Have you ever wondered how the defence and security landscape would look in an independent Scotland and what the priorities might be?
Who better to ask than SNP Defence Spokesman and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee Stewart McDonald MP and Cllr Chris McEleny, a former defence worker and a member of the Scottish Shipbuilding and Aerospace Committee for a number of years.
The purpose of this article is present options for defence and security in an independent Scotland, not argue for or against them. I’m not going to muddy the waters by providing any commentary or opinion and instead, I will simply list the questions I asked and provide the answers I received.
So let’s jump straight into it, I asked them both the following questions.
In basic terms, what kind of structure would be considered for the armed forces of an independent Scotland and why? (for example, would they be focussed on maritime capabilities such as frigates, patrol vessels etc)
Stewart McDonald answered highlighting what he believes should be the focus of an independent Scotland.
“It is most important to understand from the outset that an independent Scotland will be no ‘Little Britain’ – this is as true for the Armed Forces as it is for everything else. An independent Scotland will not simply be a scaled-down version of the United Kingdom. Thankfully, we are surrounded by small states of similar populations which provide a number of tested models for an independent Scotland. We have spent a lot of time since 2014 getting to know these better, along with undertaking a detailed risk assessment that will provide a clear logic flow in support of the optimum solution for Scotland. While I’m not going to give anything away on that front, it seems uncontroversial to say that Scotland is – and will long be – a maritime nation. With a sea area of around 470,00km² and around 60% of current UK waters, Scotland has a longer coastline than France and would have the fourth largest core waters of any European state. It makes sense for our Armed Forces to reflect this and be structured in a way that protects our external borders, our natural assets and our sovereignty.”
Chris McEleny responded in much the same way, outlining the same overall idea and offering examples to further his point.
“The structure of Independent Scottish defence forces should in my opinion mirror the wider policy of a starting point of ‘no shared assets’. In the event of Scotland voting for independence there is a wider debate on what the economic outlook should look like. In 2014 there was the proposal for a currency union. However, much has changed in the world since then, particularly that borrowing rates are at an all-time low and it will be possible to borrow amounts of money to invest in public service and infrastructure without accruing unmanageable deficits. Therefore assets would only be shared where agreed, such as for example the 5,000 assets the Foreign office has control of worldwide.
The importance of the above point is that the Defence footprint in Scotland is of massive value and strategic value to the UK Government and NATO. A no shared assets policy would mean that sharing as part of defence cooperation between Scotland, the successor UK state and NATO would be a position that would be most advantageous economically to Scotland and the UK state would not be able to offset sharing of defence assets in the form of estates eg an independent Scotland would not want or need access to physical infrastructure in the rest of the UK. Therefore it is those circumstances that the creation of a Scottish defence force would happen. The size and format of Scottish defence forces would obviously be dependent on what are the outcomes an independent Government wish it to achieve. Those should be:
- Protection of Scottish Maritime waters
- Aerial protection of fleet, land forces, and Scottish Territorial waters and land borders.
- Support of international peace keeping operations and NATO operations.
The above three components are clearly all mutually beneficial to the Rest of the UK (rUK) and NATO. As part of the ‘no shared assets’ position, in order for the rUK to continue to benefit from the strategic locations of HMNB Clyde and RAF Lossiemouth then both the exchange of capital and assets for access would be a desired approach. I would envisage that the Scottish Defence forces would be primarily naval forces for the following reasons:
- The size of Territorial waters and the EEZ that is required to be patrolled.
- The impact of climate change on the opening of new sea routes with the melting of ice caps in the Arctic Ocean
- The need to patrol and enforce Scottish Fishing rights
From an airforce perspective, RAF Lossiemouth is the best location in the UK for an airbase. It would be mutually advantageous for the UK to continue operations from there with Scottish forces operating in partnership from the base but retaining their own operational independence but with a joint command structure for the purposes of defending Scotland and the rUK.
