On The Defence…

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Defence is one of the biggest topics surrounding the independence debate at the moment, with clashing views on what independence would mean to civilian and military personnel from the Yes and No sides.

We had Phillip Hammond, the Defence Secretary on a bit of so called Tory Tourism, speaking to a group of defence sector workers at Thales in Glasgow last week warning of the risk to their jobs should they vote yes. I did find this quite amusing considering Thales is a French owned security company.

We also had Lord George Robertson, speaking in America, telling listeners that Scottish independence would be a cataclysmic event, and that the forces of darkness are waiting in the wings to rejoice and strike. When later pressed on Newsnight Scotland, Lord Robertson was struggling to name these forces of darkness, and only managed to mumble something about Al Qaeda before moving on.

Then there was the First Sea Lord – Admiral George Zambellas (add long stream of letters bestowed upon him by the Queen here) wading into the defence debate. Sir George gave Scotland a dire warning, and said that the remaining UK’s defence would eventually cope with the loss of Scotland, but that Scotland’s defence would suffer most as a result of breaking away from the Union.

Acting as a counter balance to the Admiral’s warning, ex Army officer Colonel Stuart Crawford stated that an independent Scotland would be more than capable of running its own Armed Forces.

So who should you believe? It seems increasingly difficult for anyone to agree on anything no matter how small the issue is – it’s always yes Vs no with each side citing their own experts’ opinions and very much leaving us common folk to try and whittle through the rhetoric and to find the facts for ourselves the best we can.

I think the major issue over the defence “war” surrounds Trident and Faslane. Many workers and people who live in that area are deeply concerned about what removal of the vanguard submarines and nuclear deterrents mean to them in real terms. They are concerned over job losses, will the submariners be forced to relocate down south, will Faslane close, how many jobs will be lost – These are all fair questions, and I don’t feel that it’s right for these people to be left hanging with all the uncertainty until after the referendum.

The white paper lays out its plan for defence in Scotland, going into quite a lot of detail for the future of Faslane. The problem we have is that the UK Government has stated it will not, under any circumstances, begin to discuss the potential negotiations for an independent Scotland before the referendum in September. This means that we really have no other choice than to look at things as logically as we can, and try to come to our own conclusions.

I had a chat with two ex servicemen from the Royal Navy, one who will vote yes and the other who is planning to vote no in September. I wanted to hear their opinions on what defense could look like in a newly independent Scotland.

From the perspective of a no voter:

I will start with Faslane as this is where the Head Quarters of the Scottish Defence Force would be. And I’ll start with Submarines. At the moment the Royal Navy operates 3 types of submarine. The Vanguard class which form the nuclear deterrent based at Faslane. The Astute class attack boats based at Faslane and Trafalgar class attack boats based at Devonport.

The Trafalgar class are progressively being replaced by the Astutes and eventually all submarines will be based at Faslane. If Scotland votes Yes however the Astutes will be based at Devonport as the SNP has made it clear it does not want nuclear powered boats as well as nuclear armed. It does surprise me though that they have said removal of nuclear weapons by 2020 and not immediately.

Whilst the UK does not have any other port facilities which it can store nuclear weapons at if the SNP were to request immediate removal I’m sure the US would have no problem with V boats being based at Kings Bay in the US. This would be a suitable stop gap until until a facility was built.

But why is the nuclear deterrent at Faslane? It would not be easy to attack from the air. An excellent area to provide deep storage of weapons. And most importantly it provides quick and easy access to deep water. But back to submariners and workers in the event of a Yes vote…

As previously mentioned all of the attack boats would move South. As the SNP have not mentioned anything about a submarine force in the SDF and there is unlikely to be one then this means that the submariners have no choice but to remain with the Royal Navy as other wise they would become redundant. Those at Faslane supporting them however perhaps don’t have that choice and would likely be surplus to requirement. As would those supporting Trident.

This leaves a surface fleet. At the moment Faslane has a squadron of mine hunters and 3 fast patrol boats. As we know the SDF would be entitled to a share of 8.4% of UK defence assets. At the moment the SNP has only been specific that they wish to take 2 Type 23 frigates although they have mentioned other vessels but not type. The 23’s would likely be based at Faslane.

