Defence Matters

David Mathias looks at the implications on defence of a yes vote.

The debate thus far on Scotland’s future has been largely based on domestic or internal issues and Scotland’s economy were it to break with the Union, and it is increasingly clear that the vital subject of defence (and therefore security) of both an independent Scotland and the remainder of the United Kingdom has been given scant attention by either side in the debate.

The impact of Scottish independence on Defence would be acute, and its effects therefore must be considered. To that end Westminster recently  published a report entitled ‘The Scotland Analysis Paper on Defence’ which highlights the main effect on Defence were Scotland to vote ‘yes’.

The UK Government’s position is clear; Scotland benefits from being part of the UK, and the UK benefits from having Scotland within it. From a Defence perspective, the arguments for Scotland remaining in the UK are extremely strong. The UK’s integrated approach to defence protects all parts of the UK, while offering significant economies of scale, as well as contributing to conflict prevention and resolution, and to humanitarian operations overseas.

Mr Salmond’s own views and apparent knowledge of the subject of Defence are shallow, and it is abundantly evident that his plans for Defence in an independent Scotland are unrealistic and lacking in serious thought or analysis, and that he fails to consider the wider effect of this on both the UK and on NATO. He wants Scotland to have no part in the UK’s defence strategy, but at the same time has welcomed a US presence in Scotland providing it is non-nuclear.

His ambitious plans for a Scottish navy with ‘major surface vessels’ for fishery protection and submarines, a fast jet air force, and a resurrected army is nothing more than a two page ‘wish list’ which is neither ‘costed nor credible’ according to one report.

The conclusion to be drawn by such an omission is that Defence does not feature large in a future independent Scotland, and this, along with the SNP’s anti Trident and ‘non nuclear’ stance is something that must surely concern us all.

The first duty of every government is the defence and security of its people. The world is increasingly troubled and unstable and, as recent events in Ukraine have shown, unpredictably brutal. No responsible government can afford to ignore this, and there has never been a greater need for strength and unity amongst the western alliance than exists today. This primary factor underpins all others in a defence debate.

With that backdrop then, consider this…

From a Defence perspective it is clear that the transition to independence would be extremely complex, raising serious questions over how an operational capability for a Scottish state could be established or managed.

The real worry is that Scotland’s landmass, coastline and airspace, which is of critical strategic importance to the UK and to NATO / the USA, facing as it does the North Atlantic and any sea or air borne threat from that area (i.e. from Russia, which continues to routinely probe it) would be no longer secured. A joined-up defence policy and Command and Control of sea and air space is vital to the UK and to Scotland, and this factor, above all, is under serious threat.

The United Kingdom’s military credibility as a nation that stands up for itself and for others, closely follows. Throughout the Cold War and indeed up to the present day, the UK has been a stalwart pillar of the NATO alliance, utterly dependable and reliable, her forces leading the way and setting a superb example of commitment and professionalism. This factor was hugely important in melding together the disparate and widely differing allied forces, and in eventually ‘winning’ the Cold War.

The ‘Scotland Analysis Paper on Defence’ highlights the impact independence would have on defence both north and south of the border. The report concludes that the defence capability of both parties and of NATO would be seriously weakened. The following is a summary of the main implications:

1. Scotland would no longer benefit from the UK’s £34 Billion annual Defence budget, and no longer have access to the UK’s full and extensive range of defence capabilities available to defend against both natural and man-made threats, including terrorism.

2. The complex and integrated nature of the UK’s Defence capabilities would be extremely hard (and expensive) to replicate in an independent Scotland. Dismantling our existing Defence structure and organisation to exclude Scotland would alone be hugely expensive to both parties.

3. Scotland would be immediately ‘challenged’ to establish Armed Forces capability and supporting machinery from the £2.5 Billion Scottish Defence budget proposed by Mr Salmond. It is estimated that the proposed Scottish Air Force alone would cost £1.7 Billion, and that the re-forming of Scotland’s old regiments and their support elements would swallow up the entire budget.

Note: Mr Salmond has assumed that the many Scots currently serving the Armed Forces would flock to his side and form ‘ready made’ units, but he is sadly deluded. It would make no sense whatsoever for anyone to abandon an established and dependable career. Furthermore the acutely limited opportunities available in a small Scottish defence force when compared with the UK’s armed forces would not be an attractive alternative.

