Last week the Scottish Global Forum released its report about the future of defence in an independent Scotland, which you can read here. Think Defence brought the issue up and since then a good debate has been drummed up, which can be found here. It was on my 'to do list' to look at this issue anyway, so I might as well do it now while the debate is simmering nicely.
It's that last bit that has caused me the most head scratching. The SNP has talked a lot about the assets that it would like to inherit from the UK, but what it plans to do with them seems less clear. There has also been no input that I can see from the Scottish Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems about their plans, which mostly stems from their belief that the Scottish people will vote 'No' to independence and as such they see no point in planning for it.
The reason I feel this issue is so important is because it has the greatest bearing on what sort of force Scotland would need. There's no point having all the men and equipment needed to deploy a battlegroup half way across the world at short notice if that's not something that an independent Scotland would have any ambition of ever doing. If Scotland is only looking to its armed forces for home defence then that massively changes the equation.
Part of the problem appears to be the SNPs focus on percentages and value, with them apparently being more concerned with how much of a share they are entitled to of all the military resources available rather than what they're actually going to do with them. So while the headlines make great reading in the newspapers about claiming 8% of all the tanks etc, the more pressing question of how Scotland would fund the use and maintenance of these assets has taken a back seat.
Scotland also finds itself in an odd geographic spot, at once relatively safe from any threat of potential invasion but also slap bang in the middle of quite an important strategic area with regards to NATOs view of the world, sitting as it does at one end of what is currently known as the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, which represents the main transit route for Russian naval forces, in particular submarines, to access the Atlantic. With NATO membership then would come commitments to collective defence that may be at odds with the general plan for Scottish defence.
Perhaps the hardest question then is; where to start? I think the answer is the seas.
Scotland will be bordered on land by the UK, which is highly unlikely to pose any threat of invasion unless an independent Scotland did something incredibly stupid with regards to a potential threat to UK security. Unlike the UK, Scotland is also unlikely to saddle up alongside someone like the US or France and go off on many military adventures.
Primarily then its major concern is the waters that surround it on three sides and the value of these to the Scottish economy. Aside from the obvious assets in the oil and gas industry, and the value of fishing in Scottish Waters, the SNP has also set forth its ambitions to develop the waters around Scotland for use in offshore renewable energy projects, such as wind and wave power. Scotland will also be responsible for Search and Rescue operations at sea over quite a large area.
All of this points to a naval presence that would take precedence over other Scottish defence interests. When the time comes to bargain for assets, a wise Scottish government is likely to shift its focus to this domain and try to trade off other areas in order to enhance its share of naval assets.
What realistically should Scotland be aiming for? Without knowing the terms under which negotiations will take place it's impossible to say what sort of leverage they would have (if any), but it's likely they'll endeavour to target things like offshore patrol vessels of the River Class and their soon to be constructed replacements, as well as Type 23 frigates and some support vessels from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
If they did decide to make getting Type 23 frigates a priority then it's interesting to muse how many they would ask for? The Royal Navy is not simply going to sign over a large chunk of its already historically low level escort force without a fight, and what would Scotland primarily use these assets for?
The advantage of a ship like the Type 23 in Scottish hands would be its ability to carry out anti-submarine patrols as a protective measure for Scottish assets and also as part of wider NATO monitoring operations in the region. Unlike Royal Navy assets, they're unlikely to be sent on long missions to the middle east, Caribbean and other far flung corners of the world.
One ship is not enough though. It would leave significant gaps in coverage if that was indeed a primary mission of the Scottish Navy. Two ships would be worked hard to cover one another and give crews time for rest ashore. Three ships would allow coverage for refits, but still poses some risks. And by this point we're already starting to get into the realm of where the Royal Navy would be digging its heels in and saying "enough!".
The RN is simply not going to hand over a sizable chunk of its remaining surface fleet, which poses a rather vexing problem for the Scots. Where do they fill in the gaps?
