The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy

Apr 8, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  10 Comments

On 18th September 2014 Scotland will vote on whether it wishes to break away from the United Kingdom and become and separate nation. Although opinion polls currently suggest Scottish voters will probably reject such a drastic change, the debate will become more fierce in the coming months with many minds not yet made up. In the event of independence, the RN will probably be the single British institution to suffer most with both its main submarine base and key shipyards under threat.

The Scottish Nationalist Party inspired document“Scotland’s future – your guide to an independent Scotland” was published in November 2013 by the Scottish Government. Loaded with generalisations, optimistic assumptions and short on detail, the proposals show a lack of understanding of the complexities of generating and maintaining credible armed forces.

HM Naval Base Faslane

The Faslane naval base. A crucial British national asset – home to Royal Navy’s four nuclear deterrent submarines, Astute class attack submarines and the Sandown class minehunters. MoD Photo

The most serious threat to Briatin’s security posed by Scottish independence would be the enforced removal of the Trident nuclear missile submarines from their base at Faslane. Space for the submarines could probably be found at Devonport but since the 1960s there has been a great deal of money invested in construction at Faslane which cannot be simply packed up and taken to Plymouth. Such an upheaval also threatens the 6,700 Royal Navy and civilian workers at Faslane. Even if a suitable, secure, deep water base could be found in England or Wales, replicating the specialist Coulport missile handling facility would also require vast expense. The Trident submarine replacement program is already at the very limits of what the defence budget can bear and, the costs of relocating facilites in the event of independence could well put an end to the UK nuclear deterrent on financial grounds. The loss of Faslane would also require the seven Astute class attack submarines to be re-located to Devonport, together with attendant costs.

Coulport Missile loading Facility

Inside the Coulport Missile loading Facility – Royal Navy Photo

The future of the two BAE Systems shipyards on the Clyde has become a major political battleground in the independence debate. With the ill-advised closure of the Portsmouth shipyard, these facilities will be the only complex warship builders left in Britain. As work on the carrier project draws down, continuity of work until the construction of the Type 26 frigates begins has been guaranteed by a recent order for 3 OPVs. This has been seen by some as a political ‘incentive’ to help Glasgow voters see their future is with a United Kingdom and given the very high stakes involved, perhaps this expediency is justified. In the event of independence, the RN would find its primary shipbuilder is now in a foreign country. Britain has never built its warships abroad both for security and economic reasons. The carrier project will be completed in Scotland but whether the Treasury would allow billions of Pounds to be spent on the Type 26 in ‘foreign’ yards is very doubtful. The Portsmouth yard’s future would look very different and the Barrow submarine yard, together with other smaller shipbuilders in the UK, would require investment as Portsmouth alone would not have sufficient capacity to meet the future needs of the RN.

The SNP does at least recognise the importance of the maritime domain to the UK, Scotland alone has a longer coastline than China. They are rightly critical of Westminster’s failure to invest in maritime forces, in particular the axing of maritime patrol aircraft and the lack of patrol vessels. According to the broad strokes of the whitepaper, the “Scottish Navy” will consist of two frigates, four mine countermeasures vessels and a ‘command platform’ all taken from the Royal Navy. There is also vague talk of talk of constructing OPVs and auxiliary support ships ‘shared with the UK’. The new navy is supposed to number about 2,000 personnel, initially to be drawn from Scots already serving in the RN. This assumes that Scots serving in the RN will be allowed to transfer when required by Scotland and that they would actually want to leave one of the world’s foremost navies to serve in this baby navy.

As a hasty paper exercise it is easy to create a navy based on what the SNP considers to be its ‘share’ of the RN. Whether this division should be done on the basis of GDP, head of population or even length of coastline is another discussion but the devil is in the detail. Taking a couple of Type 23 frigates and basing them in Scotland may sound simple, but like most defence assets they require a complex logistics and support tail. Ammunition and spares are sourced and managed by a UK-wide system run by the MoD and a sophisticated training pipeline is needed to produce competent crews, not something that can be replicated easily. When it comes to the crunch and whatever the SNP may claim, it is very hard to imagine the First Sea Lord agreeing to give away his very precious warships without a great deal of ‘blood on the carpet’ first.