4. Thousands of skilled jobs in Scotland are reliant on the UK’s Defence industry and Armed Forces presence in the country, and these are vital to the defence of the UK as a whole. The following major units and facilities would be withdrawn to England or closed.

  • The Naval Bases at Faslane and Rosyth (and sundry smaller facilities)
  • An Army Brigade
  • Army Personnel Centre in Glasgow
  • The RAF operational bases – Leuchars and Lossiemouth
  • The Volunteer Reserves
  • Shipbuilding and repair

5. Although the overall manpower establishment of the UK Armed Forces is due to decrease, by 2020 the number in Scotland is set to increase to 12,500 or 8.8 % of the total, and a corresponding rise in the Reserves to 4,200. Independence would halt this.

6. As an anti-nuclear weapon state (as opposed to a non-nuclear weapon state) which the SNP is planning for, Scotland’s membership of NATO would be unlikely. It follows that Scotland would be highly vulnerable to threats such as terrorism as it would not have access to NATO / UK intelligence.

As the Scottish referendum approaches it is essential that the subject of Defence be included in the thoughts and considerations of not only the Scots, but of all of those in the UK who care about security and freedom, and I urge that the issue be placed at the forefront of the debate.

David Mathias is a retired Army officer with extensive service spanning over four decades. He served throughout the height of the Cold War period and in numerous operational theatres since. He is a noted military historian and battlefield guide.

11 thoughts on “Defence Matters

  1. One of the reasons both sides are avoiding discussion of military issues in the Scottish referendum is that the better informed on both sides know very well that strategic necessity will compel the United Kingdom to retain a presence in Scotland, so independence would not be as independent as everyone wants to pretend.

    This strategic necessity has a long history. One of the major factors in the English conquest of Wales, and later Anglo-Welsh efforts to secure Scotland and Ireland, was fear of a power vacuum there being exploited by a foreign power – France in the case of Wales and Scotland, and later Spain in the case of Ireland – which might then secure a base in the British Isles. Put bluntly, London cannot allow such a potential threat on the mainland of Great Britain.

    In addition, modern technology demands that Scotland and Wales be integrated into London’s Early Warning and Air Defence systems. That would have to be a red line in any post-referendum treaty negotiations.

    No one likes saying this publicly, but an independent Scotland – or Wales – would need to understand that part of what independence means is that a small state next to a bigger and more powerful state has to accept certain realities. Just look at Georgia or the Ukraine.

    On the economic side, both Scotland and Wales have done well out of the British military-industrial complex, not least because the armed forces and their facilities are big employers in depressed areas. Scottish or Welsh ‘defence forces’ are likely to be toy armies with far fewer economic benefits, and their lack of economies of scale would probably them very inefficient. Wales might end up with a complete general staff commanding no more than a single brigade group.

    Complete military independence is therefore an illusion.

  2. This is clearly a subjective and one-sided analysis of both the implications for UK defence policy following a Scottish ‘yes’ vote and the SNPs proposals for Scottish defence arrangements, however experienced and qualified the author may be.

    But since the technicalities of this topic are very difficult for a lay person to reasonably asses and judge for themselves, I assume that the IWA will be inviting a contribution from a subject expert on the ‘yes’ side to make their alternative case?

    I for one cannot simply accept Mr Mathias doom-laden predictions without some degree of discursive challenge.

    I look forward to the vigorous debate you are no doubt planning…

  3. Winterson Richards and Davies both make very valid points

    From a Welsh perspective we fear that the threat is from a de stabilising England this has started We see financial indebtedness. social inequality accelerating, immigration out of control, a benefit led culture and an obsession to hang on at any cost to the illusion of Empire and being a world power

    If you think even a little bit outside the box you will see that there is a real need for a Federal UK clarify

    The argument that England is vulnerable to conquest from Wales. Scotland, Eire or Northern Eire is pure fantasy

  4. The 6 points of Mr. Mathias do not stand up to un-military scrutiny.

    1. Scotland would have it’s own budget. It would not have to spend vast sums on the left-over military presence of Empire the world over. The Uk’s budget in this case is irrelevant. Scotland could spend as much or as little as they would want.

    2. The UK wastes considerable sums on military equipment it never uses. The agreements after independence from England would give them, in very large part, the defence force they require.

    3. see 1. & 2.

    4. Jobs may be lost but others will also be created. For example, getting rid of nuclear will enable the use of conventional forces with the consequent employment. Nothing stands still anyway.

