Far Cry to Port Ellen

Apologies right off that this is another blog about things military. But this week saw quite a burst of activity that centred around the SNP releasing some ideas for an independent Scottish Defence Force (SDF) that were somewhat churlishly abridged to ‘a brigade and two bases’.

What is misleading about such peremptory dismissal is the implication that Scotland is about to abdicate from its exalted position as part of a world power and discard the 300 years of history that gave us the seamlessly integrated world-class institutions that are the British Army, the Royal Navy and the RAF. Led by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and the ToryHoose blog, variants on that position were plentiful. But let’s consider why that might not be the balanced view. Most make the following flawed assumptions:

  1. That all British forces belong to England if the Scots leave. The 1707 treaty was between equals; when such a Union breaks up, each partner is entitled to its share.
  2. That three centuries of (agreed splendid) shared military history must determine our joint future. The present military posture disadvantages Scotland because:
  3. Forces with a global reach of the full gamut of conventional as well as nuclear weapons are required. Scotland has no need of Trident subs, aircraft carriers, strategic lift or Challenger MBTs, all of which cost £billions:
  4. That Scotland must pay £3bn to help sustain the 4th biggest military budget in the world at £28bn, yet get no maritime recce aircraft, no fast missile boats and nothing bigger than a minesweeper to defend £1tn+ of North Sea oil and infrastructure.
  5. That the men of the RRS, RSDG and Scots Guards would want to serve in the English Army. If the Ladies from Hell earned a formidable reputation at the business end, their martial traditions did not derive from the snugger Home Counties.
  6. That those same soldiers would see deployment in the English Army (Northern Ireland, Iraq, Falklands) as preferable to Arctic training with Norwegians, or deployment on UN blue helmet operations.
  7. That current MoD attachment/TOE has any relevance. Whether the 22 Scimitars recce vehicles come with the RSDG or AAC Lynxes come with 5Scots in their role is not the point. The Scots would be morally—if not legally—entitled to 8-9% of MoD assets, including elements of 40th Regt RA, 38th Regt RE, 32nd Signal Regt, logistics, catering, etc.
  8. That the present idiotic RN/RAF deployment provides a sensible defence of anything at all, let alone North Britain/Scotland: no STOL/LRMRA. A bunch of Somali pirates could strangle North Sea production as they almost sank USS Cole in Aden harbour.
  9. That both Clyde and Rosyth yards would close shop with no business. Even the MoD has some sense and if it’s cheaper to finish the two aircraft carriers there, that’s what they’ll do. We also need fast missile boats and they could have 4-5 years’ work building a flotilla of six.
  10. That we are obliged to retain Faslane and the nuclear submarine fleet. While we are keen to retain good relations with the English, the fact they have no appropriate base to which these could be transferred is their problem. And they can take all five nuclear subs mothballed at Rosyth with them when they go.

Both MoD and their ministers are still wedded to a Central Europe WWIII posture and a delusion of global strength. As described in earlier blogs, Scotland could develop an appropriate defence for half what it currently pays and evict Trident from the Clyde as a bonus. We need allies like the English and the Scandinavians and we need to contribute to common defence. But, realistically, who’s going to invade us without taking on England first?

I am all in favour of the SDF maintaining close links with the English. But the MoD has decimated the traditions of Scottish regiments. Reconstituting the five that were forced into the RRS would be a start in redressing that. And, because we would need proportionally more infantry, forming Territorial regiments that revived the heritage of the Cameronians or the five kilted regiments that merged to form 4Scots (Highlanders) would be sensible.

The SDF army component is likely to consist of 6-8 infantry battalions and, like the present RRS, exhibit several specialties from 5Scots Air Assault training to 4Scots mechanised deployment. These would probably form an active and a reserve brigade and would require the appropriate support units mentioned above.

Comparison with the Danish, Norwegian or Irish armed forces show this scale is proportionate. No country of 5m expects to fight a war by itself, nor to be deployed far overseas and engage in, in von Clausewitz’s ringing phrase, ‘diplomacy by other means’. Most of the unionists arguing against the above seem to be military types for whom ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ or ‘in the service of empire’ still belong in the lexicon. If the English wish to retain such tradition, they are welcome. But Scotland wants to live in the now.

It is sad that Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen should be so vocal and bitter about the prospect of an SDF. Port Ellen was once the heart of MacDonald power as Lords of the Isles. They once deployed such a highly efficient military, based on clan infantry and the Norse birlinn that they could thumb their nose at the King of Scotland. But they did not change with the times; carracks and carronades defeated them. From his stint in NATO, George apparently can only think in Cold War terms of tanks, nukes and aircraft carriers. Such big-ticket items may belong in the hands of superpowers, but those are not sensible weapons for small-to-medium countries in the 21st century.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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4 Responses to Far Cry to Port Ellen

  1. Angus McLellan says:

    As always, a good read.