That Royal Navy is a globally-deployed force reaching overseas to support the wider interests of the UK. The SNP’s defence strategy appears to be rather more parochial, although it vainly hopes to have some wider relevance through NATO. Perhaps understandably turned off by Britain’s problems in recent overseas interventions, they see defence as something that can be done purely in their own backyard. However failing to recognise Scotland’s dependence upon global maritime trade will jeopardises their security and pass the burden of protection on to navies of other nations. As well as making dubious assumptions that Scotland can join the EU, the SNP also expects to join NATO. After adopting an aggressive anti-nuclear stance and having just paralysed the nuclear forces of a founding NATO nation, whether Scotland would be welcomed to join the alliance is highly doubtful.

In reality both Scottish and UK security would be weakened by independence, most significantly because whether Scots recognise or approve of it or not, the nuclear deterrent that protects us would be gone. Taking other assets from an already over-stretched RN to build a Scottish waters fleet will simply undermine the ability to support the wider interests of both countries. For example while it maybe useful and symbolic to have a few more minehunters in Scottish waters for contingencies, the reality is that the threat of mines in the Persian Gulf is a much more immediate threat to Scottish interests.

It is obvious is that Scotland would be heavily reliant on London’s co-operation for its defence forces to have any credibility, at least for the first 10 years post-independence. In the mean time they would need to be making considerable investments in duplicating support infrastructure just to field this small force. London will have the advantage in many of the negotiations and perhaps some of the damage could be mitigated, eg the RN could keep its frigates it return for Scottish forces making use of training and support facilties in England.

English: First Minister Alex Salmond and Deput...

The greatest threat to Britain’s defence and security since the Second World war? Photo: Wikipedia

Separation would weaken both nations, undermine global credibility while duplicating costs to both country’s taxpayers. Historically many hardy Scotsmen have served with distinction in the British armed forces and their engineering and shipbuilding prowess was at the heart of naval power. Writing as someone born in England but with Scottish grandparents, I am British first and utterly reject the flawed arguments of the SNP. Scotland already rightly has a great deal of independence over its domestic affairs but we are all stronger and safer together, both economically and strategically.

Based on article that originally appeared in the April 2014 edition of Warships International Fleet Review magazine.


HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service with the Royal Navy

Apr 1, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  4 Comments

HMS Alliance

HMS Alliance as a museum vessel, soon to rejoin the Royal Navy submarine flotilla. Photo by Anguskirk via flickr

Admiral Tubworthy-Pollock has announced today that Museum submarine HMS Alliance is to be recommissioned back into active service with the Royal Navy.“With our submarine fleet rather below optimum size for the sustained tempo of operations currently undertaken, we saw what superb restoration work those fine chaps down in Gosport had done and the opportunity to operate this valuable asset was too good to miss” HMS Alliance was built in 1947 but with a recent £7 million refit, mostly funded by the national lottery, has made her look “good as new”. The idea was inspired by the Indian navy which is still operating the ex-HMS Hermes, laid down in 1944. If they can keep such an old vessel running so can we! The RN also faces a chronic shortage of trained submariners but the admiral says there are lots of veterans who are really keen to go back to sea. “Alliance will be manned by volunteer former submariners. We may have to restrict operations to weekends but I’m sure they will give any Russian vessels straying into UK waters something to think about. Some of the less sprightly crew will really appreciate the handy wheelchair access added when she was a museum”.

Museum ships HMS Warrior (1860), HMS Belfast (1939), HMS Cavalier (1944) and HMS Plymouth (1958) will also be re-activated. No new vessels are due to join the Royal Navy at all in 2014 or 2015 so it was felt time to “think outside of the box”. With the RN down to just 19 frigates and destroyers, re-activating these four fine veterans will increase the strength of our escort fleet by a whopping 21% at minimal cost to the taxpayer. “As BAE Systems is not involved in any way whatsoever, this project is guaranteed to save us money” says Captain Ian Rodgerard, leader of the Surface Platforms Leveraging of Assets Team (SPLAT). There are concerns that some of these vessels may be a little obsolete or not strictly seaworthy. “HMS Plymouth was obsolete even by the time of the Falklands War but she came through. With a lick of paint and a plenty of British fighting spirit these vessels will be fine additions to the Royal Navy” 

There is some dismay that the loss of these museum ships to active service will be a blow to the UK tourist and heritage industry. “Don’t worry, the taxpayer will keep funding the RAF Red Arrows to keep looping the loop and trailing red, white and blue smoke all over the country. They’re great for tourism and really help foreigners to remember just how great the we are and, most importantly, they help us forget all about defence cuts” says Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Bruntingsuch, Chief of the Defence Staff.

“We also looked long and hard at re-activating HMS Victory but it was felt our new French allies would be too upset by this” said an MoD spokesperson.