Scotland has a proud army tradition and an independent Scotland would be able to reinstate historic units disbanded by the UK Government such as the Royal Scots, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, and Black Watch Regiments and battalions as part of the Scottish defence force structure. Therefore I would envisage that the base of the Scottish Defence forces would be at Faslane in HMNB Clyde, with the army, the naval forces, and air force based at Lossiemouth all reporting into a new Single defence Force structure that includes in it army, navy, and air as its constituent parts. A Scottish intelligence service would also be a function within the operational control of the Scottish Defence forces.”
What kind of strategic roles do you see an independent Scotland aiming for, regional or global, peacekeeping, intervention etc?
Stewart answered this by explaining that an independent Scotland would seek to be a ‘good global citizen’ and assist with peacekeeping missions and also assist with the security of the North Atlantic:
“Being a good neighbour is paramount. With a strategic location between both the Iceland gap and the entrance to the North Sea, Scotland will have clear regional security responsibilities. Scotland will be the most northerly state not actually inside the Arctic Circle and it will be in our interests to work closely with allies to ensure that this part of the North Atlantic remains peaceful and an orderly corridor for trade and commerce. There is of course an international dimension as well: the SNP have always been clear about the importance of being a good global citizen. Just as Ireland has been an outstanding contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, not afraid to take on more difficult tasks, and just as Norway and Denmark have shown a willingness to make active internationalism a cornerstone of their foreign relations, a strong multilateral security framework is in Scotland’s interests, as is working with like-minded states to improve it where we can.”
Chris echoes this sentiment, highlighting the aim to see an independent Scotland support peacekeeping efforts around the world where it can:
“I would not see the independent defence forces playing the same role of the UK in terms of the foreign policy that UK armed forces are used to support. An independent Scotland for example would most likely not have participated in operations such as Desert Fox, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Naval capability of the Scottish Defence forces would primarily be used to patrol and protect Scottish waters, assist in peacekeeping exercises, and support the wider NATO alliance.”
What do you believe the human and financial cost implications of this would be? Would an independent Scotland seek to retain a share of UK military assets or would it prefer to ‘start from scratch’ and why?
Stewart explained to me that there’s no real appetite for retaining UK military assets in the event of a split and instead he argues the focus should be on dependable procurement in order to support industry jobs in Scotland.
“While a nation with nearly a millennium of martial history as an independent state, and three hundred years as a distinct entity within the UK Armed Forces will never be ‘starting from scratch’, retaining a large share of UK military assets is clearly not in the long term interests of a state like the one we aspire to be. Anyone who has read National Audit Office reports into the UK’s equipment plan knows that the short-termism of the MoD is certainly one legacy asset we are keen to divest ourselves of. While there would of course be cost implications to this approach, with the obsession on the bottom line in defence economics being replaced with more holistic notion of taxpayer value demonstrates that it is also an opportunity – we’ve been clear that we want to replicate the Nordic model of multi-year year defence agreements to ensure that all parties are signed up to an ongoing procurement and defence industrial strategy that leaves the days of cancelled orders behind and supports defence industry jobs in Scotland.”
Chris also agrees with the principle of not retaining assets from the UK military in the event of a split and also explains his provisional view of how an independent Scottish armed forces should look:
“Scotland should build to a footprint of defence forces that total in the region of 15,000 regular and 5,000 reserve personnel. There would be an obvious transition to an initial post independence force, building towards a footprint with key milestones in terms of size and operational capability after 5 and 10 years. The financial commitment to defence and security would be £2.5bn. I believe an optimum force footprint would look as follows:
- 6 frigates
- A command platform
- 6x mine counter measure vessels
- 2x OPV Ocean patrol vessels to patrols Scotlands Exclusive Economic Zone with the long term procurement of a third vessel to anticipate emerging threats and patrol requirements in the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans
- 6x patrol vessels to patrols Scottish coastal waters and providing fleet protection
- 6x Non Nuclear AIP submarines
- 2x research ships to meet Scotland’s commitment to tackling the climate emergency
- Tanker capability
- Logistics support vessels in an equivalent model to the Royal Fleet auxiliary
- Scottish Coastguard responsibilities would be best met by the relocation of command to Scotland with the vessels coming under the operation of the defence and security forces.
