Friday, 20 January 2012

Bagpipes, Bayonets, Bluster and Bugger all else? The fallacies of the SNPs current defence policy.

Bagpipes, Bayonets, Bluster and Bugger all else? The fallacies of the SNPs current defence policy.
Sir Humphrey noted with interest the recent comments on the likelihood of the SNP adopting a defence force optimised for fairly international commitments in the event of Scotland becoming an independent nation.

From the outset, the author wishes to be clear - he has a strictly personal view that the Union is stronger with Scotland playing a role in it, but equally, if they do become an independent country, then good luck to Scotland. However, he has real concerns that the current proposed Scottish Defence Forces seem to be based more on a quick Google of cool sounding military terminology, and not on any sensible discussion about the resources a small nation of 5 million people is realistically going to have to spend on Defence.

In this article, Humphrey wants to raise a few pointers - not to say that the ideas concerned are wrong, but that a lot of work needs to go into making sure that a Scottish Defence Force (SDF) would really work.

At the moment, the current policy seems to be that on separation, those army regiments deemed Scottish will become part of the SDF. Similarly, an equivalent amount of manpower, roughly 1/8th of all UK military assets and personnel will be offered to the Scottish Government. In broad-brush terms, this leads to an Army of about 10,000 troops, 5,000 air force and 4000 navy/marines (say 19,000 overall).

Here is where the fun really starts. Firstly, the armed forces do not neatly break into component parts which can be divided up. An infantry battalion may have 650 people on its strength, but there may be many more from supporting arms such as REME and so on who will be there to maintain and support weapons and equipment. Do the SNP want to take the supporting arms too?

Secondly - how will they attribute manpower against specialisations - the RN for instance has a deeply specialised manpower structure, made up of composite branches - it's not just a mixy blob of 30,000 sailors looking good and drinking rum prior to catching the eye of hairy women with tatoos, it's a collection of branches and capabilities. Does the SNP want 1/8th of each branch - in which case do they want Officers, SNCOs or Juniors and how will they maintain career structures? Bearing in mind that they are unlikely to want the Submarine service (some 5000 strong), and that the Royal Marines are 7000 strong, this means they only have a pool of 18000 sailors to chose from. Oh wait, what about the Fleet Air Arm, which is another 3000 strong - suddenly that 4000 strong navy needs to be recruited from 15000 sailors. In manning terms, that akin to taking every single surface ship crew member and providing them to the Scottish Government.

The next point - does the SNP want serving personnel who are one deep? In other words, if they took a ship or Squadron, do they want to take those personnel on the ship, or take a ratio of 3:1 (e.g. 3 pilots or Int Analysts for every front line spot). They may get more up front equipment this way, but they will have no depth for courses, support or training / leave. In other words, when that person moves on, they will then have no one to replace them.

Another point - will they get units or people? You can't make someone serve in a foreign armed forces at separation. Surely every member of HM Forces will have to be given the option of transferring, and if they don't want to move, will not be force to go. What happens if insufficient people volunteer to join the SDF - will the SNP insist on their being forcibly transferred? That sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen, and it's hardly sensible to rely on a defence force full of people that don't actually want to belong to it.

The author knows relatively few individuals who would willingly wish to transfer to any SDF. Most of the Scots personnel he knows are immensely proud of being Scottish, but are also equally proud of belonging to something much greater in the form of HM Armed Forces. They relish the challenge offered by soldiering in a military that has a track record for being employed aggressively overseas. How many of them will willingly want to transfer to a SDF that is unlikely to be used in any similar manner?

The SDF is going to have a challenging initial few years - it will inherit people at all levels, but probably not enough for any one role. It's going to take time to grow personnel into the jobs required of them, and even if it started recruiting on the day of independence, it would still take 5-10 years to grow the critical mass of SNCOs and junior officers needed to manage and lead the organisation.

As for pay - does the SNP factor in the extremely high personnel cost of UK military troops. Over 50% of the UK military earn in excess of £26,000 per year, and that's not including allowances. Assuming a median salary of 30,000, that's potentially a salary bill in excess of £500m per year, not including pensions, allowances and so on. Is the SNP prepared to fund the huge personnel costs of a 19,000 strong military on its current T&C, or is it going to implement a pay cut to fund its troops?

That isn't just rhetoric - the SNP wants high tech, capable equipment, which require people with skills and experience to maintain. If they know that their transferable skills (particularly aviation or engineering), can be used to bring pay rises elsewhere, it's going to be hard to persuade them to stay in. The MOD has to pay a fortune in retention payments every year for pinch point trades - if the SNP aspires to operate similar grade UK kit, then it will have to do the same thing. How much will this cost?

