The Scottish Defence Force: What could it look like?


by Peter Thomson

In 2008 Alex Salmond said an independent Scotland would model its defence force on Norway as it is a country of similar size and defence needs.  In May 2011 Mr Salmond expanded on this basic premise by suggesting the Scottish Defence Force would be around 20,000 strong, for all arms, and would be more concerned with defending Scotland’s territory than conducting wars overseas.  Scotland’s Defence Force would be a Nato ally, but not a member, and look to support UN peace keeping missions.

Here is what the current SNP manifesto actually says about an independent Scotland’s Defence Force:

A Scottish Defence Service

The priority of the Scottish Defence Services (SDS), in partnership with Scotland’s neighbours and allies, will be to safeguard our land, sea and air space. The SDS will initially be equipped with Scotland’s negotiated share of UK defence resources. Service and pension conditions will be at least equal to those of the UK forces.

The SDS will be a professional force supported by reserve forces with employment opportunities open to everyone meeting the appropriate standard. MoD civilian support personnel employed in Scotland at Independence will have the opportunity to remain in the Scottish MoD or Scottish civil service. Scotland will maintain active defence commitments with its friends and allies through the United Nations, European Union and Partnership for Peace.

An independent SNP government will not be part of a nuclear-based commitment such as NATO.

SNP priorities in defence are that:


  • Defence policy should be made in Scotland’s national Parliament.
  • Scotland’s armed services should be well remunerated, equipped and trained.
  • Historic regiments will be re-established as part of the SDS.
  • Military facilities, including strategic air force stations, should not be downsized at the present time.
  • Nuclear weapons will be banished from Scotland forever.
  • Counter terrorism provision will be enhanced, and plans will include elements of the regular and reserve SDS as part of a co-ordinated strategy.
  • Military practice will be reviewed to balance the necessity of training against the disturbance to communities.

It is against the background of this statement that Westminster’s rush to decimate the UK armed forces’ presence in Scotland should be viewed and the reality of some of the militarily and tactically inept base closures in Scotland be understood.

“The priority of the Scottish Defence Services (SDS),  …  will be to safeguard our land, sea and air space.”

Let’s look at Norway to see what our Norway based SDF will look like.

Norway has a full time force of some 23,000 personnel with a Homeguard (reserve force) that can boost that number to over 83,000, every Norwegian has undertaken a year’s compulsory training in one of the three arms of the Norwegian Defence Force and women can volunteer to undertake training for the reserve. The command structure since 2003 has been combined so that the Norwegian Defence Minster and the head of the forces work in the same building and have daily contact and briefings. This unified MoD also acts as the head of the Defence Force’s HQ staff which handles and directs all four arms of the Norwegian defence force from a joint command. The four arms are:

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Airforce
  • Homeguard (Territorials / reserves in current UK formations but encompass all three arms of the fulltime service)

Each arm has a ‘Command HQ’ run by a General or two star Admiral with their own staff to deal with the specific day to day operations of each section and ensure the operational effectiveness required by the political and military heads of the Norwegian MoD is maintained.  The chain of command is kept short and the size of the Defence force makes for better inter-arm operations courtesy of its compact nature.

Norway has always seen invasion by Russia as the main threat to its independence so has created one of the most effective arctic and mountain warfare cadres in Europe. These forces operate routinely with the Swedish Defence Forces as well as Norway’s key NATO partners – the UK Royal and Dutch Royal Marine brigades – who both have advanced stores and munitions pre-placed in key sites near the Norwegian border with Russia and come under the command of Norway’s joint command centre at Bodo when deployed.

Scotland does not have this direct threat on its land border so from a force balance it could be argued that our future Scottish Army would simply be based on the current Royal Regiment of Scotland with each component re-expanded to full regimental status. It would be tactically more beneficial to re- develop each of these regiments with an ‘all arms role’ making each the equivalent of a fully integrated armoured regiment on the German plan with the ability to deploy on an individual regimental basis all the way up to as a full Scottish Defence division if required. This sort of structure plus its logistic tail would require in the order of around half of the proposed 20,000 front line personnel not including their civilian support train at the Scottish MoD.

