Can independent Scotland pay for its own defence?

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A Newsnet analysis by GEORGE KEREVAN 
 
THIS week, while the Coalition at Westminster was cutting the British army by a fifth and reducing famous regiments to mere names on a barrack cupboard, Tory and Labour MPs spent their time holding an “inquiry” into the “security implications” of Scottish independence.

That might have been useful if they were looking at how the two nations could cooperate in defence matters.  Instead, it turned out to be platform for attacking independence. And the evidence produced was just as slanted.  

WHO IS PROFESSOR CHALMERS?

Leading the charge was one of the academics giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, Professor Malcolm Chalmers.  The Scottish-born Professor has a PhD in peace studies from Bradford, is a former political advisor to Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett when they were at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and turns up on panels at various “progressive” seminars.

Chalmers remains something of a closet Blairite interventionist. In a 2009 article in Renewal, a “journal of social democracy” which has Ed Miliband on its board of advisors, Chalmers made a sophisticated defence of the invasion of Iraq.  He finishes: “In extreme circumstances of human emergency, there can be a strong case for intervention even when faced with a single Security Council veto from Russia or another power”.

These days, Chalmers works for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the establishment think tank for the British military. RUSI has taken a strong line against Scottish independence. For instance, in a recent RUSI paper authored by Mark Lynch, we get the following advice:

“The British Government must be prepared for a potential yes vote… the UK may need to consider playing hard during the negotiation period, for example trading [the nuclear base at] Faslane for the UK in exchange not blocking Scotland’s entry into the European Union…Furthermore, the UK should extend the negotiation process over a number of years… [to] dissuade other inspiring nationalist groups from thinking that the move to independence.”

CAN SCOTLAND DEFEND ITS AIR SPACE?

In his evidence to Westminster, Professor Chalmers maintains that an independent Scotland could not afford to defend itself properly – assuming we are being defended adequately at the moment.  Further, he thinks that any crude carve up of existing UK military resources after independence would leave Scotland with huge gaps in its security aparatus that could take decades to fill. Conclusion: independence would leave Scotland vulnerable and destabilise security south of the border.

Norway and Denmark, which are equivalent to Scotland in population and security needs, spend around 1.4 per cent of their GDP on defence, the Nato average outside the UK and France.  Acording to Chalmers, if Scotland spent a similar 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence, that would equal £2 billion per annum.  But the Norwegian defence budget is over £4 billion and the Danish almost £3 billion, because their economies are bigger.

Chalmers concludes: “An allocation of this size would leave Scotland with one of the lowest defence budgets in NATO Europe.”

One immediate problem would be that independent Scotland could not afford an air defence system to fend off a 9/11-style attack. According to Chalmbers: “A single F-35C aircraft, currently planned for the UK’s aircraft carriers, will probably leave little change from £100 million, with perhaps twice that amount needed for lifetime running and equipment costs.”

The professor notes that other nations in this situation – he mentions Luxembourg and Albania – rely on Nato allies to base fighters in their territory. Chalmers warns: “The UK, however, might have other ideas.”

Professor Chalmers goes on to suggest that, without UK fighter cover, Scotland would be left having to buy cheap Hawk jet trainers, or take them from the RAF as part of the independence settlement.  Hawks are fine for ceremonial flypasts but they lack radar to intercept Russian Tupolev Bear maritime bombers probing Scotland’s air defences.  Ergo, an independent Scotland would be defenceless in the air.  Is he right?

In fact, Professor Chalmers’ knowledge of air defence economics is questionable and makes me wonder about the quality of advice he gave to the Cabinet Office when he was their consultant for the 2010 Defence Review that scrapped all of Britain’s Nimrod maritime reconnaissance planes.

For a start, you don’t need to buy expensive fighter aircraft.  You can lease them like you can lease anything else. And you can lease them from the manufacturer with a maintenance and upgrade package which minimises those alleged transition costs the good professor tells us will be so expensive for Scotland.

Here’s an example. Both the Czech Republic and Hungary have entered leasing deals with Saab in Sweden to buy the JAS-39 Gripen, probably the world’s best lightweight multi-role combat plane.  And it has intercept radar. Both nations have acquired a package of 14 Gripens (12 single seaters and 2 twin seaters) on rolling, ten-year leases which cost around £0.65 billion, and include training and maintenance by Saab.  The Czechs also negotiated an offset deal, whereby Sweden invests in the Czech defence sector.  

That’s £65 million per annum for an air defence and ground attack system.  Add a sum for pilots and overheads and you are still around £100 million per annum, or only 5 per cent of Professor Chalmers’ claimed £2 billion Scottish defence budget.

Actually, there is merit in the sovereign nations of the British Isles keeping a common air defence system after Scottish independence, with RAF Typhoons continuing to be based north of the border and Holyrood paying a share of their upkeep.  However, with RUSI advising them to “play hard” in any negotiations, Westminster might not play ball. In which case Scotland could join Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, Hungry and the Czech Republic in acquiring Gripens.           

WHAT IS THE REAL SCOTTISH DEFENCE BUDGET?

What about Professor Chalmers’ claim that that there will be significant transition costs involved in an independent Scotland creating its own defence establishment?  If the ex-UK is silly enough to ignore the common security needs of the British Isles, Scotland could be faced with replacing bits of its defence needs that used to be supplied from south of the border.  But, contrary to Professor Chalmers, it will have the cash to do so.

Chalmers consistently underestimates the likely defence funding available to an independent Scotland, citing only £2 billion per annum based on the Nato average.  But on a population basis, Scotland’s share of the current UK defence budget is over £3 billion, because Britain spends well above the Nato average on its military.  That’s 50 per cent higher than Chalmers’ figure and on a par with Denmark and Belgium, giving the lie to Chalmers’ refrain that independent Scotland will have “one of the lowest defence budgets in Nato Europe.”

Of course, Scotland may decide to cut defence spending.  But it would make sense to scale down only after the transition period.

CONCLUSION

The argument that a rich country such as Scotland cannot defend itself adequately is risible.  Worse, it is detracting from the security debate we should be having.

The British army is being cut by a fifth to pay for two giant aircraft carriers with no aircraft.  We are also reducing the RAF to its smallest size since the Great War but buying a replacement for Trident, presumably to let British politicians posture on the global diplomatic stage.

In Scotland, defence cuts mean we will be reduced to one naval base (for atomic subs), one military airfield (but no maritime reconnaissance planes to protect our oil fields and fisheries), and less troops stationed locally than has the Slovenia army.

One strong argument for independence is that it will let Scotland defend itself properly.  Scotland needs to refocus its defence priorities on protecting its seas and oil wealth, and on domestic ant-terror activities – a very different security agenda from the Cold War, from Blairite interventionism, or from whatever passes for a defence policy in the Coalition Cabinet.