    5. see 1 to 4

    6. The idea that NATO would reject Scottish membership is risible. It would have no reason to, other than from a petulant England. Mr. Mathias on the one hand says how important Scotland is to NATO then says it would reject Scottish membership! The English may be that stupid but the USA and others are not likely to be.

    It must be remembered that the UK is, and always has been, about expanding England. An independent Scotland, or Wales, would be in a position to build a healthy, equitable and co-operative relationship with its neighbours.

    This argument about the meaning of “independence” is stupid and hypocritical. It’s all about not being subjugated by another nation. England thinks independence is wonderful, unless England’s doing the oppressing.

  5. In fact existing UK defense forces are not deployed to Scotland’s benefit. Look up the incident when the Russian navy came to visit recently. The Scots are rather lukewarm over NATO in any case, and if you really really want nukes perhaps it’s your turn to have them parked just upwind of your major city. Just saying …

  6. There are 28 members of NATO of which only 3 are nuclear powers. Does that mean that we can look forward to the other 25 being evicted for being anti-nuclear?

  7. NATO membership does not, of course, oblige all members to be nuclear powers, but it does oblige them to co-operate with those that are. None of the current members are actively anti-nuclear.

    New Zealand’s suspension from the ANZUS pact when it adopted actively anti-nuclear policies is instructive. An independent Scotland would have to adapt to certain realities. Otherwise it could not take EU and NATO membership for granted.

  8. @JWR 21/08


    You are absolutely right about the security imperative vis-à-vis a (potential future) English state and Scotland and Wales. When all’s said and done it is the only thing that really matters to London (with water supply running a close second in relation to Wales): all else is hubris or ornament. That is one reason why I laugh down any suggestion from some unionists trying to employ the spurious counter-psychology argument that ‘England will stick two fingers up at the both of you and walk away’. England will not do that, ever, it will never willingly give away true political control over Scotland or Wales; unless of course the very intelligent people in Whitehall are some day replaced with numbskulls. It may, of course, lose it by misadventure though…

    This means that in the world of Realpolitik compromises need to be made, true independence of action, particularly in relation to foreign affairs (who you align with, who you trade with, who you cosy up to), is a myth, as it already is for the UK vis-à-vis the USA for example. But your suggestion that the compromise is all one way is either a little mischievous or a little naïve. To that extent nothing much has really changed since the middle ages, except that it is harder now for overlords to exercise their supremacy summarily or irrationally. It is exactly what it always was, a deal, fiefdom for favour.

    England can and will secure the military loyalty of an independent Scotland, but it will not be one-sided and it will not be unconditional. If things were that simple, there would have been RAF bases or Trident submarines in Kerry, Mayo and Donegal for the last 40 years.

  9. Phil, you are right that some form of bilateral deal would have to be made – but with the emphasis on ‘would have to be made’ rather than ‘bilateral deal.’ The Irish precedent is interesting: at first Britain did retain Treaty Ports in the Free State and Winston Churchill, then in his ‘wilderness years,’ lamented their surrender in the 1930s. There is no doubt that many lives would have been saved in the Battle of the Atlantic had they been kept. It should also be remembered that plans for a ‘preventative’ invasion of the South were prepared during the War. One suspects that the Irish would secretly have welcomed the economic benefits of bases in the impoverished West – so long as they also reserved the right to complain loudly about them.

    In general, the diplomatic management of buffer states looks increasingly like a lost art: just look at the pig’s breakfast the Russians are making of the Ukraine. There are indeed still a lot of very clever people in Whitehall, but the history of British foreign policy over the last 20 years does indicate a definite growth in the ‘numbskull’ tendency. One cannot imagine Palmerston or Salisbury being as loud-mouthed and short-sighted as recent British governments have been in relation to Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and – again – the Ukraine.

  10. The implications of a Yes vote upon the security of our island nation have been covered well by Mr Mathias here. When we go to the Doctor, and he says we are ill, we tend to take his advice on treatment. He is not always right, but, he has the knowledge, and experience to make the judgment call. In this instance, Mr Mathias is taking that role. To challenge his view is right and proper, to ignore it is foolish.
    My personal concern is with Russia, and their new interest in Scotland. Those for the Yes vote are, in my humble opinion, very short sighted to the very real threats posed towards the lives we hold dear.
    We live in a dangerous world, which will potentially invite itself upon Scotland as a staging post as it trys to remain neutral.

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