This leads me on to your question about the Kuznetsov carrier in the Moray Firth. The ship that was scrabbled was what is called the Fleet Ready Escort, FRE for short. This is a short term duty for any frigate or destroyer in the UK although it’s not entirely limited to the UK area. I my self have done this duty although we were activated just off Gibraltar to do a drugs bust. If this happened in an independent Scotland it would have taken just as long to go from Faslane as it did from Portsmouth. A big proportion of the maritime element of the SDF would be fishery protection.

At the moment we have dedicated patrol vessels that carry out this duty. With the size of the SDF this would be carried out by multi purpose vessels so we may not be able to guarantee the same level of deterrent.

Next we come to the land element. At the moment we know the SNP has committed to 3 infantry battalions. This means a reduction in the size of what we have now. During the last election the SNP promised to restore the Scottish battalions. This now appears to mean a reduction in 1 battalion and the company from the Argylls will not survive. So in fact it appears the SNP will not restore the Scottish battalions. Overall in total we would be losing 3 battalions from Scotland as 3rd battalion the Rifles is based here and also 45 Cdo RM and 43CDo RM. I envisage that cavalry will remain roughly the same although Scots are currently recruited into the Royal Tank Regiment which would not continue. Royal Scots Dragoon Guards would also be likely to re-role from heavy armour to lighter vehicles as the SDF would be unlikely to use Challenger 2. For support arms I see it as really the same but on a much smaller scale.

The air element would probably be primarily based at Lossiemouth with a reactivation of Leuchars and maybe a military wing at Prestwick Airport. As for aircraft the SNP has indicated 16 Typhoon fast jets. I believe that these are too expensive for the SDF to run and they would be more likely to go for the Hawk. This would also provide the training aircraft as well so would be able to fulfil a dual role. It would however have a long range maritime patrol aircraft which would probably be 4 P3 Orion’s which although old still fairly capable. It must be pointed out though that the UK is in fact looking at buying P8 from the US and also unmanned drones to fill the gap in long range maritime patrol. There would also be a small number of transport and helicopters available.

The really worrying point that does not seem to be getting discussed is the latest form of attack. Cyber attack which is combatted by GCHQ in the UK. An independent Scotland would have to set up a brand new intelligence agency in less than 2 years which would be very difficult.

The main sufferers if there is a Yes vote would be the civilian MOD staff who I suspect a large proportion would become surplus to requirement. Kentigern House on Brown Street in Glasgow springs to mind which basically administers HR for the entire British Army. Also the industries involved in defence. Shipbuilding on the Clyde is very much at risk. It would be a foolish rUK government that would order Type 26 frigates from the Clyde when it could give the same orders to their own constituents in Portsmouth, Barrow, Appledore etc.

It has been said that independent Scotland would become a member of NATO. This of course would be subject to a successful application. Of course being part of NATO bring certain limitations. That being able to provide sufficient forces for requirements which could also include UN requirements. That would mean not all units being available for home defence. And probably more pertinent that NATO is a nuclear alliance. Therefore Scotland would have to accept that nuclear armed boats can enter their waters and go alongside their ports.

In conclusion my thought is that Scotland is a lot better off defence wise in the UK than it is on it’s own independently. It has been pointed out that it has taken defence cut disproportionately. However on independence the size of the SDF would be 7,500 personnel. This would be a reduction from 11,100 the current number.


From the perspective of a yes voter:

I think there are a couple of things to consider here, the serving Royal Navy are constantly told that anyone who doesn’t conform to the services’ way of thinking is in someway inferior, and they probably believe that a Scottish Navy would be seen as “not as good as the Royal Navy” I have no doubt that quite a bit of scorn is being heaped on the Scottish Governments plans and we have seen the result of this recently from Hammond and the First Sea Lord.