- rUK support at HMNB Clyde as part of shared priorities and NATO obligations (Not including Trident successor)
- A target of 10 years should be set for the establishment of a second squadron for an independent Scotland to fulfil operational commitments to peace keeping exercises and support of UN and NATO exercises.
- 2x light armoured reconnaissance units
- 3x light artillery units
- 1x engineering unit
- 1x aviation unit for reconnaissance and liaison
- 1x transport unit
- 1xlogistics unit
- 1x medical unit
- A partnership basing arrangement at RAF Lossiemouth
- Quick Reaction Alert Squadron with 16x Typhoon jets under the control of the Scottish Defence force based at Lossiemouth.
- A maritime patrol capability
- Tactical air transport squadron which would include 6x Hercules C130J aircraft
- A Helicopter squadron
An independent Scotland should nationalise all civilian support functions as the starting point with the establishment of the Scottish Equivalent of the MOD with support functions being carried out by Scottish Civil servants, moving away from the UK MOD outsourcing agenda.
This relates to the earlier ‘No shared assets’ as the starting position. In order for the rUK to maintain access to physical infrastructure in Scotland, this will come at a financial cost or asset transfer cost. Once the blueprint for assets is produced this would be achieved by the transfer of assets to the ownership of the Scottish defence force and the gaps that required to be populated would be done as part of a ten year industrial strategy to construct any vessels required in Scotland – which would also reindustrialise the River Clyde in Scotland. A negotiating team would be established on behalf of an independent Scotland and rUK, which would be covering a multitude of areas not just defence. An independent Scotland would be in a good position to secure a footprint in the assets held worldwide which would be able to support a ‘Global Scotland’. rUK would certainly want to maintain access to Scottish Waters, and HMNB Clyde – which hosts Joint Warrior – would also be a key NATO asset which would wish to maintain footprint for the purposes of joint operations.”
How highly would an independent Scotland value offensive and/or defensive cyber capabilities over conventional capabilities?
Stewart explains that disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks are key but that Scotland should not ignore more conventional capabilities.
“I’m sure Dominic Cumming will be paying attention! Cyber security is an area where ‘biggest’ does not always mean ‘strongest’. Estonia, for example, is now undeniably a world cyber superpower and has shown to the world that small states are indeed able to outperform their bigger neighbours when it comes to security. The case of Estonia also reminds us that, in an age where interstate conflict is increasingly infrequent and threats are more opaque, non-kinetic warfare should be recognised as just as much an issue for our society as conventional threats. From disinformation campaigns to cyber attacks, we now face new threats of the kind that can sneak into our home and tug at the very fabric that holds our society together. A state could have the world’s best cybersecurity infrastructure in the world but still fail to protect its national security if its very own citizens are compelled to, for example, go out and destroy pieces of key national infrastructure based on posts they have read on social media. It only takes the recent attacks against phone masts to show that this is not an unimaginable possibility. This also is a question that gets to the heart of another issue where the UK does much worse than many of our neighbours: the civil / military divide. The answer to addressing so many of the technological vulnerabilities we now face isn’t always a military one – we need a society which understands that when it comes to these issues, as citizens, businesses and government, we’re all on the frontline.”
Chris would appear to share this view, albeit with a greater focus on the conventional side of things, working with the UK until an independent Scotland manages to build up its own capability.
