I’m a follower of Burdzeyeview because said Burd has a deft habit of spearing keys issues of the day with insightful comment—thereby roping in a fair number of informed people to comment on them and generally advance the issue, even where it is not resolved. Despite it being Easter, this week was no exception. While I was merrily bouncing round the Bass showing visitors our spectacular wildlife, the Burd asked why Professor Malcolm Chalmers piece in SoS had flushed so little comment out of the usually vocal ‘cybernats’.
The question is a fair one: I’m game. For years, SNP party policy has been against any NATO membership for Scotland. The basis has always been a fundamental refusal to accept nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. I can well believe (as the article claims) that a majority of SNP members would consider NATO membership of some sort as a necessary component of a Scottish defence posture—not least because I am one of them. But I am no happier with Trident than anyone else in the SNP.
What the good professor seems to overlook is that, of the 28 existing members of the NATO alliance, only three are nuclear (USA, Britain, France). The rest have kaleidescopic involvement in the alliance that is tailored to their capacities and political realities: nobody expects landlocked Hungary to field much of a navy nor tiny Luxembourg to field much of anything. Yet they are members. The habitually stroppy French won’t even agree on its name and insist on “Organisation de Traité d’Atlantique du Nord” (=OTAN).
Despite an independent Scotland not offering serious global military clout, along with Iceland, it is superbly positioned to watch NATO’s northern flank. It offers facilities for commando training in the Angus glens, infantry and low-level flying ranges in D&G, plus the most accessible and ideal joint-services exercise area around Cape Wrath. To think that NATO top brass in Brussels would not prefer to have Scotland as a member—even IF it joined with some caveats—is to underestimate their pragmatism.
The caveat of not stationing nuclear weapons on our soil may not be seen as ideal. But it is neither unique, nor is it a dealbreaker. Especially as any Scottish armed forces would be ex-UK armed forces and already fully trained in NATO practice.
The second key point Professor Chalmers appears to make is that Scotland could not afford a decent defence posture—citing £2bn as our budget and £100m as the cost of a single strike fighter. Both are indeed reasonable figures and it would indeed cost us a year’s budget to equip a squadron with state-of-the-art fighters. But any independent Scotland will have paid for 9% of the present UK forces and would be entitled to that share upon independence.
That share may not sound like much, but a balanced defence force for Scotland would not include the most expensive equipment currently deployed by the UK, most especially the 4-strong Trident fleet, either of the aircraft carriers now building, any of the 400 Challenger MBTs (cost £4m each) or overseas deployment & bases & support required for them.
As a result, a couple of frigates, some light craft, a hundred or so IFVs and light recon vehicles, a share of REME gear, two squadrons of helicopters (recon & attack) and the same of fighters (plus some Hawk and Tutor trainers) would do us nicely and not break the 9% bank. Some heavy lift like Hercules would be necessary until we replace long-range maritime recon aircraft that the MoD scrapped.
Two months ago, an article here described what a Scottish Army might look like. Its exact nature would be up to those better qualified than I and the agreement of those involved that they wished to serve in it. But the key point is that—like ALL smaller NATO nations—we would not be going to war by ourselves and—unlike the UK—would have no ambition to throw our weight around in any repetition of Falklands/Iraq/Afghanistan.
Where Prof Chalmers is probably correct is that Scotland may not wish to deploy any of the Astute class nuclear-powered (but NOT nuclear-armed) attack submarines, nor any of the Type 26 frigates due in service after 2020. That is because 2-3 older frigates from the existing RN fleet would suffice for ocean patrolling; attack subs are intended to take on a major blue-water navy. Scotland would be crazy to do that by itself and, with only a small surface fleet, would have no need to defend major targets like aircraft carriers from such a threat.
It is clear to most in the SNP that, if Scotland were to scale its forces to the country’s needs, the £2bn defence budget would be adequate to provide adequate forces. It would also be barely HALF of what we currently spend to support the £40bn UK defence budget. But Prof. Chalmers final assumption—that none of the ships the RN would continue to need would be built in Scotland—seems flawed.
Scotland would have no interest in anything but good, close relations with its southern neighbour. That would be exhibited in a willingness to extend the life of Faslane while the RN found a new home for their nukes (including the five hulks mouldering at Rosyth) and also continue building carriers and frigates for their more global military ambitions at competitive pricing the MoD would find hard to refuse.
The SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson has recently said the party is “looking at the policy options” on the Nato treaty. Since NATO has diplomatically accommodated its smaller, non-nuclear members to date, it seems time for us to consider such options.