forces would all be the defining features of a SNP Scottish defence force.”

Lib Dem Scotland Secretary Michael Moore said the report underlined how the Scottish Government had failed to explain the detail of how defence would work in an independent Scotland. “Their white paper must address this and the committee’s questions in detail, showing people exactly what separate Scottish forces would look like,” he said.

Minister for international security and strategy, Dr Andrew Murrison, said: “The Scottish Government has failed to say how it would manage armed forces on a shoestring budget. The cuts implicit in what it is apparently planning would harm employment, industry, the armed forces and the safety and security of the Scottish people.”

Analysis by Tim Ripley: ‘Much of the froth about post-independence defence has been just that’

As the sparks fly today over the Commons committee’s report, on closer reading it is now clear both sides in the debate have questions to answer.

From many of the headlines it would seem the Defence Implications of Possible Scottish Independence report is just another piece of SNP bashing. However, the report from James Arbuthnot’s committee takes some tough swings at the London political establishment as well.

The report is pretty hard on the SNP’s proposals for a future Scottish defence force, questioning the financial basis of these plans, nuclear decommissioning issues and whether an independent Scotland will be allowed to join the Nato alliance.

SNP plans to transfer Scottish personnel from the British military to the new country’s armed forces and how to divide up the defence real estate and assets between London and Edinburgh, also come in for fire from the committee.

It accuses the SNP of not giving enough detail of its plans and leaving too much to chance in future negotiations over the division of UK defence assets.

Arbuthnot and his committee make it clear that “it takes two to tango” and a lot of the uncertainty over defence in an independent Scotland is due to stonewalling by the London government.

The rows over the costs of moving the Trident submarine base at Faslane is a case in point, because the MoD is being prevented by the coalition government from making contingency plans for the base’s re-location.

According to the committee, if this planning began now the true cost and logistic issues involved could be identified and then if the base had to move the process could be completed far more quickly and cheaply.

The “loss” of Scotland would also require the rump of the UK to significantly re-assess its defence policy and military spending plans, says the committee. It will clearly not be business as usual for defence south of the Border if Scotland opts for independence.

So while the SNP’s defence policy might have weaknesses, the coalition government is clearly keeping vital information about the future of Scotland’s defence under wraps to avoid giving any advantage to their political opponents.

It is a pretty unedifying exercise that does the coalition government no favours, making it difficult for voters to judge the issues for themselves.

Defence has emerged as a key element in the independence debate so it is no surprise that some people are trying to manipulate it to their advantage to win votes.

Mr Arbuthot has done the independence debate a service with his report, revealing that the much of the froth about post-independence Scottish defence has been just that.

Taking forward sensible discussions about the future of Scotland’s defence will be difficult in this environment.

• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst and commentator.


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