How an Independent Scotland could produce a credible military presence remains a murky issue.
The Scottish army’s last outing was more than 300 years ago we’ll not give the score away but the country’s long military tradition as part of the Union has loomed large ever since.
This means the defence plans for an independent Scotland will eat away at both the heads and hearts of thousands of undecided voters, but do they stack up?
The SNP is planning a post-independence Scottish Defence Force which “progressively builds” to 15,000 regular personnel and 5000 reservists on an annual defence budget of £2.5 billion, about £800 million less than what Scottish taxpayers’ currently contribute to spending in this area.
Before spelling this out, the Scottish Government’s White Paper pointedly highlights the impact of military cuts north of the Border in recent decades, keenly felt in areas such as Moray and Fife. One example, the decision to do without the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, has arguably had its biggest effect in Scotland with its long and exposed coastline.
Lord West, the former first sea lord and chief of the naval staff and former minister for security and counter-terrorism, said the Ministry of Defence has a “head in the sand” attitude to the threats facing it.
But he’s adamant independence is not the answer, pointing to the fact that Scotland as part of the UK enjoys the benefit of being the sixth biggest military spender in the world.
“I just don’t think the SNP have thought through defence very well,” he said.
It’s an opinion echoed by former Army officer turned consultant on defence issues, Stuart Crawford.
He said: “Defence has long been the SNP’s achilles heel, it still is. They don’t really have a blueprint for defence, they just have some undeveloped ideas.”
This was perhaps best illustrated when Scottish Government veterans minister Keith Brown came before the Defence Select Committee in London last summer and pointedly refused to spell out how many planes, ships and submarines he thought Scotland needed. However, with zero co-operation from the MoD and not knowing what you’ll be left with from any post-Yes negotiations, the Scottish Government has at least made a stab at putting down what a Scottish Defence Force would look like.
On the mooted independence day in March, 2016 the SNP plans amount to around 2000 regular armed personnel and 200 reserves. Within 10 years that would be built up to 15,000 regular troops and 5000 reserves.
The SNP has already laid out proposed better terms for soldiers, including the promise of no compulsory redundancy.
Around a dozen ships would be claimed from the current Royal Navy for an independent Scotland, including two frigates. The air force would include a minimum of 12 Typhoon jets as well as a helicopter squadron and six Hercules transport planes.
Brown explained: “By focusing on Scotland’s own needs in relation to military personnel, conventional equipment and bases, an independent Scotland can halt the disproportionate cuts to our defence footprint.”
Oddly, the White Paper says little about an independent Scotland’s foreign policy but has plenty detail on its defence plans, leading to criticism the SNP has put the cart before the horse in this department.
The £2.5bn budget is a figure that has raised eyebrows given the need in the first instance to build up a defence infrastructure almost from scratch.
The SNP claim the budget is an increase on current spending by the MoD north of the Border though the UK Government points out Scotland currently benefits from all £34bn military spending on securing the nation. The consensus is either the budget figure would have to be revised upwards for the first few years at least or a Scottish Government would have to accept that it could not protect itself alone immediately after independence but if it got into NATO, the UN and the EU as hoped that factor need not be a problem.
Beyond the forces themselves is the issue of the 12,000 jobs that rely on the defence
industry. The biggest of these are the BAE shipyards on the Clyde. The Scottish Government says it would immediately put in an order for two further frigates but whether the yards could survive beyond that would depend on the Government in London continuing to place orders in the Clyde. The current weight of opinion is that Westminster wouldn’t be keen to have shipbuilding contracts carried out in what would become a foreign country for either political or tactical reasons.
As one UK Government strategist put it, why would you give up on votes in shipbuilding towns like Barrow or Portsmouth and continue to have ships built on the Clyde if Scotland were to leave the union?
However, there could be some wriggle room in other aspects of the defence industry where world-leading expertise has been built up north of the Border. For example, the French-owned Thales firm’s factory in Glasgow has been the sole supplier of submarine periscopes and masts to the Royal Navy since 1917.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond described the SNP defence plans as laughable in 2012 but last week his tone was noticeably different, making the point that “everything would be up for negotiation if the union broke up” when it comes to defence.
This is a recognition that although the SNP’s defence strategy might be muddled in some areas, an independent Scotland would actually hold quite a decent hand in any negotiations with Westminster.
The Fife port of Rosyth, currently fitting out the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, has the only dry dock big enough to carry out maintenance for the 65,000-tonne carriers.
And of course there is the issue of the UK’s submarine base on the Clyde and Scotland being at the heart of the NATO pact which The Sunday Post will consider in more detail next week.
The defence plan put forward by the SNP is in line with comparable-sized countries but the headaches involved in building the force are numerous, if not insurmountable.
However, it is clear so much would hinge on any post-Yes negotiations.
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe