The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy

Apr 8, 2014   //   by NavyLookout   //   blog  //  1 Comment

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 lacking in 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 of 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 flawed the 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.


A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War

Oct 8, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  3 Comments

Hunter Killers

Hardback, £13.20

Kindle Version, £9.99

Respected naval author Iain Ballantyne recently published Hunter Killers telling the incredible, true story of the Royal Navy ‘s submarines confronting the Soviet Union. The exploits of RN submarines in the Cold War is a story that needs to be told, not just to honour the men involved but to support the case for investment in submarines today. The RN submarine force is now in a parlous state, and one senses frustration amongst serving submariners that, by the very nature of their work, they can’t talk about much of what they do. Intentionally out of sight and often forgotten, there is a lack of public and political appreciation of what great national assets our submarines are.

Hunter Killers – reviewed

The story starts in the aftermath of WWII when the RN was applying lessons from captured  German submarine technology, pushing to give diesel submarines (SSKs) greater underwater speed and endurance. Meanwhile the, then backward, Soviet navy was embarking on a race to become a naval giant which would see it fielding a vast and fearsome array of submarines by the mid-1980s. The author neatly paints in the political and historical backdrop to operations without hampering the flow of the submarine stories which will keep you gripped. While the world was often focused on the superpower space race, a more exciting, secret and ultimately more consequential duel was being fought in inner space. As submarine-launched nuclear weapons proliferated during the 1960s, NATO forces aimed to track and record as many Soviet submarines as possible. The Soviets built ever-increasing numbers and varieties of ballistic missile (SSBN) and attack subs (SSNs). The RN and even the US could not hope to match the sheer quantity but were far ahead in technology and in particular, the quality of the crews. The technological edge was largely maintained until undermined by the 1980s through the work of naval spy rings in the UK and the US. Also weaved into the narrative is the development of the RN’s submarines. From the first nuclear powered HMS Dreadnought, followed by the Valiants, Churchills and the world-beating Swiftsures. Also the very efficient Polaris programme to get the UK nuclear deterrent to sea and a glimpse of the wide-ranging operations of the diesel Oberon class are covered.

Although the books They Come Unseen and the US equivalent, Blind Man’s Buff gave fascinating glimpses into this world of undersea duelling, being published more than a decade earlier, they lack the level of detail Hunter Killers reveals. The book is mainly based on the tales of a few key RN submarine commanders who talk candidly about their experiences for the first time. What is clear is that for most of the Cold War period RN submariners were effectively operating on a war footing, on occasions taking extreme risks in getting close to other submarines, operating in the Barents Sea and penetrating Soviet waters. The book details many amazing operations some of which were supreme triumphs as well as some near disasters. The collision of HMS Warspite with a Soviet submarine (1968) rolled her over to 65° and traumatised many of the crew. HMS Sceptre sustained severe damage in another collision (1981) which ripped off her forward casing and part of the fin. For all the publicity around RN submarines operations in the Falklands War, most submariners regard their exploits in Northern waters as more daring, demanding and rewarding.

Make no mistake, the constant pressure on the Soviet navy from the RN and USN not only acted as an ongoing deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons but helped win the Cold War. The intelligence gathered was invaluable in keeping NATO ready to strike back in the event of Soviet aggression. The Soviet response to Western superiority was to try to out-spend them, ultimately bankrupting and hastening the collapse of the Communist bloc. The book concludes fittingly with specialist intelligence-gathering Frigate HMS London, commanded by a submariner entering Murmansk for a friendship visit with the old foe at the end of the Cold War. The author was aboard and witnessed the ship having to take avoiding action to dodge a ‘friendly’ practice torpedo fired at the ship by a Russian sub! This book is a ‘must-read’ for naval enthusiasts and historians, it will probably become required reading even for serving personnel. There is no better book on the submarine aspects of the Cold War.

Precious few hunter killers in the 21st Century

As has historically has so often been the case, victory was the reward for the Royal Navy’s dedication and sacrifice in the Cold War. With scant gratitude or foresight, politicians in the early 1990s, foolishly thinking that the era of conflict was over, started slashing defence spending. This foolishness has continued pretty much until the present day and the RN submarine force has declined proportionally, losing all its SSKs and now down to around just 7 SSNs. (See previous post for more on this sorry tale). Today the RN’s attack submarine force has its hands full with a wide variety of tasks. Its primary job of escorting and protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent carried aboard the SSBNs ensuring they are not trailed by other subs remains. On top of that, the advent of the submarine-launched Tomahawk missile means the UK tries to keep at least one boat East of Suez ready to launch Tomahawks and this commitment is a big stretch. There are many other very useful tasks that RN subs undertake on a daily basis – gathering intelligence on potential foes (and probably allies too), listening to communications, photographing coastal installations and providing information back to the UK on criminal, terrorist, and military activity. While they may not have to take quite the risks they did against Soviet submarines, tracking and recording the unique acoustic signatures of other submarines and warships helps maintain a data library vital to a submarine operations. In the event of a future naval conflict it is likely submarines will pose by far the greatest threat to the vulnerable merchant ships that the UK is so dependent upon. The Cold War may appear to be over but Putin is determined to restore superpower status to Russia and is building new generations of SSNs and SSBNs. At a time when many nations across the world are investing in greater numbers of new submarines, particularly quiet SSKs, the case for building more than the 7 Astute class submarines planned, or even some conventional submarines, is stronger than ever. Meanwhile the RN does what it has always done and make the best of its very limited resources. A sign of the RN’s professionalism is that despite constant dangers, calculated risks and daring operations, the RN has not lost a submarine at sea since HMS Affray in 1951. Furthermore it is an incredible achievement that no Royal Navy SSBN has ever been detected since patrols began in 1968.

No shortcuts…

As a footnote to the amazing story of the RN’s Cold War efforts, every single one of its retired nuclear submarines remain intact today. Currently there are 7 decaying hulks in Rosyth and a further 8 in Devonport with more decommissioned T class subs coming soon. The MoD has been dismally slow to dispose of these vessels, which have been hanging around far too long and pose a small risk of radiation leaks. A plan to dismantle them in both locations looks to be inching slowly forward. On top of a string of reports of minor failures on nuclear safety in recent years, an electrical failure at Devonport in 2012 created a serious risk of a nuclear incident with reactors deprived of coolant supplies. This kind of  incompetence and negligence puts lives at risk and gives CND, the Greens etc a field day to undermine our nations defence. This must be a top priority for the MoD and its contractors. There can be no shortcuts, no economies and no excuses on nuclear safety of RN submarines and their supporting infrastructure.