One plan seems to be that Scotland will buy into the new Type 26 program, but that runs into a number of issues. Firstly, the Type 26 will not be in service till the end of this decade. Secondly, the first slots in that program are likely to be prioritised to the Royal Navy. And thirdly, the SNP still seems to assume that the Type 26 will be built on the Clyde, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
What seems more realistic is that Govan could be used to build a new class of offshore vessels more suited to Scotland's particular needs, with an emphasis on their firefighting, environmental clean up and maritime security capabilities, with some offensive capability tacked on. Sort of akin to the vessels used by the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency now, but larger and with a bit more bang.
When you consider that Scotland's current GDP is more similar to Norway's than it is to Denmark or the Netherlands, then this investment in offshore vessels would both be more realistic from a financial stand point and more useful to the Scottish government in general than making plans for a mini-flotilla of Frigates or Destroyers. The presence of one or two Type 23 could be used as the big stick to back up the smaller craft when needed.
Scotland also has a number of rivers, inlets and other areas that might be better suited to patrol by naval vessels, especially when related to protecting the approaches to naval facilities. For this reason, and for the benefit of university naval units, Scotland make seek to take on responsibility for a number of the UK Archer-class patrol boats.
Mine counter measures will also be another issue worthy of interest, at least for the protection of offshore assets and access to naval facilities. The UK currently operates 15 such vessels, split between the Sandown and Hunt classes. An independent Scotland could probably live with just three or four, all from one type.
I'd also be interested to know if Scotland had any interest in something like the Albion-class amphibious assault ships. These are big vessels, one of which serves as the flagship for the Response Force Task Group, while the other is laid up in extended readiness, with the two vessels being swapped every five or so years.
This would be an impressive capability for the Scottish Navy to retain (presuming they could negotiate for one) and the annual cost would not be beyond what Scotland could bear. With the unwillingness in the UK government to have two such ships active at once and with other options available, this might not be beyond the realms of possibility for a Scottish Navy to get their hands on. Would they want it though?
Well a ship like this would permit Scotland to move vehicles and heavy equipment overseas if needed, such as a peace support operations, while also giving Scotland access to a small amphibious assault capability. While the Scottish government probably has few plans to go around storming peoples coastlines, it does provide another foot in the NATO door, allowing Scottish forces to fulfil a mission to help reinforce the NATO northern land flank, as the UK Royal Marines are currently able to.
Such a large ship also represents a useful and relatively cheap diplomatic tool for Scotland, as it can be sent abroad on humanitarian and counter piracy missions, making a significant difference with its size and capacity. Its command facilities also leave the door open for Scotland to be able to access some of the highest reaches of future NATO/EU/UN operations, either through a future senior Scottish appointment, or by offering their facilities to commanders from other small countries.
As far as submarines are concerned, I'm not sure as this would be a huge area of interest for Scotland. They're certainly not going to be interested in nuclear powered attack subs like the Royal Navy's new Astute class (nor would they be likely to negotiate for any of these if they were!). Even conventional submarines are somewhat expensive and their utility is quite narrow, albeit they do represent powerful tools in the attack against both surface and sub-surface targets.
It's possible Scotland could opt to purchase a few small, lower cost subs, for example when Sweden starts producing its new class of conventional attack submarines, but this is likely to be lower down the priority list for a Scottish Navy, unless pressed by NATO to acquire such a capability.
Consideration also has to be given to Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and for this I think the Scots will turn to their air force, as indeed they might for the provision of helicopters for their naval vessels.
The simple fact is that Scotland will have a small armed services and the economies of putting all things that fly under one roof is probably the most attractive option. Centralising its basic pilot training to one site and providing the option for pilots who fail to meet the demands in one area to easily transfer to another specialism makes the most sense for such a small force, one that would need to squeeze the most out of its training resources.
What would the Scottish Air Force look like? A tartan roundel perhaps?
I jest, but I can't imagine the air force being too lavish. That said, if we're sticking with the Norway comparison then there probably would be funds for a small contingent of fighter aircraft. It's unlikely that the Scottish Air Force would require all the advanced air to ground weapon options that are currently being slated for the Tranche 3 Typhoons, and with the Tranche 1 aircraft supposedly on their way out of UK service in the near future it would make sense for Scotland to take on some of these.