“The establishment of the Scottish intelligence services would be the lead player in defending Scotland from cyber-attacks. I do not see any situation that iScotland would wish to participate in offensive cyber-attacks on other states. Therefore the conventional forces would be the main capability of the defence forces. As someone with an intimate knowledge of organisations such as UKSV, in the immediate transition to an independent Scotland , as part of a negotiated, Scotland would be likely to pay for services from the UK until sufficient capacity is built up for Scotland’s on intelligence and Security services to operate as desired by the independent Government.”
What kind of defence relationship would an independent Scotland seek to have with a) the rUK b) NATO and c) the EU?
Both McDonald and McEleny are again in broad agreement on this, placing emphasis on working with the remaining UK, NATO and the EU at a very deep level.
McDonald told me:
“Again, here I think we want to have a complete shift in emphasis. Another mantra repeated unthinkingly by UK ministers and over-enthusiastic backbenchers has been that ‘NATO is the cornerstone of our security’: I think that each of the three elements you mention here will be equally vital to Scotland’s security, and we be clear and communicate where what role we see them playing.
From our long history together to the simple fact of geography, Scotland and rUK would share many common security interests and many of the same threats. Like any other aspect of our relations with rUK and our other neighbouring states, I would hope for as close friendship as possible in areas of mutual interest. I try and impress upon UK defence policymakers every time I speak to them that it is in both our countries’ interests to ensure a smooth transition to a secure new future for these islands: and while it is right that we as Scottish nationalists should be asked to show our working, there comes a time when it is incumbent upon rUK to think seriously about this as well. The EU is made up of states with which, like with rUK, we share values, interests and security threats due to our proximity and history: and in Article 42.7 it has a more comprehensive and binding mutual assistance element than NATO’s more famous Article V.
While the UK has traditionally neglected the EU as a ‘hard’ security actor – despite the undoubted importance of intelligence sharing networks and the work that it does in the Mediterranean – we cannot afford any longer to neglect the fact that for our citizens, the economic security provided by the EU is just as relevant as the military security provided by NATO. In many ways, the two organisations have been mutually reinforcing elements of building a lasting peace in Europe.
It’s easy to forget how recently its member states were at war with each other, but it’s something many would do well to remind themselves of, as well as of fact that in NATO terms, the famous Article V is greatly strengthened by Articles II and III. And let’s not forget that as a consensus organization – where Iceland has as much say on NATO missions as the US – it provides a vital forum for small states to influence common security. Finally, these three elements are not the only ones an independent Scotland will have to bear in mind, and we would want to play a role in other, more informal groupings such as NORDEFCO or the Northern Group, along with any bilateral agreements that could complete the picture.”
Chris echoes this, adding that both states might even benefit from partnership agreements.
“The relationship with all three are mutually inclusive due to an independent Scotland having the position of supporting membership of all. This is to an extent complicated by the UK decision to leave the EU but with transition arrangements ending at the end of this year the UK will have a defined relationship with the EU. This will have obvious consequences of Scotland’s relationship with rUK if Scotland is an EU member state and the rUK is not.
a) Foreign policy would be completely independent eg if there was a future event similar to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the rUK wished to participate but Scotland did not, then simply put Scotland would not and would not allow any sovereign Scottish assets and infrastructure to be used. Potential tensions here would arise over the negotiated share of overseas territories such as the SBA. Not withstanding that, I would wish to have as mutually a beneficial arrangement as possible. Areas such as fast jet and helicopter training could be an example of a partnership arrangement, and as earlier I spoke of Lossiemouth making sense to continue with Scottish control of the base but with a rUK presence on site.
b) An independent Scotland would maintain NATO membership. The strategic importance of Scotland’s position in the alliance makes that a realistic proposition.
c) As many NATO member states are also EU member states, it is likely there will be crossovers in criteria (demands) on membership of both from both parties.”
With regards to NATO, if Scotland elected to remain a member, would NATO nuclear submarines be welcome to stop over in Faslane?
Now this is of course a very controversial subject in Scotland, both McDonald and McEleny recognise that and make clear that this specific decision would be one for an independent Scottish government.
