Stuart Crawford and Richard Marsh: Defending an Independent Scotland post-Brexit

Ben Wray

Stuart Crawford and Richard Marsh, authors of a 2012 RUSI paper on defence in an independent Scotland, find that changed circumstances since 2014 means a different set of priorities for defence spending after independence is needed, with some important implications for the size of an independent Scotland’s defence budget

THE publication of the SNP’s Growth Commission report, written by a team led by former SNP MSP turned corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson, injected some impetus into the arguably moribund campaign for Scottish independence. The main focus of the report was, unsurprisingly, economic growth, but it did contain a couple of paragraphs on defence. These are to be found in Part B of the report, in what others have called the “if we were independent pitch”

The report asserts that a (presumably) independent Scotland’s defence spending would be in the order of 1.6 per cent of GDP, or roughly £2.6 billion per annum, and the armed forces of the independent state would number around 12,600 service personnel plus some 700 civilian defence staff, possibly rising to 1,000, in the fullness of time. It would appear that the figure of 1.6 per cent of GDP has been, if not exactly plucked out of thin air, designed to be less than current UK spending but not so far off the NATO target of 2 per cent as to dissuade other members should Scotland wish to join.  And it is roughly the percentage that Albania, Bulgaria and Slovenia currently spend, and similar to the £2.5 billion mooted in the SNP’s 2014 White Paper.

Let’s be clear here; neither of these methods are how you should go about designing armed forces or deciding on a defence budget. There are three very simple steps to be followed in doing the job properly.

First, decide what you want your armed forces to do. Next, work out what you think in terms of numbers and equipment you need to do it. And finally calculate whether you can afford it. If you can’t start again, prioritise, rationalise and compromise. Repeat as nauseam until you come up with something that’s acceptable. That’s all there is to it, but it’s easier said than done.

In October 2012 the Royal United Services Institute published ‘A’ the Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland’, written by us, using the methodology described above, in which we set out a costed model for how an independent Scotland might organise and equip its armed forces. 

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To summarise the RUSI paper, it suggested that a possible model for an independent Scottish Defence Force (SDF) might comprise a navy (Scottish Navy or SN) of between 20 and 25 vessels and some 1,500–2,000 personnel, an army (Scottish Army or SA) of between 10,000–12,500 personnel, and an air force (Scottish Air Force or SAF) of around sixty airframes and approximately 1,750 – 2,250 personnel. The paper opined that existing British armed services bases in Scotland could be used or adapted for SDF use, and that all three services would be equipped initially by their inherited “share” of the British inventory initially supplemented by off the shelf purchases in the future.

Critically, it postulated that the SDF would not, mainly for costs reasons, be able to maintain a full spectrum military capability and that some specialisation would be required. It was deemed unlikely that the SDF would wish, or be able to, procure and operate “high end” military equipments like submarines, aircraft carriers, tanks, attack helicopters, and modern fast jet fighters and these were omitted from the hypothesis. Finally, the cost of the model was estimated to be in the region of between £1.5 – £1.8 billion per annum.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since our RUSI report was published and it now needs to be updated. There have been major developments in both the geopolitical and defence spheres which require us to adapt our thinking to produce a new, updated model for an independent Scotland’s defence forces which would be fit for the new world order of the middle 21st century.

In global geopolitics we have seen a shift in US foreign policy focus from Europe to the Pacific, and more specifically to North Korea and the continuing emergence of China as a major economic and military power. At the same time, the US and its allies are still embroiled in a seemingly never-ending series of wars and conflicts in the Middle East, whilst at the same time looking askance at Russia’s evolving military adventurism.

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Closer to home, the UK has voted to leave the EU, which has turned into a tortuous and seemingly never-ending process, with a transition period of two years thereafter, and is trying desperately to extricate itself from any EU military commitments with which it may have become involved, whether by design or by default.

In Scotland, the Independence Referendum of 2014 returned a majority of Scots voting to remain within the UK, much to the chagrin of independence supporters and the SNP. The constitutional question has not gone away, though, and there are calls to hold another independence referendum either before or after Britain’s exit from the EU.  And we also now have the aforementioned Growth Commission report.