Depending on how much Scotland plans to spend of defence (which is likely to hover around the 2% mark if they want in on NATO), then it would be conceivable for Scotland to handle say around thirty to forty odd fighters. With bases at Lossiemouth, Leuchars and Kinloss its easy to see how Scotland could provide for three squadrons on a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA)/training/rest cycle, with a fourth squadron for conversion and evaluation. They might have to keep flying hours down relative to the UK, in order to reduce costs and make their equipment go further, but there's little reason to think this couldn't be managed.
This would allow Scotland to provide for its own air defence as well as contributing to NATO on a small but still useful scale.
A handful of ex-UK C-130s would provide for transport in the interim, but with these airframes expected to reach the end of their working lives by 2020 Scotland would likely be looking at a replacement sooner rather than later. Frankly I can't see Scotland needing anything along the lines of a medium to heavy transporter like the A400M or C-17, but there is an opportunity here for the future.
Something like the CASA C-235 or C-295 provides the option of a single type fleet that would be split between Maritime Patrol and the transport role, which is precisely the sort of economies that Scotland could do with, although their ability to airlift vehicles would take a knock.
On the helicopter front, much again depends on what Scotland could prise out of the UK. The most obvious needs are for supporting their naval craft, Search and Rescue (SAR) of local waters, with a particular eye on offshore platforms such as the oil and gas rigs, as well as army support.
The UK currently operates three helicopter types that would be of the most interest, those being the Puma, Merlin and Lynx. An independent Scotland - especially one looking to extract as much value as possible out of all its assets - is unlikely to be that interested in the larger Chinook helicopters.
With the UK replacing its Lynx fleet with the new Wildcat variant, there exists some possibility that Scotland could take on the old Lynx helicopters, depending on their condition. This platform would cover their naval and some light land requirements, but isn't really suited to SAR or for the full transport requirements of a Scottish army. Puma on the other hand can handle probably 90% of the transport requirements for the army as well as conversion for SAR, but isn't really suitable for the full spectrum of naval roles.
That only leaves Merlin, an expensive and versatile helicopter that the UK has invested a lot of money in recently and would be most most keen to cling to, especially as it will make up the backbone of the Fleet Air Arm for the foreseeable future.
It's conceivable then that the UK might offer a mixed fleet of Lynx and Puma, with the roles split between them and the understanding that a future purchase would be needed in the next decade or so, ideally of a single type such as Merlin that would be capable of handling all roles required of Scottish helicopters. They might even be able to coax the UK to hand over a few Apache, though the need for this type in Scottish service would be more marginal.
In the trainer role the UK is practically tripping over Grob Tutors for elementary flying, so that shouldn't be a problem. The issue comes as you move up the ladder and get to more advanced aircraft. The Tucano is certainly a step up from something like the Tutor, but the leap from there to something like Typhoon would be significant. There are certainly enough airframes for Scotland to take some BAE Hawk. Whether they would want to invest in yet another intermediary step, especially with the advent of modern simulators, is another matter altogether.
On land, an independent Scotland is likely to restrict its activities to around a brigade sized force. Returning to the earlier assumptions, Scotland neither faces much of a threat of land based invasion nor has a pressing requirement for expeditionary warfare on land. A brigade size force offers Scotland all the protection its likely to need in the near future at home, while also preserving the option for small deployments as part of an international peacekeeping effort.
For this reason I'm not sure as Scotland would really take much interest in tanks like Challenger or armoured personnel carriers like Warrior. These are very much a spearhead type capability, the sort of thing you'd expect to see going in first as part of a major land based operation (though such vehicles have seen much utility in both Iraq and Afghanistan).
It's tempting to point to small European countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway etc and cite their retention of armoured warfare abilities, but this is a false comparison for me. These countries have borders on the continent and still face a risk, however much it might have diminished, of invasion across those land borders.
I think Scotland's position would make it more likely to turn towards a somewhat lower level of mobile warfare, namely the light wheeled variety, with the understanding that its most dangerous deployments in future are by far more likely to be of the Afghanistan/Iraq mould, in which fast, low cost, low impact, mine protected vehicles would be more relevant to their needs.
