A former Royal Navy Admiral has claimed that the membership of an independent Scotland in NATO could be “rendered impossible” if it “jeopardises a vital element of Alliance security”.
The author of the paper, Rear Admiral John Gower CB OBE, served, until his retirement in Dec 2014, as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK MoD. Previously, he had spent nearly half his 36-year military career at sea in ships and submarines culminating in the sequential command of two globally deployed submarines.
He then spent 17 years ashore, mostly in the MoD in London, increasingly specialising in UK nuclear weapon and counter-CBRN policy but also with time in Washington DC as the
Assistant Naval Attaché and twice on the staff of the UK Defence Academy. He had a key leadership role in the UK contribution to the international activity between 2011 and 2014 to counter the threat of Syria’s CW programme, culminating in the successful removal and destruction of Assad’s UN-declared stocks. With very close ties to his US and French counterparts, he represented the UK in senior relevant NATO committees for the last 6 years of his career.
Discussing the removal of Trident from Scotland should the UK leave, Gower said:
“NATO must also clarify that, should an independent Scotland adopt policies that
seriously jeopardise or remove a nuclear deterrent which provides a vital element
of Alliance security, this would at the very least present a major obstacle to, and
could very well render impossible, NATO membership for a future independent
The report also suggests that should Scotland leave the UK, Trident could be relocated overseas or even scrapped entirely.
Discussing an independent Scotland and NATO, the report says:
“Arguably, on the face of it, the exit of the UK from the European Union should not
perturb the status of the UK’s nuclear deterrent one iota. An acrimonious dispute, however, between successive UK Prime Ministers and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about a second referendum for Scottish independence have rumbled on since
2016. This dispute has been put into stark focus by the mission of current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to ‘save the Union’, as outlined in his late January 2021 tour of Scotland.
At the same time, there is renewed scrutiny on the implications of possible secession for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, based in Scotland. This originally formed part of the campaigns at the last independence referendum in 2014. The calls for a second referendum, which petered out after the EU vote in 2016 are once again strident. Whatever the effect of the breakaway Alba party, led by Alex Salmond, its formation on this single issue will maintain their prominence. The implications of the possible secession were brought into sharper relief by the hardening of NATO stance following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the continued fomenting of instability on NATO’s
eastern flank, and Russia’s conduct throughout the Trump presidency.
NATO’s position on Russia has hardened year-on-year since Crimea with the security salience of its nuclear deterrence significantly increasing since the rosy optimism of
the Strategic Concept of 2010 and the subsequent Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR). There is a stark difference in opinion between Westminster and Holyrood on the necessity, in the current world security climate, of existential nuclear deterrence. The SNP is implacably and repeatedly against nuclear weapons yet has declared intent to seek NATO membership once independent. The March 2021 announcements in the UK’s Integrated Review, that the UK will reverse its previous policy of drawing down its nuclear stockpile to 180 warheads by instead setting a new, and higher even than 2010, stockpile ceiling of 260 has widened the gulf between the SNP’s and the UK’s policies.”
Gower explores these points later in the paper.
“NATO remains an Alliance with its nuclear deterrent at the core of its security strategy and the largely unspoken, until recently, nuclear adversary upon whom that deterrent focussed was Russia. Following the annexation of the Crimea by Russia and its continued
fomenting of instability on NATO’s eastern flank, NATO rhetoric and physical actions towards Russia have hardened. Both the Warsaw Summit communique in 2016 and the
Brussels summit in 2018 used strong language – the hardest language for decades – in condemnation of Russian activities. Following the Warsaw declaration, NATO deployed
ground forces to its eastern flank nations (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland) under its Enhanced Forward Presence programme and increased its deterrence rhetoric.
Yet a few short years ago, NATO’s collective position on Russia was more conciliatory and was based on a (clearly erroneous in hindsight) perception that the future could be managed through an improving partnership. In that climate, a reduction in NATO nuclear capacity, however achieved, might perhaps have been met with a more forgiving and certainly less unanimous NATO response. But that is far less likely now.
The SNP’s implacably anti-nuclear weapon stance was most recently reaffirmed in their stated intent to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons if independence is gained.
Today, for an independent Scotland, joining the nuclear alliance NATO on a political non-nuclear platform would be at best exceedingly difficult. Joining as the country which had either effectively severely destabilised or incapacitated the UK deterrent should be even more challenging.
For the foreseeable future, NATO is unlikely to view such a loss with the same potential equanimity it might have done a decade ago. Even if it managed to swallow the security loss that the cessation of, or major disruption to, the UK nuclear deterrent would represent, it would be slow to forgive that it was by force majeure and unable therefore to extract nuclear security gains from equivalent Russian concessions. The Secretary-General should build on his 2017 warning that Scotland should not assume NATO entry, with a clear message that an anti-nuclear stance with negative effects on the Alliance would likely result in the refusal of an application to join. It is incumbent upon the Secretary-General to make this abundantly clear to the UK, and Scottish voters in particular, in advance of any future referendum.”