The End of an ‘Auld Sang’: Defence in an Independent Scotland

Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director at RUSI, has written a fascinating briefing paper, The End of an ‘Auld Sang’: Defence in an Independent Scotland (PDF). He argues that “it would not be realistic for Scotland’s Defence Forces to expect an annual budget of more than around £2 billion”. They would need to secure the UK’s cooperation, and that would come at a price:

Scotland would still need protection against a range of existing and new threats, forwhich it currently depends on British forces and security agencies. The most serious future threats, at present, are probably those connected with cybercrime and cyber-espionage. But Scotland would also face security risks in other areas, including terrorism and organised crime. The security and cyber-defence agencies of an independent Scotland would no doubt want to negotiate information-sharing and burden-sharing arrangements in each of these areas, as indeed would the newly established Scottish Defence Forces. But the UK would not be obliged to provide help simply because Scotland had asked for it. Much would depend on whether Scotland was also willing to accommodate the UK’s own security requirements. (p2)

Nor could Scotland just divvy up existing British assets on its soil:

[T]here will soon be one major army base, one major Royal Navy base and one major RAF base in Scotland. But these are not free-standing units, able to be rebadged as Scotland’s armed forces in the way that schools or hospitals or police forces have been. They are part of an integrated whole, organised on a Union basis. The British Army has several thousand soldiers, based around a brigade headquarters, in Scotland. But the transport aircraft and helicopters needed to carry them around, the staff colleges needed to train them,the organisations that buy and maintain their weapons, and the strategic headquarters needed to command them are all in the rest of the United Kingdom. All these functions would have to be newly created for Scotland to have a functioning national army. (p4)

Opting out of collective security arrangements would be problematic:

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has a policy of opposing NATO membership for Scotland. But there is growing pressure on the Party to rethink this position, given the signals it might send to countries on whose sympathy (or at least tolerance) Scotland would depend in the event of independence. It is one matter, like Sweden and Ireland, never to have been a member of NATO, for historical reasons which everyone has long come to understand. It would be quite another to make a deliberate decision not to join an alliance which has been responsible for the protection of one’s territory since its formation in 1949. Nor would this only be a problem with Scotland’s European neighbours. Close historic and personal links with Australia, Canada and the United States could be an important asset for the new state, helping it consolidate its place in the international order. None of these countries would understand what message Scotland was seeking to send by opting out of an alliance that has been the central player in Atlantic security for the last six decades. The reaction of US opinion, in particular, would be likely to be hostile … It would be hard to square Scotland’s acceptance of [NATO’s] Strategic Concept with an expulsion of the UK’s nuclear force from its bases at Faslane and Coulport (p6-7)

On personnel:

Given the disparity in size and ambition between the two countries, however, many of the most ambitious and talented Scots would probably opt to stay in the UK’s armed forces, just as many served in the English Army before 1707. (p13)

See also: Alex Salmond on keeping Scottish regiments, CND on the impracticality of siting Trident outside Scotland, and another RUSI piece on Scottish security policy.

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4 responses to “The End of an ‘Auld Sang’: Defence in an Independent Scotland

  1. Angus McLellan

    It would be, I feel, a mistake on the part of outside observers to confuse Professor Chalmers with a neutral commentator. He has, after all, written at length on Scotland & (UK) nuclear weapons. It would be fair to say that at no point did he ever show any interest in Scotland, only in the impact of Scottish devolution or independence on the UK and its policies. I am therefore rather skeptical of the idea that he has suddenly changed his spots. I feel there is ample evidence of his position in this paper.

    No commentator with Scotland’s interests in mind would suggest that large, expensive Typhoon fighters were an appropriate choice of combat aircraft. Small countries buy small, cheap and flexible combat aircraft, F-16s and Gripens and the like, do they not? But the UK has substantially more Typhoons available and on order than will be needed when – if? – the F-35 enters service. That is not coincidence. The same could be said of the suggestion that the limited-capability River Class patrol vessels, rather feeble specimens when compared to the modern multipurpose Coast Guard vessels operated by Norway and Iceland among others, would be just the thing for our Scottish Navy. Again, good for the rump UK, bad for Scotland. I am expecting someone from RUSI to be along soon to explain why Scotland would need tanks, another weapons system of which the UK has far more than needed.

    I would like to see a rational analysis of defence in an independent Scotland, but this was nothing like that.

  2. I looked at Professor Chalmers’ piece again, and he only mentioned Typhoons once. That is in this context:

    “The 2012 Libyan conflict demonstrated that relatively small countries, like Denmark, Norway and Belgium, could make a substantial contribution to NATO efforts through the deployment of small numbers of modern F-16 aircraft. Scotland could consider retaining a similar type of capability, perhaps claiming a share of the RAF’s planned fleet of combat capable aircraft (such as the Typhoon) in order to do so” (p11)

    In other words, it looks as though he would not necessarily disagree with your suggestion that “small countries buy small, cheap and flexible combat aircraft, F-16s and Gripens and the like”.

  3. Angus McLellan

    Given the paucity of concrete material on our hypothetical independent Scotland and defence policy in the paper, one mention seems significant. Of course I could be getting carried away with my Kremlinology.

    I am deeply concerned by suggestions that negotiators might seek an 8% share of UK defence assets as this, together with mentions of hypothetical defence budgets and basing requirements, seems to me to be a very bad case of putting the cart before the horse. Scotland’s electoral system is broadly proportional making coalitions and minority governments likely. It is likely that there would be divisions within parties on defence policy as well as between them. For that reason, a multiparty agreement in principle on defence policy, as seen in Denmark or Sweden, seems to be an essential requirement.

    But before developing plans for a Danish or UK style “expeditionary” defence force it would be sensible to have some understanding of public attittudes towards this sort of robust interventionist policy. Absent public and political support, or at least acquiescence, that sort of policy would not be sustainable. But the parties opposed to independence are unlikely to give the matter serious consideration until they have to. And the public will not be in a position to form solid opinions until the costs and consequences of the various alternatives are clear.

    The only workable route is to debate before embarking on ambitious plans. It is, for example, necessary to know whether you wish or need to maintain an air combat capability before you can take any decisions on its size and composition. Scotland is not nearly as far from anywhere else as New Zealand, but it is far enough from any plausible threat to make the answer to the first question far from self-evident.

    So I am grateful to Professor Chalmers for starting a debate – or trying to anyway – even though I doubt his motives for doing so. But I do not believe any meaningful debate will develop unless and until the referendum delivers its result.

  4. I agree, of course, that it’s desirable to have a sense of public opinion. I also agree that things will depend on the party political balance. But my understanding of this paper was as follows:

    An independent Scotland, for better or worse, and in order to secure its own basic security needs, will face strong pressures and compulsions to participate in European collective security. The price of entry is some ability to participate in such arrangements, and combat aircraft or ‘modular’ expeditionary forces is one basic means of doing so (though clearly not the only one – Estonia and Albania come to mind as useful models bringing special non-expeditionary skills to the table).

    That is where the point on expeditionary forces came from – not out of some ideological preference for power projection. It seems reasonable to me to suppose that Scotland will face these strong pressures whatever the political make-up of an independent government, and that such a government will have other electoral priorities in any case. I agree that debate will and should precede ambitious plans. But I’m not sure the briefing paper was coming down too strongly on any one side of the debate, even if it does make key assumptions that are open to contestation. I see how those assumptions have strong political implications, of course.

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