The Faslane Conundrum

Guest column by Lt. Col. S. W. Crawford (retd.), late 4th Royal Tank Regiment

With support for Scottish independence at a seemingly all time high and next year’s Holyrood elections – Covid 19 permitting – in the offing, it’s little surprise that the debate on Scotland’s future constitutional status is once again in the news. There are a number of major issues here, membership of the EU, currency, and the economy to name but three. But the topic of how an independent Scotland might organise its own defence forces always seems to crop up, this despite the fact that defence is a Westminster retained competency and really nothing to do with the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Be that as it may, I have been writing about this particular topic for at least that last 20 years or so – until I’m blue in the face, if you’ll excuse the rather obvious pun, me being an independenista and all that. For anyone who has the time and inclination, the main thrust of my thinking is in a 2012 RUSI publication entitled A’ the Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland[1], and the Scottish Centre on European Relations published Defending an Independent Scotland Post-Brexit[2]. These should be read consecutively to get a real sense of how thinking has developed.

Whilst many observers are happy to examine in detail how many ships, aircraft, and battalions a Scottish Defence Force (SDF) might field and what the budget might be, all of which has its place, the elephant always in the room is the UK’s Trident-carrying SSBNs (submarine/submersible, ballistic missile armed, nuclear powered) based at Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde, commonly referred to as Faslane (although it encompasses the weapons storage facility at Coulport as well). When it comes to talking about iScotland defence all roads lead eventually to Faslane.

Perhaps I should outline my personal position on the UK’s nuclear weapons before going further. Firstly, I believe that from a moral and ethical standpoint it is so indiscriminate as a weapon – sophisticated targeting systems notwithstanding, it is so powerful that huge collateral damage to people and property is unavoidable – that no civilised country would ever use it.

Next, I don’t believe it is truly independent in that I cannot imagine the UK ever employing it without at least the tacit approval of the US (although I also understand that technically it can be used independently), nor do I think it is a universal deterrent – it didn’t deter the Argentinians in 1982, nor the Iraqis in 1990, nor the Taliban and/or Al Qua’eda. Nor do I truly believe there exists a credible nuclear threat to UK interests from so-called rogue states like Iran or North Korea. (It may stop the UK being bullied by Russia in the final analysis but I’m not convinced of this).

What I do firmly believe is that Trident is essentially a political weapon, not a military weapon, whose main function is to maintain the UK in the front rank of global powers and guarantee continuing national membership of the UN Security Council, NATO etc etc, a posture supported by successive Westminster governments over the past 50 years plus.  Furthermore, its maintenance, and eventual replacement, places an enormous burden on the MoD’s budget and soaks up vast funds which would be far better spent on the UK’s conventional forces – more ships for the RN, better equipment for the army, better pay and conditions, and better provision for ex-service personnel when they leave the armed forces. Or, indeed, on other things like education and the NHS.

In summary, I think Trident is in fact a weapons system which has no conceivable use and which is far too costly when other priorities should prevail.  Therefore I do not think it should be replaced when it comes to the end of its lifespan by anything similar.  The best thing that could happen here is that the Vanguard class SSBNs should soldier (sailor?) on until they are obsolete and then not be replaced by the Dreadnought class, which should be cancelled forthwith.

Against that personal background, let’s look at the options for the UK’s nuclear deterrent post Scottish independence. The prevailing orthodoxy in the broader independence movement seems still to be that Trident would be removed from the Clyde almost immediately after Scotland seceded from the UK. This is the stuff of fantasy for a number of reasons. First and foremost of these is the fact that there is nowhere else for it to go, not in the short to medium term anyway. For example, Barrow on Furness is tidal, Milford Haven is already home to a major oil terminal and therefore doubly vulnerable, the traditional ports on the south coast of England don’t offer the required immediate access to deep water, and nowhere has the close proximity of weapons and submarines that Faslane/Coulport offers.

Nationalists are wont to say that “this is no’ our problem”, an easy get out, but actually it is. Because a newly independent Scotland and its anti-nuclear weapons campaigners are only two of the players in this particular debate, and two of the smaller ones at that. The rest of the UK (rUK) will have something to say, as will NATO, and perhaps most influential of all, the USA will want its penny’s worth. I have been advised on pretty good authority that if an iScotland demands early removal of Trident then its accession to NATO would be blocked by the US. And iScotland would want to be part of NATO, believe me.

It is unlikely to come to this, however, for wiser heads must surely prevail. As an academic chum asked the other day, why would an iScotland make the process more difficult than it need be? Why would any government let its policies be driven by, let alone be in thrall to, small, but well-intentioned, vocal pressure groups which are only one or two of the players in a multi-participant debate?

There is a danger of prioritising process over purpose here. The purpose is to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde; the process by which that is done should be a matter of negotiation. It seems to me that the best way of approaching this is to acknowledge that there are difficulties in relocating the SSBNs and their missiles and accept that a measured withdrawal of them from the Clyde is most likely, perhaps whilst other arrangements are made in the rUK. Most observers seem to agree on a timeframe for this of between 10-20 years.

I think even the SNP is coming round to this. The party has never put a firm timeframe on de-nuclearisation, and has tried to keep all the footsoldiers on board with the weasel-worded (and I paraphrase) “as soon as safe and practicable”, which can mean all things to all men. What is certain is that the removal of the Trident submarines, along with presumably the rest of the UK’s submarine fleet and at least some of the mine counter measures and offshore patrol vessels – ie those not inherited by the independent state – will leave a huge economic hole in the west of Scotland that the SNP’s plan to put the Joint HQ of the SDF there in its place cannot hope to fill.

In the interim period between Scottish independence and the withdrawal of the Trident fleet, however, there might be a little good news. The SSBNs presence at Faslane is, as I have said oftentimes before, the biggest bargaining chip an iScotland is likely to have. Allowing them to remain temporarily can be traded for either payment of an annual lease, which I have suggested (conservatively) might be in the order of £200 million per annum, or to defray part of iScotland’s share on the UK National Debt, another emotive topic, or indeed for anything else that the government of the day might decide. The chip should be spent wisely.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

Stuart Crawford is a former British army officer and regular commentator on military affairs in the print and broadcast media. He has a special interest in how an independent Scotland might design its defence policy and armed forces.


[1] A’ the Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland | RUSI

[2] Defending an Independent Scotland Post-Brexit – Scottish Centre on European Relations (scer.scot)

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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