Shirreff Parks his Tanks on our Lawn

The world of global diplomacy—and with it, the context of our independence debate—has become increasingly surreal. Despite being unable to breathe without running into WWI commemorations, the lessons the Great War taught seem no longer relevant to our complex modern life.; this is myopic.

Just because hundreds of miles and even more days of trench warfare stalemate will not recur does not mean that present-day politicians are any more gifted with global brink-personship than Sir Edward Grey and his well meaning Liberal colleagues who were dragged into war by a web of treaties explicitly set up to avoid the catastrophe that did in fact overtake the 20th century.

The equivalent web today is called NATO. This even longer-standing military alliance  united Western democracies with enough resolve to see off Reagan’s “Evil Empire”. But just because the Soviet Union has gone should be no invitation to exploit Russia’s discomfort by sweeping fragments of Russia’s former empire under their nuclear umbrella. In the colourful geopolitics-speak used around Brussels’ Boulevard Leopold III (NATO HQ), such in-your-face tactics is known as “parking our tanks on their lawn”.

Admission of the ex-Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe to NATO was a mild example of this; adding the three Baltic States (a part of the Soviet Union for 60 years and under 15 minutes by Eurofighter from St Petersburg) verged on the provocative. To then consider Ukraine’s membership (their re-application went in last week) is a challenge that ordinary Russians—even without Putin doing his strongman act—would resent and resist.

Ukraine was Russian heartland before Scotland was part of Britain, ever since Peter the Great chased Sweden’s Charles XII out after Poltava in 1709. Imagine how London would react if a newly independent Scotland were to bind itself in a military alliance with Russia. Having been brutally invaded and half-conquered several times before the Nazis, the Russian folk memory is touchy about belligerent forces on their Western border.

A more sensible alternative to poking the Russian bear would be to agree Ukraine’s full neutrality and allow it to be a trading and diplomatic bridge between NATOland and Russia that could benefit all three parties. NATO may have as many ships, tanks planes and men as the Russians, but it is military insanity to project enough of them 1,000km East of their present bases and fight a still-formidable Russian machine on its home turf that is nuclear-tipped and a lot less stable than when Joe Steel ruled it.

Which brings us to Scotland and its putative effect on/membership of NATO. For if Ukraine is a domino too far to the East, then things are looking decidedly dodgy in the West. With many global commitments recent US strategy has been for the European end of NATO to take more care of itself. Whatever Westminster governments may pretend, Trident’s keys are still firmly in Pentagon pockets and so can be discounted for ‘local’ use.

Which brings us to the UK’s conventional weapons and a sad tail of decline. Being £1.5tn in hock, the MoD is cutting British Army from 104,000 troops to just 82,000. To get the scale by which we can no longer play with the big boys, the US Marine Corps alone is three times bigger, with more aircraft than the RAF, including the 72 Harriers we sold them.

Far from being capable of projecting military power into Ukraine, even as a part of NATO, UK forces have proved incapable of intervention in Syria, despite a ‘sovereign base‘ 100km away outside Limassol. Such missions as were flown in Libya were expensive pinpricks by one aircraft at a time and it was just three years ago when an entire Russian carrier group entered the Moray Firth undetected because we had scrapped all our maritime patrol Nimrods. The frigate scrambled from Portsmouth (HMS York) was the only RN ‘blue water’ unit in home waters at the time.

This last weekend Scotland on Sunday carried a letter from General Sir Richard Shirreff, recently stepped down as NATO’s Deputy Supreme Commander Europe. In it, he described the Scottish Government’s plans for defence as “amateurish, dangerous, unrealistic and lacking clear strategic purpose”. He also warned that the claim that an independent Scotland could join a nuclear defence alliance (i.e. NATO) while removing nuclear weapons from the Clyde could hinder membership.

Now, I don’t want to quibble with his obvious qualifications to have an opinion on the matter (although his claim to be from Co’path in East Lothian shows his grip on geography to be weak) but the above analysis of a NATO posture for which he must bear some responsibility means that we really do need to revisit what NATO is for. It is certainly not so that the West can go empire building on the ruins of the Soviet Union.

What NATO does need is a competent team on its North flank, in the event of any hostile intent amplifying the Kuznetsov incident into a war scenario by the Russian Northern Fleet. As explained, the UK is no longer capable of keeping up its end: the Standing NATO Response Force Maritime Group 1 has seldom contained any RN units and, as a result, Norway, Denmark and Canada have shouldered additional burdens to cover that.

So, when Gen Shirreff opines: “nothing I have seen or heard persuades me Scotland’s safety or security would be enhanced one iota if it became a separate country“, he does himself no service, despite his undoubted authority. Just to cover points raised above, a Scottish Defence Force would deploy the following key elements (currently missing from  UK deployment) that would tie in with our Norwegian/Canadian/Danish allies:

  • Two FFs deployed in Scottish or adjacent waters
  • A flight of four LRMP aircraft, based in Moray (CN-235s?)
  • A squadron of fast patrol boats (Hamina-class?) based to protect maritime oil rigs
  • A special forces battalion trained (among other things) in oil rig protection & assault

The absence of any need for global deployment, nuclear weapons and battle tanks will render Scottish forces more fit for purpose in maritime defence. Despite what Gen. Shirreff says, a regional defence with maritime emphasis is a clear and sensible strategy for which SDF proposals are highly suitable—in sharp contrast to the mission overstretch from which UK forces have suffered since commitment to Afghanistan and which subsequent severe cuts will carry into the foreseeable future. In this context, replacing Trident at all and populating the two aircraft carriers with flawed/overpriced F-35s simply compound that overstretch.

Rather then believe Gen Shirreff to be that naive, it makes more sense to see his outburst (whether orchestrated or not) as part of the relentless parade of naysayers that have been the backbone of the NO campaign. He does not state why NATO would not want a member with balanced forces like Denmark, rather than the UK’s current incomplete circus, any more than Barrosa explained why the EU would not want a solvent petrocurrency that already complied with all EU laws.

It echoes the ‘chicken little’ scaremongering we’ve had from Irn Broon, Osbo and Darling—that an independent Scotland could never have kept HBOS and RBS afloat by itself. What they conveniently ignore is that subsidiaries Halifax and NatWest are massive English institutions for which any English government would have intervened to keep them (and  rUK) solvent, no matter where they were headquartered. On this and on using the £UK, it’s not those seeking independence who seek to drive such wedges between nations. Since Winnie coined the phrase in 1967 we’re still saying: “Stop the World, Scotland wants to get on!”

So, if any reader in Co’path should run into Gen Shirreff rediscovering his Berwickshire roots now he has more time on his hands, ask him politely to get his tanks off our lawn.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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