SNP rules out Trident submarine base in event of secession

UK defence nuclear updates

The Scottish National party on Thursday insisted that the UK’s nuclear deterrent would not be allowed to remain in Scotland in the event of a vote for independence, rejecting the option of creating an extraterritorial “nuclear Gibraltar”.

The reaction came after the Financial Times revealed that contingency planning has taken place in Whitehall looking at options to move the base of the UK’s Trident nuclear missile submarines from the west coast of Scotland, in the event of secession from the UK and the formation of an anti-nuclear state.

Those with knowledge of the plans said the preferred short-term option would be to form an overseas British territory encompassing the Royal Navy’s facilities at Faslane and Coulport, near Glasgow. Government insiders likened this to a “nuclear Gibraltar”, in reference to the UK territory at the southern tip of Spain.

But Stewart McDonald, SNP defence spokesperson, ruled out such a scheme, citing cross-party opposition to nuclear weapons in Scotland. He said the removal of nuclear weapons from the naval bases would “happen at pace”, adding: “negotiating their removal will be one of the most important tasks a newly independent Scotland will face”.

The SNP has long insisted that Trident would have to be removed after independence, forcing officials at the Ministry of Defence to consider as drastic a step as basing the Trident boats abroad as Scotland’s governing party strengthened its grip on the country in recent years. The US and France were both evaluated.

Senior SNP politicians seized on the contingency planning as recognition within the UK government that independence was a real possibility, despite London’s refusal to approve a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which voters in Scotland backed staying in the union by 55 to 45 per cent.

Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, is firmly set against Scottish independence but Alister Jack, Scotland secretary, recently said that the government would countenance another referendum if support for a plebiscite consistently reached 60 per cent in opinion polls. 

There is a historical precedent for establishing a British naval base in another sovereign state albeit not involving nuclear forces. In the early 1920s, London negotiated the use of three bases in Ireland following its independence from the UK. But 17 years in the run-up to the second world war, Dublin demanded the bases were handed back.

SNP strategists insisted the proposal to carve out part of Scotland’s sovereign territory on a long-term basis was impractical both because of local opposition and because it would not be in the UK’s own interests.

“There is just not a snowball’s chance in hell of nuclear weapons being based here for any longer than is necessary,” said one senior SNP member familiar with the party leadership’s thinking on defence issues.

“It will become obvious to [UK policymakers] that madcap ideas like treaty ports from 100 years ago in Ireland will not be accepted and are unworkable for any state wanting to credibly operate a strategic nuclear deterrent,” the senior party member said.

A Royal Navy Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine at Faslane naval base in Scotland
A Royal Navy Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine at Faslane naval base in Scotland © PA

Any agreement to retain the submarine base at Faslane and the Coulport weapons loading facility, would need to extend to the 2060s if it were to do more than merely delay a UK decision on where else to move its nuclear forces. The first of four new Trident missile-carrying Dreadnought submarines is expected to enter service in the early 2030s with a service life of at least 30 years.

Stephen Gethins, a former SNP MP who is now professor of practice in international relations at St Andrews university, said any such deal would be vulnerable from the start to public opposition and changes of administration.

One UK minister agreed, pointing to the recent decision by Johnson to break international law by ripping up part of the Brexit agreement with the EU, known as the internal market bill. “Imagine in 10 or 20 years time a mad Green government came into power in an independent Scotland. They might do an internal market bill and block access to our base. That’s untenable.”

But some supporters of independence in Scotland would support a deal on continued use of Faslane and Coulport if it would strengthen the new state’s hand in what would be difficult negotiations over border and currency arrangements and the national debt. It would also support the 8,000 jobs currently at the bases.

Information graphic giving an overview of Trident, UK's nuclear deterrent system

Forcing the removal of Trident could complicate an independent Scotland’s relations with the US and other allies. The party’s policy is to join the Nato alliance, which has a policy of nuclear deterrence based on the US, British and French arsenals.

SNP strategists cite the example of Denmark and Norway as Nato members that do not allow nuclear weapons to be based on their territory.

The secondary option for the Scottish bases, drawn up by the MoD, is to move them to another location within the British Isles. A report for the Royal United Services Institute estimate the cost at £3bn to £4bn but more significantly military planners have failed to find a location that provides the same security as Faslane and Coulport.

The most suitable site is the Devonport naval base on the south coast of England, which already refuels and overhauls the navy’s entire nuclear submarine fleet.

But the base near the city of Plymouth is not without its challenges as it faces on to one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The structure of the continental shelf around the south coast also means that submarines would not be able to dive as quickly as they can from Faslane, leaving them more susceptible to tracking by hostile foreign powers.

The Rusi report also highlighted the lack of many suitable sites for a weapons handling base close to Devonport, with the most promising one identified near Falmouth, more than 90km away.

Several other potential British locations have been ruled out. Milford Haven on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales was vetoed because of the nearby refinery and oil and gas storage facilities. Barrow-in-Furness, which builds all the UK’s submarines was deemed unsuitable because of the tidal patterns.

The third option of moving the Trident system abroad to an allied country may work out cheaper than relocating within the UK but it would come with significant political costs. One minister described the idea that the submarines and missiles could be moved to France as “totally absurd, a political death warrant”.

Supporters says nuclear submarines provide deterrent to aggressors

The UK’s nuclear Trident missiles are carried by four Vanguard-class submarines, at least one of which is always at sea on strategic patrol to provide a credible counter-strike capability intended to deter any aggressor, writes Mure Dickie.

The nuclear warheads and submarines, which are due to be replaced by new Dreadnought class boats from the early 2030s, are designed and built in the UK.

But the Trident system is US-designed and the D5 ballistic missiles that carry the warheads are leased from the US, under a pooling arrangement, and are cycled in and out of both American and British submarines.

The Vanguard-class boats are based at the Faslane naval base, on Loch Gare, on the west coast of Scotland, about 50km north west of Glasgow. The storage and loading of the weapons is at the arms depot at Coulport on a neighbouring sea loch. Together the facilities are known as Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde.

Each submarine is designed to carry up to 16 D5 missiles, each capable of hitting targets more than 7,000km away. Although each D5 can be loaded with 12 warheads, the Royal Navy says submarines on patrol carry up to 40 on a maximum of eight missiles.

Though much smaller than the nuclear forces of the US, Soviet Union or China, supporters have argued the UK arsenal provides an operationally independent deterrent capable of warding off any nuclear threat and that it contributes to the security of the Nato alliance. They also say that having nuclear weapons contributes to the UK’s international stature as a major power.

But critics and some defence analysts said the cost of maintaining the deterrent, estimated at about £2.5bn per year, has added to the budgetary strain on UK conventional military forces. The replacement Dreadnought submarines are expected to cost at least £31bn.

Opponents of nuclear weapons argue that weapons of mass destruction could not morally be used and that the ballistic missile forces have made no appreciable contribution to the safety of UK citizens over the past half century.

Asked by the Financial Times in 2019 if he could think of a single situation where the continuous at-sea deterrence patrols had made a demonstrable difference to UK security, then defence secretary Gavin Williamson declined to offer any specific examples.

“Every single day of those 50 years they have delivered that security,” Williamson said while visiting a Trident submarine to celebrate the 50th year of continuous at-sea patrols.

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