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Anticipating Divorce: The SNP and its Vision for Defence in an Independent Scotland

14 January 2013

On 19 October 2012, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) conference voted to approve a new resolution on a Foreign, Security and Defence policy for an independent Scotland. The resolution provides greater detail on the SNP’s stance on defence than previous statements and introduces at least one major new policy change in the ending of the party’s historic opposition to NATO membership. More widely, it offers some intriguing clues to the party’s evolving thinking in this area, and to the kinds of choices, opportunities and dilemmas faced by smaller European states in defence and security planning in the contemporary era. The following commentary was submitted in response to specific questions from the Scotland Institute for a report on the Defence Implications for an Independent Scotland, to be published in early 2013.

Tim Edmunds

On 19 October 2012, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) conference voted to approve a new resolution on a Foreign, Security and Defence policy for an independent Scotland. The resolution provides greater detail on the SNP’s stance on defence than previous statements and introduces at least one major new policy change in the ending of the party’s historic opposition to NATO membership. More widely, it offers some intriguing clues to the party’s evolving thinking in this area, and to the kinds of choices, opportunities and dilemmas faced by smaller European states in defence and security planning in the contemporary era. The following commentary was submitted in response to specific questions from the Scotland Institute  for a report on the Defence Implications for an Independent Scotland, to be published in early 2013.

1. Role: The SNP’s envisaged role for an independent Scottish Defence and Peacekeeping Forces (SDPF) departs significantly from that of current UK armed forces. It calls for a territorially-focused, non-nuclear SDPF, in NATO, but with more limited ambitions to contribute to operations abroad under UN sanction. This vision is not necessarily out of line with that of some other smaller European nations and is sympathetic to a large swathe of public opinion in Scotland and perhaps the UK more widely. However, it represents a major retreat from the expeditionary imperative which has driven British defence policy since the end of the Cold War at least. 

2. Budget: The commitment to a £2.5 billion budget for defence proposed by the resolution exceeds most earlier predictions of defence spending in an independent Scotland. The £2.5 billion figure would place an independent Scotland in the top six of NATO countries in terms of defence spending per-head in the armed forces (on 2011 defence budgets[1]). On the basis of a regular force structure of 15,000 personnel, the proposed budget would deliver £166,667 per service man or woman. This is less than the current UK figure of £226,938, but relatively generous compared to other comparators; Denmark for example spends the equivalent of £163,421 per head, Norway £163,051, Ireland £84,166, Belgium £70,061 and the Czech Republic £61,461. Of comparable countries only the Netherlands (£194,123) and Sweden (£189,078) spend more. It would also represent between 2 and 1.7 per cent of GDP[2], again in the upper echelon of NATO and EU member states.

3. Capabilities 1: On the face of it, a 2.5 billion defence budget would seem more than adequate to fund a much smaller, more territorially focused SDPF. Even so, this level of defence spending would preclude an independent Scotland from many of the higher end capabilities currently in service with or under development for UK armed forces and close down some of the economies of scale to be found in larger force structures. Items such as the Astute class submarines, CVF carriers and Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) would be likely beyond the capacity of an independent Scottish Defence Force to sustain, as too might be nuclear submarines in general, the Type-45 Destroyer and perhaps even Typhoon. A persuasive argument can be made that such capabilities would in any case exceed the requirements of the more modest strategic posture proposed in the resolution. However, obvious alternatives are not necessarily available in the current UK inventory, raising the question of where more appropriate platforms (for example diesel-electric patrol submarines) are to be found and how they will be paid for.  While the resolution talks in very general terms about ‘joint procurement with the rest of the UK and other allies’, it is far from clear how smoothly such arrangements would work in practice, particularly given the potentially different strategic requirements of the SDPF and remaining UK (rUK) armed forces. 

4. Capabilities 2: A force structure of only 15,000 personnel would place the SDPF amongst the smallest armed forces in Europe. The proposed size of the SDPF would represent a significant constraint on their capacity for independent deployment in multinational missions and the nature of tasks they could undertake therein. Given the need to rotate troops in and out of theatre, as well as to provide for territorial defence, training, logistics and other support functions at home, and across land, sea and air environments, the number of actual combat troops who could be deployed to operations would likely be very modest. Of course, there are a number of countries with comparably sized or even smaller armed forces, who remain active in UN peacekeeping and NATO operations, including Denmark, Estonia, Ireland and the Slovak Republic. A small but comparatively well funded SDPF could probably offer limited but high quality contributions to multinational operations. As with many other smaller states, in most cases these would need to be integrated within contingents from larger contributors.

5. Hidden costs: UK armed forces are structured, organised and governed as an integrated whole, with unified strategic planning, bureaucratic management, basing arrangements and support structures. Experience from Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia suggests that the financial, organisational and human resource costs of breaking up these structures and establishing new ones will be significant and not simply resolved by a proportional division of assets.  There are a number of capacities that an independent Scotland would have to develop from scratch, including a Ministry of Defence, new intelligence structures and defence training and education establishment. There are others – such as GCHQ – for example, which would be difficult to duplicate indigenously.    Negotiated arrangements for continued access to rUK and other allies’ infrastructure may be possible in some areas, at least in the short to medium terms. Elsewhere the start-up costs are likely to be significant, including the establishment of appropriate human resources and expertise (civilian and military) to staff and support the new structures. The resolution currently assumes a relatively uncontested division of assets between the SDPF and rUK armed forces. Transitional costs could be increased considerably in the case of a less favourable arrangement; for example if an independent Scotland was required to purchase equipment from the UK inventory.

6. Politics and Negotiation: The resolution presents an intriguing starting point for envisioning what an independent Scotland’s defence and security structures might look like. Nevertheless, at the moment it light on detail and has the flavour of a shopping list of desired outcomes – from a pick of the UK military inventory to conditional membership of NATO – rather than a developed policy document. Delivering on these goals in a way which minimises transition costs will require cooperation and coordination with allies, not least rUK. However, the resolution says almost nothing about the politics of these choices and the processes of negotiation and contestation which will be necessary to achieve them. Certainly, an independent Scottish military would retain many shared interests and values with its rUK counterpart, as well as deep cultural, historical, geographical and inter-personal connections which should bode well for future relations. However, real points of contention remain – from the future of Trident at Faslane and Coulport to responsibility for the UKs defence financial commitments, to the division of key assets and the future status of Scotland in (or out) of NATO. The proposal for a territorially-focused, non-nuclear SDPF in NATO may also lead to tension with the United States and other partners over issues of security cooperation, collective burden-sharing and the nuclear status of the Alliance. It seems unlikely that an independent Scotland would be able to have it all its own way in dictating the terms of a military divorce, and in this context, much work remains to be done to translate this vision into reality.

Tim Edmunds
19 December 2012

 


Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence

[1] All data taken from The Military Balance (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012). US$ = 0.62 UK£.

[2] Scottish government figures on 2011 GDP: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Economy

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