Scotland’s day to day needs for the defence of its realm would be more focussed on naval and air assets for coastguard, fishery protection, oil field protection and related issues. I personally cannot see a situation where ships or aircraft of a Scottish Navy or Air force would require to be deployed overseas in support of a UN action or peace keeping force – whereas I see the Army being for mainly that purpose or in support of Norway or other EU countries we may become allied to.

Currently Norway has the following naval assets:

  • 5 Nansen class Aegis frigates
  • 6 Skyold class Harpoon fitted fast patrol boats
  • 6 Ula Class Diesel electric submarines
  • 8 Oksoy / Atla  mine hunters / sweepers

The Norwegian Navy is also responsible for coastguard activities and has the following ships dedicated to this role:

  • 1  Svalbard Icebreaker / helicopter carrier
  • 3 Barentshav Class (these are new craft, the first was launched in 2009, and are liquid gas powered, lightly armed but with the capacity to carry additional ship fitted weapons and the Merlin Helicopter (sea variant for both SAR and anti-submarine roles)
  • 3 Nordkapp Class (lightly armed but with the ability to carry anti-ship missiles and the marine Lynx variant with its full weapons kit, the Lynx is due for replacement by the Merlin)

The other ships are run by the naval reserve or are on lease such as the standing tugs with a mix of naval and civilian officers and men and six offshore patrol craft equivalent to the Island Class ships of the RN which carry Sea Kings in the SAR role.

It is interesting to note how small the crews are on the ships designated for coast guard duties. The new Barentshav class, for example will have a peacetime crew of 16 officers and men while the Nansen class frigates have a peace time crew of 120 officers and men. That gives a minimum crewing figure requirement of around 1200 men and women to keep all the main Norwegian Navy ships at sea but to allow for training, end of service, illness, secondments, logistics, supporting the reserve, etcetera, a more realistic figure is around the 5,000 personnel mark for  Naval Officers and sailors.

What about the Norwegian Air force given the length and complexity of the Norwegian coast line with all those islands and fjords? Norway has decided on quite a sizeable air force (remembering its helicopters are deployed in support of the army and the navy who, unlike the UK, do not have their own air arms).

  • 72 Fighting Falcons of which 60 are operational at all times
  • 2 AWACs
  • 6  PC Orion Variants (PC6 / PN7) (reconnaissance / anti submarine role)
  • 3 Falcon Electronic Warfare aircraft
  • 4 C130 Hercules – heavy lift
  • 6 Bell 412 SP helicopters in support of the Army / Special Forces
  • 6 Merlin class helicopters in support of the Navy
  • 12 Sea King SAR in support of the Navy and the Coastguard

Again the Air force needs around the same numbers of personnel to operate as the Norwegian Navy.

I would argue that Scotland would probably require fewer interceptor / ground attack aircraft because Norway’s current interceptor / ground attack levels are predicated on slowing any Russian advance around Norkapp by land or sea and given my view that it would be unlikely for the Scottish Government to deploy air assets, even in support of the UN, that 40 F35 carrier variant ‘off the shelf’ would enable a Scottish Air force to have a full squadron deployable with an interceptor or ground attack capability. On the other hand, if my assumption turns out to be wrong, the carrier variant F35s could deploy to the English Royal Navy’s new Queen Class aircraft carriers currently being built at Rosyth or any equivalent US / Nato aircraft carrier as they would have compatible electronic, weapons and navigation packages – if the political situation ever required this to happen.

So when you take Wee Eck at face value, when he says to look at Norway as a guide to how Scotland’s Defence Force will look, this is the sort of compact but highly flexible and well integrated set up we will be looking  to emulate for Scotland.

I think I would sleep safe in my bed in an independent Scotland … how about you?