This points towards vehicles more along the line of the Mastiff/Ridgeback, Jackal/Coyote, and Foxhound varieties possessed by the UK. Such vehicles represent a much more viable capability for Scotland to maintain. If something more robust were needed in the future, likely in the form of a family of wheeled armoured vehicles, then there are literally scores of suppliers across the world who would cut each others legs off to win an order, so there shouldn't be too many problems in that regard.
So what would a Scottish brigade entail? Some from of brigade reconnaissance ability, a few battalions of infantry, plus support. They really shouldn't require more than this.
If we assume that Scottish cap badges currently tied up in the UK army were transferred (and there's no reason to think they wouldn't), then it's easy to see how the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for example could take on the reconnaissance role, with some of the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland filling in the infantry roles. Three battalions of infantry should probably suffice for Scottish needs.
I can't see Scotland investing much in things like parachuting, unless they plan to offer a parachute deployment capability as a NATO asset, perhaps again as part of a plan to rapidly reinforce the NATO north flank. Whether they chose to develop a Marine unit would depend on discussions with the Scottish Navy, who might argue for control of such a force for boarding parties and the like. An artillery battalion, engineer battalion, signals battalion, medical battalion and logistics battalion would likely round out the brigades capabilities.
In addition, Scotland has a rich tradition of supplying individuals to Britain's SAS and SBS (the SAS was founded by a Scotsman), which would likely be retained by the formation of a special forces unit that you can imagine might take on the Scots Guards identity. Such a unit would conceivably be smaller than its UK counterparts, but might take on an equally demanding set of roles including counter-terrorism/hostage rescue (both on land and at sea), unconventional warfare in support of deployed Scottish peacekeepers/COIN forces, and intelligence gathering.
One of the big questions though regarding Scottish defence is what will happen to the Faslane base and the UKs nuclear deterrent? Despite the rhetoric, the Scottish government is likely more than well aware that it has a limited ability to negotiate in this regard. Even if it stamped its foot down and said it wanted the weapons gone from day one, no excuses etc, it's extremely unlikely the UK would jeopardise its nuclear deterrent just to serve the interests of the SNP.
The long term plan put forward by the Scottish government is to use the infrastructure at Faslane as both a Naval base and the headquarters of the new Scottish forces. It's certainly possible that some accommodation could be made such that the base could continue to be used as the home of the UK deterrent in the interim, while also allowing the use of Faslane as a headquarters, though investment would probably be required to make it a reality.
Honestly I think it represents such a complex issue that trying to even guess at the solution this early is fruitless. So much depends on the status the base will occupy in any agreement (there's been half hearted suggestions that it may be designated a sovereign base area) and how long the nuclear weapons will remain there.
Perhaps the most pressing issue for me, and one that may really fall outside of the scope of the military, is the subject of intelligence.
If Scotland chooses independence then it would find itself severed from access to a significant amount of intelligence collected by the UKs security services. Much of this will stem from international agreements that prevent the sharing of intelligence collected by allies without their permission. In this regard Scotland would undergo a period of vulnerability while it builds up its own intelligence services and demonstrates to allies that it can be trusted with any information that is shared with them.
Scotland is not immune to such threats, as the attack on Glasgow airport in 2007 demonstrated. The worry is that an attack might be attempted during this window of vulnerability, before terrorists believe that Scotland has achieved the level of security needed to gain access to sensitive intelligence from foreign partners. It's unclear how much assistance, in terms of manpower and equipment, the UK would provide during this stage.
With a reduced ability to track sensitive targets coming into the country, and their movement internally once they have arrived, Scotland will have to remain extra vigilant against the possibility of a terrorist attack.
As far as recruitment goes, I'm not as negative as some. Granted, the prospect of serving in the UK forces would offer much greater opportunities for travel and "action" to young Scots, but the Scottish defence forces would still have a number of selling points of there own. If nothing else then the forces would represent a stable and reasonably well paid form of employment, with opportunities to acquire skills for use in the private sector once they leave. This alone should be enough to attract a steady stream of potential recruits.
In summary then, I think Scotland has the capability and finances to support a reasonable level of defence. It would benefit from a lack of immediate threats and a government with few aspirations to intervene on the worldwide stage, which should allow Scotland to hone in on those capabilities most relevant to its immediate protection, while still being able to offer something of value to NATO.