A key point to note is that historically, UK military training for technical skills has been conducted south of the border, or in Wales. The SDF will not inherit any major technical training facilities or schools, and no officer training academies or staff colleges. It will be required to either construct these at very significant costs indeed (look at the cost of the various defence training colleges that the UK has invested in, in recent years), or it will be reliant on UK support to train its people at anything beyond a fairly basic level of capability.

Generating a basic level of military training is easy - anyone can, with some instruction, function as a basic soldier. However, what the SDF will require to work effectively is not basic soldiers, but it will need to grow a staff capability and an SNCO cadre. There will be inherited personnel, but these will be from a range of backgrounds and ages, and not all will be young. There will need to be major work from the SDF to establish the command cadre needed to manage and lead SDF troops, and also train them too.

While the SNP may continue to rely on wider UK facilities, it should realistic to the likelihood that these facilities will not come free of charge. The UK does a great line in International Defence Training, and provides a range of training to many different countries. But, spaces are limited and this training is expensive and keenly sought after. The SDF may be able to get some spaces to assist with training, but it is unlikely that it would credibly get more than 1-2 per year on most courses, and they would almost certainly pay full market rate (some tens of thousands of pounds per person). There is a real danger that the SDF may find itself unable to afford a training academy, and unable to get training places to train its staff.

Similarly, the same arguments apply for the many technical schools that will be needed to run courses in maintenance of all the equipment that the SDF will inherit. They will either need to find the personnel and funds to create a training school and logistics support, or pay market rate for access to UK or other courses.

One thing is clear - the newly formed SDF is going to find itself beholden on a small cadre of officers to lead it through change. It will have to pay an immense amount of money to establish itself  as an armed force, and will remain reliant on the UK and other nations for training for many years to come, at a very substantial financial cost.

Equipment / Bases
What is clear immediately from reading the SNP policy is that they wish to use UK current equipment that they inherit. This is fine, providing there is an understanding that its either going to cost a fortune to operate some equipment, will cost even more to replace it in due course, and that they probably won't inherit any training schools, so will be reliant on the UK largesse for access to workshops for updating it.

What is urgently needed is a clear plan which goes beyond the initial divvying up of assets and sets out in clear  terms what any Scottish defence industrial strategy would be. At some point within 10-15 years of independence, Scotland would be in the market for new equipment or life extension programmes. Either this is funded internally using Scottish manpower (which requires the establishment of a Scottish defence industry), or it is farmed out to UK and beyond for tender. There is a large bill attached to any such move like this, so it would be advisable for the SNP to look in depth at just how much it would cost to re-equip the SDF, as this is a bill that will hit soon after independence.

Similarly, there needs to be a reality check on the future of the Naval presence in Scotland - the SNP have already said they will operate one naval base. The key question is whether they are willing to close Rosyth, or Faslane? Some SNP politicians cling to the idea that the UK will continue to place ship orders and refit work north of the border after independence. Humphrey would suggest that this is unlikely in the extreme - no UK chancellor would willingly give money or work to a Scottish shipyard if it meant reduced work for UK shipyards.

Similarly, the refit work at Rosyth will come to an end, and the construction skills at Clydebank will be at serious risk. Its less likely that foreign nations will bid for naval construction in an independent Scotland - part of the deal with foreign work is the support and training that comes with it. For instance, HMS COLLINGWOOD is home to a large international audience of officers who train in the equipment used on ships built or bought from the UK. Unless Scotland invests heavily in naval training schools which can teach the equipment, weapons and missiles installed on warships built in Clydebank, it becomes increasingly unlikely that foreign orders would go to Scotland - as  a nation they simply would not be able to deliver the wider support expected of any modern warship contract.

The Reality
Scotland could easily become independent, and if they do, then an SDF is a potential force in the making. However, it is not as simple as putting out a nice policy paper and saying that you want Scotland to have a naval base, aircraft and an army brigade. The level of support, the training facilities, the maintenance and so on does not exist to support this capability at present. It could exist, but it would come with a very large bill attached.

The SDF will find itself reliant on the UK armed forces for decades to come, and this in turn is reliant on the UK being willing to host and support them. If anything, Scotland will be more tied to the UK for support to its defence, and its status as an autonomous nation will be more entwined with the UK post independence than before. For while Scotland relies on the UK to provide the training, equipment, maintenance and logistics needed to keep the SDF operating, it could be argued that Scotland is not truly independent at all. At the heart of the entire debate is the harsh reality that an SDF will cost the Scottish taxpayer a great deal, but leave Scotland ever more beholden to the UK or some other friendly nation for help and assistance.


