UK defence – unaffordable Scottish government defence plan is too risky

(“It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism, while the wolf remains of a different opinion.” – William Ralph Inge)

In this first attempt at making some sense ahead of next year’s referendum vote on Scottish independence in so far as it might affect Scotland’s future defence and security requirement I have chosen to look here at the military and cost consequences of a potential ‘yes’ vote to severing from the United Kingdom as opposed to getting involved in the potential defence industrial consequences. No doubt I will eventually be persuaded to become involved in the defence industrial debate and all the various consequences that might have not only for Scotland but the remainder of the United Kingdom that Scotland might choose to leave behind – but that time is not yet.

The military consequences of an independent Scotland are also enormous and as yet I have found no reason to believe that the proposals for the defence and security of a future independent Scotland as outlined by the Scottish Government at Holyrood have any credibility at all. Of what little we know from what we have been told they are neither affordable or in any way to be considered as acceptable in terms of the required defence and security of a future Scotland in their present form.

Should Scotland vote for independence next year its government would allocate £2.5bn of the annual budget to be spent on defence. This is a ridiculously small amount and yet how on earth are we to believe that even this is affordable? According to SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond together with ‘veterans’ Minister, Keith Brown such annual funding will be expected to provide and support a defence force together with all the various pieces of kit including I assume all land, maritime and air power capability requirement. Well, it certainly won’t be enough – not nearly enough. Indeed, I suspect such an amount would hardly be enough to cover one tenth of the actual cost required to secure adequate defence and security that the good people of Scotland require. Yes, on this issue I really do have a vested interest as well as my grandfather happened to be a Scot and believe me when I say that Scotland is a country that I love.

If there ever is to be a ‘yes’ vote for Scottish independence its people deserve to know that in a world of such geo political uncertainty the government has provisioned adequate funds and capability to protect them together with the hugely important and complex array of on-shore and off-shore assets. According to a Scottish government spokesman quoted on the BBC website an annual budget of £2.5bn would allow an independent Scotland to have first-class conventional forces that can fulfil the role of defending the country and co-operating with international partners.

The same spokesman went on to say and I quote from the BBC website that “we will not waste billions of pounds on Trident nuclear weapons but will retain all current defence bases” including the current Royal Navy submarine base at Faslane which they would intend to become Scotland’s main conventional naval facility. Finally he commented that “our long-term commitment will ensure continued support for jobs and local economies in all the communities around Scotland that are home to military bases.”

These are of course fine words and no doubt well intentioned but in terms of value in this debate and at this time as impracticable as they are unaffordable and thus worthless. Indeed, rather than promote a sense of wellbeing and security for those who will vote to decide on the future of Scotland next September they show that an independent Scotland would be completely unable able to defend itself if challenged.

Promoting such a wanton and dangerous high risk strategy with regard to defence and security shows that SNP leader Alex Salmond is not only playing with fire but worse, is attempting to pull the wool completely over the eyes of Scottish people. Intelligence is no barrier to stupidity so they say but as far as I am concerned the Scottish people deserve a lot better than this. They deserve to be told the truth and that if Scotland is to adequately defend itself either inside or outside of NATO they will need to spend many billions of pounds buying suitable offshore patrol vessels, maritime air power capability plus a small fleet of fast jets to intercept Russian interlopers both in the air or below the waives not to mention building and equipping a land force with all the proper capability that requires.

A recently published report from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee concluded similar views to those of my own stating that the Scottish people deserved to be presented with as “full a picture as possible” from both sides in the debate prior to the referendum in September 2014. In saying that it was unconvinced that the amount of £2.5bn could support the proposed Scottish defence force including the “purchase of new equipment including fast jets and submarines it went on to ask for what purposes would Scottish armed forces be used for?

This last question still needs answering by the Scottish Government as does how it intends to move from here particularly now that NATO has said that membership by an independent Scotland would not be automatic. Defence Select Committee Chairman James Arbuthnot said following the report that voters in the referendum will need to see answers to questions that we (the Defence Select Committee) are now asking the Scottish government to provide in their upcoming White Paper. It will, he went on to say, “be for the Scottish government to make its case that an independent Scotland can sustain an appropriate level of defence and security.”

Questions that the Defence Select Committee have formally asked of the Scottish Government are how would a sovereign government ensure the defence and security of an independent Scotland; for what purposes would Scottish armed forces be used; how would Scottish armed forces be structured and trained and where would they be based; how much would it cost to equip, support and train an independent Scotland’s armed forces and how much of this could be procured and delivered domestically; how many jobs in the defence sector would be placed at risk and finally about the proposed make up of the proposed Scottish defence force, including the numbers of combat troops plus number and type of aircraft and maritime vessels that would be needed.

The debate over the future defence and security of Scotland could in my view be the make or break reason why voters either decide to kick the idea of Scottish independence out or go for it. Meanwhile the UK Government is said to believe that “establishing a Scottish military in the event of independence would put a substantial burden on public finances”. Whilst I could say that such remarks would better be considered an understatement I will certainly not take issue with the intent.

Although I have yet to read the report I understand from the BBC website that it suggest “adapting the functions of Scotland’s defence footprint would result in a substantial burden on the public finances of an independent Scottish state during establishment, and duplication of costs thereafter for the essential services currently provided on a UK-wide basis. It goes on to say that “it is difficult to predict how long the establishment phase would last but that given the complex, integrated nature of the UK armed forces and the absence of command and control structures plus other essential components in Scotland, this would not be an easy process and that basic re-design of military bases is a costly undertaking requiring substantial investment to cater for different operational needs.” It added that negotiations over assets and liabilities such as equipment, basing and other infrastructure “would be difficult” and that the issue of personnel would present an “extremely difficult challenge to overcome”.

A separate internal MOD briefing document that has apparently been seen by the BBC raises a different set of concerns with regard to implications that a yes vote might have on the rest of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The bottom line of this appears to be that a ‘yes’ vote would have potentially serious implications for “our politics, our economy and our standing”. I will come back to this issue on another day.

Meanwhile ahead of a speech to be delivered in Edinburgh later today the Secretary of State for Defence Mr. Philip Hammond said on the excellent BBC Scotland radio programme ‘Good Morning Scotland’ that he thought “current British military staff based in Scotland may not want to join a Scottish Defence Force in the event of independence”. Mr. Hammond went on to say that that “neither the Scottish or UK governments can compel individuals who serve in these regiments to become part of a Scottish defence force and that those young men and women join the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force because of its size, its capability, the opportunity for overseas services and training and its reputation in the world. Many of these men and women may choose not to join a Scottish defence force whose avowed purpose is primarily home defence.” I would not disagree with one word of what Mr. Hammond said and I believe him to be quite sincere on this. Meanwhile the hapless Scottish Government veterans Minister Keith Brown who probably knows as much about defence as I do about Mars said on the same programme that the number of men and women within a Scottish regular armed force should consist of 15,000 plus 5,000 reserves. I will leave it at that for now and as this debate is ongoing will return to it on another day!

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785

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