Militarily too we face a much-changed landscape. In NATO, the USA has signalled its dissatisfaction with current levels of defence spending by its allies. China is emerging as a serious contender in the military balance, and North Korea has been sabre-rattling with its nuclear arsenal much to the discomfort of its neighbours. The Middle East remains a mess and the Israeli–Palestine situation does not look as if it will be resolved any time soon. Russia has become much more military aggressive with invasions of Crimea and the Ukraine plus increased levels of military activity in the Baltic region and international waters.

Britain has re-committed itself to a global military strategy, best indicated by the construction of two major aircraft carriers, adherence to the Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) nuclear posture via its decision to renew its SSBN fleet, and the re-establishment of the Royal Navy base in Bahrain, HMS Jufair. The UK is now clearly struggling to match its defence aspirations to its defence budget, and the still  to be published Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) report will make for interesting reading.

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It is against this background that we re-assess what we said before. The central tenets of our RUSI study, we believe, remain sound: specifically that an independent Scotland would be likely to have a regional, rather than global, focus for its foreign and defence policies whilst retaining an option to contribute modestly to international and global interventions if it so chose; and that creating and maintaining a full spectrum military capability would be beyond a small nation of some 5.5 million souls.  Accordingly, military specialisation and niche capability would be the order of the day.  Membership of NATO and the emerging EU defence capability would be sought.

The full arguments and rationale for our new look Scottish Defence Forces will be explained in detail in our forthcoming comprehensive review but we can précis our outline thoughts here.  We envisage a scenario where an independent Scotland would now shift its defence and military emphasis away from the army heavy model we proposed in 2012, together with an overall reduction in force levels and an even lower budget than that of between £1.5 – £1.8 billion that we previously identified.

Most, if not all, of the defence inventory would still come from Scotland’s inherited “share” of the UK’s, subject to negotiation as there are many items which independent Scotland would either not want or not be able to afford. With this in mind, we continue to see no utility for high end weaponry, and have therefore discounted aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, army attack helicopters, heavy artillery, and fast jet attack aircraft. And, of course, no nuclear weapons, although the continuing presence (or not) of the Trident missile carrying submarines at Faslane/Coulport on the Clyde will be explored in greater detail in our forthcoming paper.

In general terms we envisage a Scottish Defence Force comprising a navy of some 20 hulls (two frigates, a handful of MCMVs and OPVs and some support and training vessels), and approximately 2,500 personnel; an army able to produce one deployable brigade, with details of units and equipment to be the subject of further study, of some 6,000 personnel; and an air force with approximately 50 aircraft and UAVs with some 2,000 personnel. With an allowance for HQ and support staff, this gives us a total of 11,000 personnel, about a third less than our RUSI paper proposed. We would suggest that a ration of 70:30 in terms of regular versus reserve personnel might be appropriate, subject to further examination.

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Updating the calculations from our 2012 RUSI report, the cost for defending an independent Scotland would now fall to approximately between £1.1 billion to £1.3 billion per annum.  The Sustainable Growth Commission’s target of defence spending accounting for 1.6 per cent suggests a defence budget of around £2.7 billion.  This indicates that defending an independent Scotland could realise savings of up to £2.1 billion each year compared to defence spending allocation to Scotland in the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS report) and £1.6 billion each year compared to the assumptions set out in the Growth Commission’s report 

This clearly falls short of the NATO minimum defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP.  However, Scotland’s strategic location and military assets could also be offered as a partial quid pro quo, possibly including the development of a NATO or European air base at Lossiemouth or leasing Faslane to the rUK in the short to medium term.

Geopolitical developments over the past six years have required us to update our model for how an independent Scotland might defend itself. We are clear that a “full spectrum” military capability is neither necessary nor easily affordable, and specialisation and exploitation of potential military alliances to cover capability gaps are the way forward. The updated model précised here shows a possible Scottish Defence Force model which is smaller by a third and considerably less costly than our previous one. It is also achievable at approximately half the cost identified for defence in the Growth Commission Report.

Picture courtesy of 4 CDN Div / 4 Div CA – JTF/FOIC