For the last twenty-five years or so I have been writing and speaking about defence matters in Scotland. Whilst still a serving army officer my interest was initially sparked by the question of how an independent Scotland (iScotland) might go about organising its own armed forces on leaving the UK. The question always was, however, how could it do so, not that it should do so. My thinking was very much that if it’s going to happen then it needs to be done properly and was more of an academic exercise than anything else.
The culmination of all this came in October 2012, when the Royal Inited Services Institute (RUSI) was kind enough to publish my study A’ The Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland as one of its papers. In writing it I was assisted by Scotland-based economist Richard Marsh, who costed the proposals contained therein. The paper is still available to download from the RUSI website.
Up until that point, most discussions around the topic approached it on the basis of defining a hypothetical defence budget, usually based on a percentage of GDP, and then deciding what could be afforded. This cack-handed approach, much used by politicians and others who have little knowledge of military matters, is no way to design armed forces. We took the reverse approach, and examined what would be required in terms of manpower and equipment and then worked out what it might cost.
This all took place over ten years ago, and yet it is still, to my knowledge, the only properly costed model of what an independent Scotland’s armed forces might look like. Since then Richard and I have modified our findings and recommendations in the light of advances in technology and tactics, but the methodology employed in the original report remains pretty solid I think.
To précis our ideas I would stress the following:
- An iScotland could not hope to adopt a “full spectrum military capability” or mini-UK posture in defence terms. It would be unaffordable and unsustainable. Accordingly, it would have to specialise and rely on allies and coalition parties to fill the capability gaps.
- iScotland armed forces would have to eschew high-end weaponry like aircraft carriers, submarines, fast jets, attack helicopters, main battle tanks, and various other equipments. It might be able, though, to negotiate a larger “share” of UK military equipment that would be useful to it in any independence negotiations that might take place.
- Scotland hosts three military facilities that are of the utmost importance militarily to the rest of the UK (rUK); the naval shipyards on the Clyde and at Rosyth, RAF Lossiemouth, and His Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde (HMNB Clyde), the latter colloquially known as Faslane.
- Naval shipbuilding in Scotland depends almost entirely on orders from the Royal Navy (although currently there is an order on the books for one ship for Ukraine). Orders from an iScotland navy would not be sufficient to sustain these shipyards in work.
- RAF Lossiemouth is now the only operational fast jet airfield in Scotland and is home to four squadrons of Typhoon FGR4 fighter squadrons. It is also home to the UK’s Poseidon MRA1 fleet, in the maritime patrol role, and will be the base of the RAF’s new fleet of three Boeing Wedgetail AEW1 airborne early warning and control aircraft, with deliveries commencing in 2023. More significantly, it also supports the US and Norwegian Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft as required, making it in effect a de facto NATO base.
- Faslane is the most important military establishment in Scotland, if not in the whole of the UK. It hosts the RN’s nuclear armed SSBN fleet – the independent deterrent – and soon the whole of the RN’s submarine fleet, plus assorted other vessels.
The major lesson to take away here is, I think, that the relationship between Scotland and the rUK in defence terms is one of interdependence. An iScotland would not have the means, expertise, or wherewithal to design and administer a credible defence policy of its own without outside help. The best that could be hoped for, in the first decades of independence at least, would be some sort of “armed neutrality” along the lines of that espoused by Ireland.
At the same time, Scotland leaving the UK would have a significant impact on the UK’s defence posture. Cover of the “High North” is facilitated from RAF Lossiemouth in concert with NATO Allies, and loss of access to the air base would be a blow. I addition, the RN would have to reorientate its naval ship procurement to south of the Border, which although probably feasible in the medium to long term would not be without its problems.
However, what to do about Faslane and its neighbouring armament depot at Coulport is a problem of a completely different dimension. It is likely that an iScotland would not wish to retain the rUK’s nuclear deterrent within its territory, but there is nowhere else in the UK where it can be based in the short to medium term.
The simplest solution to this is for an iScotland to lease Faslane to the rUK for a period of time, say twenty years or so, whilst a new base is established elsewhere. When I first mooted this some years back there were howls of protests from nationalists, but now they seem to be more comfortable with the idea, not least perhaps on account of the revenue that any such arrangement might bring.
All that being said, there is little doubt that Scottish independence would not be a good thing for UK defence, nor would a fledgling Scottish independent state be as secure, initially at least, as it is within the UK. However, with the prospect of a second independence referendum increasingly unlikely this is perhaps a topic that will not need to be addressed in a serious fashion for some time to come.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now