Stewart advises that he would like an independent Scotland to be nuclear weapons free, as I believe would many people in Scotland but opinion polls on this topic are usually divided straight down the middle so it’s hard to gauge that support.
“This would of course be a matter for the Government of an independent Scotland to decide, but I would like to think that if they did decide to make Scotland a non-nuclear power state as well as a non-nuclear weapons state, then they would agree to respect that. Denmark and Norway, founding members of NATO that have provided the last two Secretaries General, have been explicitly non-Nuclear from the start and I think what our allies will be most interested in is a reliable and predictable nuclear policy more than anything else.”
Chris goes a step further and proposes that while an immediate end to visiting nuclear submarines isn’t likely, a realistic approach would be to plan for an eventual ban:
“This answer is linked to next Q also. I do not believe that a policy of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ would be politically acceptable to an independent Scottish Government. However I would propose a pragmatic approach ie if Scotland were to vote for independence then a timetable would be set for when Nuclear submarines would no longer be able to stop over at Faslane.”
What is the expected plan for Faslane, immediate withdrawal or a gradual removal of UK nuclear assets?
Both men support the position that an independent Scotland would remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde to a timetable.
Stewart is very clear on this, if Scotland were to vote to leave the UK then the process to begin planning for the withdrawal should begin straight away in a safe and responsible manner, although this would not be ‘immediate’.
“The line from the 2014 White Paper still stands: the speediest, safe removal of the nuclear weapons stored at HMNB Clyde. The process will be Scotland’s first opportunity to demonstrate that it is a reliable and predictable security partner, and similarly it will be the rUK’s first opportunity to demonstrate that it can be trusted to respect Scotland’s sovereignty. The priority must of course be the safety of those in the areas surrounding Faslane, and that of those in the areas of England or Wales where the infrastructure may be rehoused. What is in no doubt is the future of Faslane as the tri-service headquarters of an independent Scottish Armed Forces, with the permanent jobs and residents that this will allow us to create in the local area.”
Chris also references the 2014 White Paper but suggests an approach that would see Trident removed once the system reaches the end of its life
“The policy would be that Trident Nuclear submarines should be removed as speedily and safely as possible. It is almost certain that NATO would make a membership stipulation that Scotland continues to allow the UK to house the Trident Fleet and the successor Dreadnought programme at Faslane and Coulport. This would not be an acceptable criteria for membership and if this was an absolute then Scotland would withdraw support for NATO. However, I believe the strategic importance of HMNB Clyde to the alliance would allow for a softening of NATO position. However, many players would be ‘in play’. To the earlier point on EU/NATO, France is both EU member and NATO member. If the SSBN fleet had to leave Clyde and the UK Government came under extreme risk in that a suitable and affordable position could not be sourced then potential options could be to house the programme in France, the USA, or to scrap the programme completely. Political pressure on the French Government would be immense if both the rUK scrapped its strategic nuclear deterrent – because France would be the only country in the alliance providing the political shield to US possession, or if British Nuclear weapons were to come to French shores. The French relationship with Nuclear power would support the second point which means the French Government may play hardball on the issue.
Therefore a pragmatic, and unpopular political, approach may be to set the deadline for removal of the Trident fleet at the end of its lifespan. With this prospect the UK Gov would likely suspend the successor programme and aim to increase the life of the Trident fleet to 2032. If Scotland were to vote for independence in 2022 then this would be a timeline that would potentially appease partner states. However, my position is for the quickest and safest way to remove the fleet from the Clyde and it should not be underestimated the difficulty for an independent Government to deviate from that position. If it did seek a compromise position to secure removal then this would naturally be a huge issue at a negotiating table.