The submariners have a point, if they wish to remain submariners would probably have to relocate, however they are used to that, and even within the UK, it’s possible that at some time in the future a submarine squadron could be moved lock stock and barrel to Portsmouth or Devonport (in fact at present the opposite is due to happen with all the new Astute class moving from Devonport to Faslane). RN personnel know that they have to be willing to serve where sent. There is a caveat here in that no one knows what future defence reviews may bring and their job security within the UK may not be a good as they think.

I would imagine that serving Royal Navy personnel would be given the chance to transfer to the new Scottish Defence Force, possibly taking a TUPE type transfer. I have also been informed that service pensions will be honoured. So the choice for serving personnel would appear to be transfer to the SDF or relocate and remain in the RN.

For civilian workers the picture is a bit less clear, one thing is certain and that is that Coulport as we know it will close, having said that the White Paper makes it crystal clear that Faslane will be the joint Head Quarters of the SDF and its main operational naval base, that means that a convetnional armaments depot will be required. This could be Coulport, or Crombie on the Forth, or both.

At present there are 4 SSBN’s (ballistic missile submarines) based at Faslane with plans to bring further SSN’s (nuclear powered attack submarines) to be based there, also there are a few MCMV’s (mine counter measure vessels) based at Faslane.

The White Paper talks about the Scottish Navy having 4 frigates plus patrol and MCM vessels, all of which may be based at Faslane (with perhaps Rosyth as an operational base), there will need to be servicing, base port and training facilities in Faslane, plus many of the jobs currently carried out at JHQ Northwood and Fleet HQ in Portsmouth, and possibly Operational Sea Training, currently at Devonport, would require setting up in Faslane. All of these would require civilian support workers. It has to be remebered also that the plan is for this to be a Joint HQ so there will be army and airforce jobs created also.

Many of the civil service jobs currently based in Whitehall would also need to move to Scotland, whether this would be to Faslane or to somewhere else in Scotland remains to be seen but there will be opportunities there too.

Timescales are difficult, during my service we withdrew from places such as Malta, Singapore and Gibraltar, and the wind down to closure took several years, about 3 to 5 was about the norm, I suppose a lot would depend on how petulant the rUK diplomats are, the ships and submarines could feasibly move base port overnight – it’s the support and families which would take far more time to relocate.

(I’d like to thank both gentlemen for taking time to speak to me about these issues, it is much appreciated)

As has been pointed out, Scotland has seen a disproportionate amount of cuts in defence over the years compared to the UK average, and that servicemen understand they may be required to relocate at any time in order to go where the job takes them.

We also know that we don’t receive the full amount of spending which is allocated to us on an “unidentified spend” basis by the UK Government, with an under-spend of over £1billion for the year 2011/2012.

As also stated, Serving personnel across all Armed Forces have the ability to choose whether to remain in service with the British Armed Forces, or to join the new Scottish Defence Force. I think it’s also important to point out that it states quite clearly in the White Paper that there shall be no compulsory redundancies in defence if Scotland becomes independent.

It will be impossible to give an all round picture of what the Scottish Defence Force will look like and how it will operate, but it is also impossible to be completely certain that the UK Government won’t impose more cuts to the Scottish services leading to more job losses either.

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend having a read through the White Paper’s defence section to see for yourself what plans are being proposed for an independent Scotland’s Defence Force. You can follow this link to the White Paper PDF and find defence in chapter 6.

I welcome and look forward to comments and discussion on this topic, but keep it nice folks! Any mention of “cyber-nats” or “Brit-nats” and I’ll remove your comments!

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6 thoughts on “On The Defence…

  1. Thanks for a great and very informative article.

    The only thing is I wish I’d seen it before yesterday because our local Yes group while handing out leaflets came across someone who worked for the MOD. He was asking very specific, detailed questions and most of us were reduced to just answering with ummmms and errrrrs 🙂

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    • Hi Steve, I think most of us outside of a MoD background would have ummed and errred our way through the questions as well! The Scottish Government white paper goes into quite a lot of detail on defence, so it’s really up to the UK Government to answer the questions now raised. The fact that they are not going to do this until after the referendum is just creating this uncertainty, which is really unfair but obviously plays to their advantage.

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      • At least the creation of uncertainty being used as a political tactic by the UK government was one of the points we did manage to get across.

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