    Last time I was here I argued that the Hercules might be a sensible choice of maritime patrol aircraft for the SDF. I have done a bit more digging and that looks like a ridiculous idea in hindsight.

    US company Conklin & de Decker are in the business of selling detailed reports on commercial aircraft operating costs. They provide a free summary of variable costs – fuel, parts, servicing – on their website. Although they don’t list military aircraft, the Hercules, Orion and C-295 do have civilian relatives listed. The variable cost per flying hour were approximately $9,000, $7,500 and $2,000. The figures themselves are based on the wrong sort of workload, but the same wrong workload in all cases. It looks like the best is the enemy of the good-enough, yet again.

    • davidsberry says:


      I find your technical comments very helpful, especially as any knowledge I have of LRMR aircraft is from books and outside observation. Is what you’re saying that my original suggestion of C-295s, as used but the Irish Air Corps, was the most cost-effective?

      • Angus McLellan says:

        Dave, my information comes from reading rather than any professional knowledge or experience. I owe a debt of gratitude to the US government in particular and to open government in general.

        If we took the C-235 as one option and something like the Bombardier Challenger 604 used by Denmark as the other, we might get some idea of cost-effectiveness, but definite answers are out. The variable cost figures earlier show that a C-235, as used by Ireland and the US Coast Guard – where is is called the HC-144 “Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft” – is 30-40% cheaper to run per flying hour (less that 2K USD/hour against over 3K USD/hour). Whether that means it’s the most cost effective solution is a more difficult question. The experts at the MoD or RAF probably have some sort of simulation of representative flights that they would use for modelling costs but we’d have to rely on guesswork to a large degree.

        If we assumed that the aircraft are used mostly for maritime search and surveillance and for maritime search and rescue, we can draw some rough conclusions. For surveillance a business jet like the Challenger would overfly several times more area of sea per flying hour – not only is it nearly twice as fast it also flies much higher so that the horizon is further away – making it cheaper for a given area patrolled. Search and rescue, the rescue part of which involves hours flying around the problem coordinating things, is more complex. The search part resembles surveillance but the actual rescue coordination and assistance work is carried out at low speed and low level, and here the C-235 has a major advantage in cost. We also need to consider flexibility and effectiveness. The C-235 (or larger, newer C-295) can also serve as a transport for relatively bulky cargo, up to truck-sized objects. The Challenger or any similar business jet can only carry light cargo or a small number of passengers, but it can also serve as a VIP transport when required.

        So, “it depends.”

        Maybe if we imagine that Ireland and Denmark made rational choices – I am fairly sure that this is true of Denmark but have less confidence in the the Irish government’s record on defence procurement – then we could ask which of these two an independent Scotland’s requirements resembled most. The Danish Air Force patrols a large area. Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes have a huge EEZ of some 2.5 million square km and the SAR zone may be larger still. Since Danish aircraft need to make long patrols and to fly to and from home bases in Denmark regularly, high speed is important. High speed also allows Denmark to patrol this vast area with just three dedicated aircraft. By comparison Ireland’s EEZ is 0.4 million square km and the SAR zone much the same size. Speed is obviously less important. However the Irish Air Corps operates two C-235 aircraft – and also has two business jets used for VIP transport as well.

        So which would Scotland resemble more? The answer to that depends on the size of an independent Scotland’s maritime search and rescue zone. The Scottish EEZ would be only a little larger than Ireland’s but the SAR zone, even in the best case, would be substantially larger. In the worst case, where the SAR zone extended out to 30 degrees west, it would cover something like a million square km. So the best case resembles Ireland, the worst case is closer to Denmark.

        But there are other points to consider. The Danes get free – nearly – VIP transport planes. Ireland has to pay for them. Ireland can use its maritime patrol planes – or one of them anyway – as a transport to support UN or EU operations, Denmark’s much larger air force has dedicated transport aircraft and can ignore this factor in calculations. Ireland has the potential advantage that several types of helicopter – including the Sikorsky S-92 widely used for long range SAR – use the same engine family as the C-235, simplifying maintenance. That’s not such an important factor for Denmark’s larger air force.

        Finally, the costs when these aircraft are run by a defence force rather than an airline may turn out to be quite different from first impressions. The standard hourly costs – these are the ones which exclude depreciation because the C-235s are all new and the Challenger 604 is old and has no book value – used by the US Coast Guard as of 2011 to cross-charge for their aircraft are:- HC-144A (aka C-235) $11560; C-143A (aka Challenger 604) $12300.

        I’ve heard it said that that there is no problem, however complicated it looks to start with, which can’t be made even more complicated just by looking at it in a different way. Seems to be true alas!

  2. Pingback: Darling is My Charlie | davidsberry

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