  1. You're maybe overthinking this a bit. From what I understand, the SNP plan a pretty basic self-defence force + fisheries/oil protection + Partnership for Peace. No more than Ireland, probably less.

    However a whole lot of stuff has disappeared from their website - for instance, Googling PfP no longer turns up anything when I'm sure that was explicitly mentioned before. One suspects that they're talking big just to reassure the people near bases, but the reality will be much less. To be honest they barely need a naval base or airbase - they could just live at civvy bases as the FP planes do now. The only reason to keep the big bases would be as assets to negotiate with, to try and get some lease income.

    It needs a whole lot fewer REME etc to keep a few FPVs going - the FP planes are already on a civvy contract. You can get some indication of how willing Edinburgh is to pay for this kind of stuff by the saga of the FPV replacement - first it was going to be a long-range Jura III, then an inshore vessel, now it seems to be in the long grass. The idea that they're going to get anything as fighty as say a Skjold seems improbable.

  2. Hi El-Sid,
    I agree its hopefully overegging the matter, but if the SNP want to take on 1/8th of the UK forces, then they will be having to take on some fairly high end capability kit.
    OPVs are nice and cheap, but arguably, given the UK doesnt own the current OPVs (they are leased), so they may not be in our gift to pass to the SDF.
    I strongly suspect that the future SDF would require a very large bill to downsize capabilities and bring the right kit into service. Either that, or they are going to have a shock when they find out just how expensive some of this kit is to operate...

  3. The idea of a division of UK military equipment is hardly an attractive one even before considering that a twelfth of Navy, Air Force and Army equipment would produce a bizarre collection of odds and ends. Time for this idea to be taken out and shot I think.

    My preference would be start with a clean sheet of paper and do a risk and cost assessment. But before that could begin we'd need to know whether Rockall was Scottish, how the UK Maritime SAR responsibilities were to be divided or shared, whether we planned to join NATO or the PfP, whether we'd be in the EU or EFTA or something else, and so on.

    However it is approached, defence policy couldn't be a matter for the SNP alone. Labour, and to a lesser degree the Lib Dems and Tories, need to weight in too to ensure that the broad outlines of defence policy have consensus support. That would mean that nothing much would happen before a referendum - yet another reason why divvying up UK defence assets is not a credible approach - and even afterwards defence would be unlikely to top the list of priorities for discussion.

    But as El Sid said, minimal EEZ patrol and SAR requirements can be largely contracted out. And then the politicians and pundits could hammer out the details.

    Since there's no disputing that OPVs would be needed - not unless Labour really do want that aircraft carrier - they could be ordered at an early date. The Icelandic UT-512L Thor and its cousins and lookalikes show roughly what is needed: a ship that in its basic form combines EEZ patrol, SAR, ETV and pollution control duties and has a flexible working deck so that missions are limited only by funding, training and what can be fitted into one or more 20 foot containers. The really good news is that BAE wouldn't be the only potential domestic supplier and perhaps not even the favoured one when their record is compared with Fergusons.

    Apart from some sort of incident response capability - which could perfectly well be police-based as in France and many other countries - there's little else which would need to be dealt with urgently. If it takes years to build up a navy and an army and an air force, that's fine. All the more time to debate defence issues sensibly.

    I entirely agree that beginning with grand plans to stand up forces with a broad spectrum of capabilities based on UK cast-offs only to cut back hard few years later would be a very expensive mistake. But it isn't hard to avoid. Especially not when that lovely Mr Hammond - who has already done much to ensure that the UK retains responsibility for SAR between 15 and 30 degrees west, a significant cost saving for Scotland's defence forces - is going the extra mile by doing all he can to prevent us from being able to make that mistake.

  4. el-sid +1, and in a post that is all about small but important details I am disappointed that you mention shipbuilding at Clydebank, a location that hasn't built a ship since 1972. Have you considered a career in journalism?

  5. Model themselves on Denmark, which has roughly the same population. That is, conscription alongside regular forces.

    If it did happen, nuclear and protection of the western approaches would be the big issues. Not that the current Government bothers with the latter, having got rid of most Maritime Patrol activities.

    Mention of Denmark is interesting. When we bought some newly built Merlins from Denmark a few years ago, Denmark insisted WE bought THEIR replacements and delivered them to a rigid timescale. So rigid, in fact, that we delivered their replacements to them BEFORE the originals could be converted for our own use! So, Denmark are doing something right and perhaps MoD as a whole could learn a thing or two.