To stray onto a less formal point: If asked in the late 60s would you accept keeping nuclear weapons on the Clyde until the late 70s, the answer would’ve been no. At the end of the polaris programme if asked would you accept nuclear weapons on the clyde until the millennium, the answer would’ve been no. And it is likely that in 2014 the answer would also have been no to allow trident to stay until into the 2020s. However all of these propositions would have now resulted in removal or the imminent removal. Therefore there is perhaps ground to be made on a timetable that will guarantee removal but will not do so the day after independence. It would then become a purely transactional issue at the end of the agreed withdrawal and decommissioning period that I do not envisage any independent Government would be able to politically renege on. In summary, an independent Scotland would remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde but there would clearly be the need to agree a timetable that accepted the principle that Trident will be going and the detail just has to be agreed regarding the when.”
With regards to Lossiemouth, what kind of agreements would the Scottish government seek relating to QRA and MPA capabilities hosted at the base? Would an independent Scotland replicate these capabilities or seek to form an agreement for the rUK to continue these activities?
Stewart advises that he believes that while an agreement with the remaining UK would be possible, it would not be the only possibility.
“The UK Government has shown how it is able to cooperate on these issues with both NATO and non-NATO states, and so there exist examples of how such cooperation could work. This will be a decision that will be taken after examining not only the threat picture and the cost of such capabilities, but also an analysis of how cooperative the UK was willing to be. A UK administration similar to the one we have now negotiating a future security relationship with the European Union in a manner motivated primarily by short-term political interests, which pays little attention to shared history and precedent will require a different response to a UK administration focused on maximising our mutual self-interest and building a sustainable long term security relationship on these islands. What is clear is that while the UK is the largest potential partner in the region, it is not the only one and there exist several examples of Northern European states who have sought to address shared security threats on either a bilateral basis, or through multilateral organisations.”
Chris touched on this point earlier in the questioning, saying:
“From an airforce perspective, RAF Lossiemouth is the best location in the UK for an airbase. It would be mutually advantageous for the UK to continue operations from there with Scottish forces operating in partnership from the base but retaining their own operational independence but with a joint command structure for the purposes of defending Scotland and the rUK.”
What overall defence capabilities/initiatives would exist that do not exist now?
Chris and Stewart share the view that an independent Scotland would seek to have armed forces that are first and foremost designed to protect Scotland and assist internationally where possible.
Stewart also advises that he believes an independent Scotland could go further with how the armed forces are treated:
“As I’ve tried to show throughout these questions, independence is not at all about being able to wave a different flag: it’s not secession for the sake of it. It’s about having the power to make policy that works for Scotland. When you consider that it takes more than 24 hours to deploy surface warships to the principal areas of threat you quickly begin to appreciate that hasn’t always happened. Independence critically offers the chance to re-evaluate the role of the armed forces in our society and reimagine security as being less of an elite pursuit and something which is the responsibility of each and every citizen. It means being serious about breaking that civil / military divide, having less of these mysterious installations secreted behind barbed wire, and allowing those who serve to have their domicile guaranteed and to be able to put down roots among the society that they protect. This means treating personnel not as schmaltzy and quasi-mythical ‘heroes’, but giving them the dignities that civilians take for granted: simple things like a transparent contract, or an Armed Forces Representative Body that is there for everyone regardless of rank to inform personnel on their rights and advocate for them in pay negotiations or other matters. These things are the norm elsewhere in Northern Europe, and it’s high time it became the norm on these islands too.”
Chris reinforces the view that independent Scottish forces should have an eye on the world supporting peacekeeping efforts:
“I think that the shift in Foreign policy would be the obvious sign with iScotland not adopting the same strategy of projecting power and the UKs desired position on the rest of the world via military assets. An independent Scotland would have defence forces with the main purpose of protecting Scottish waters and sovereign territory, with a longer term aim of building sufficient capacity to play our part in the world in supporting peace.”
This article is intended to outline the thinking regarding the defence and security landscape in an independent Scotland should Scotland ever vote to leave the United Kingdom.
It is not my job to argue for or against these perspectives but merely to present them and allow you to discuss them.