  6. The Danish navy and air force are essentially regular forces. Only the army has a significant proportion of conscript and short-contract personnel.

    The Merlin story has another interesting by-way. The Danes sold their old Sea Kings to Sikorsky on remarkably good terms (for Denmark). Can the MoD claim any successes like this ?

  7. Interesting comments - I was involved in the Merlin purchase from one angle, so am interested to see Powderfingers comments. My memory of that particular issue wasnt that it was an issue with us being nice to the Danes, but more about ensuring that all the airframes (plus the extant fleet) received various additional kit that was being purchased. There was a reason why it took a while, as those cabs were so heavily modified. But I'm going back a few years now.

    I suspect the future laydown will be OPV based, but you still come back to more fundamental issues - who will train them, where will the staff come from, what are the plans for keeping a balanced manpower structure etc. Its all very well having nice toys, but if you don't have the people, nor the credible means of training, employing and supporting them, then how do those vessels go to sea regularly?

    That is the thrust of this argument - we can play with kit porn for as much as we like, but we need to think long and hard about personnel matters, or any future SDF is going to really struggle.

  8. Again those are all reasonable points, but the answers would have to wait until the political circumstances allowed for serious cross-party, cross-border discussions.

    But even if we can't expect a public debate among the players - Labour's finest contribution to date has been to ask how many aircraft carriers an independent Scotland would have - some of the punditry have started to make more serious contributions. We had a 5 minute interview with Lt Col Stewart Crawford on BBC Radio Scotland's breakfast news the other day which at covered ideas like risk/threat assessments and the interviewer asked some surprisingly good questions. That's a start anyway, and a step up from aircraft carriers and arm-waving. The "quality" press - the Herald and the Scotsman - have some decent writers on military matters: Crawford and Col Clive Fairweather in the Scotsman and historian Trevor Royle in the Herald. So things could be much worse.

    The cross-border aspect concerns me most. If the vote is yes, the MoD can be sure that within a couple of years the defence budget will be cut by coming on for 10% in cash terms. Unless the SNP leadership can kick the idea of splitting up UK defence assets soon, they'll find that that they are pushing against an open door. The MoD negotiating team will be only too happy to cooperate. Oops.

    Thanks again for posting this. I thought I'd formed fairly solid views on this subject but you've convinced me I need to think a lot harder about it.

  9. See this article, pro-independence but argue the logic, real politic and sense.
    Particularly the financial issue which seems so worrying in humphreys view. Fact is, come the day, if it comes there will be much horsetrading and yes of course it will all take time and there will still be strong links to whatever the legacy military in England/Wales and N Irlend calls itself.There will be much gnashing of teeth but it is do-able and could provide an opportunity for genuine Defence review by all parties.

  10. Googling PfP no longer turns up anything when I'm sure that was explicitly mentioned before

    Well, they want to leave NATO, so they can hardly join the "future NATO members club"..

  11. I'm surprised this is seen as such a hassle.

    Scotland would be entitled to 1/8th of the assets, but theres not reason England and Scotland couldnt make a mutualy agreeable compromise.
    It would receive 20 eurofighters and 50 Tanks.
    But it might decide it wants 16 Eurofighters, or 24, and if the England is agreeable, could take more or less tanks in response.

    As it is, they'd probably just demand their share of the assets in cash or sell anything they didnt want.
    One wonders how many buyers there will be for 140 Warriors, or 75% of a Daring, but thats not really our problem.

    The training colleges will be an interesting issue, but I cant imagine its impossible to resolve.
    For basic training, well, everyone who joins Scotland will have been through it, cant be that hard to replicate.
    For "war" studies, just rope in any officers who jumped North and stick them in a building.
    For technical training, do what we do, get whoever sells the kit to provide it.

  12. To be honest I don't think that the SNP have thought the defence issue through. They are more interested in other areas than something 'nasty' like defence.

  13. Setting up the SDF could hardly be as difficult as implied by some. Scottish MOD will simply negotiate with its UK counterpart concerning splitting of equipment along the lines of the Czechoslovakian divorce in 1993. Just put a price tag on everything and sum it up, then let Scotland pick what it wants for its 1/8th.

    The Daring class, Trident or aircraft carriers would serve no purpose in a Scottish context so there's no risk that they would take those. Neither can I see how they could choose to operate the incredibly expensive Eurofighter when the F-16 and Gripen would be available on favourable terms and with a fraction of the running cost. If they choose to keep the combat aviation capability that is.

  14. If Scotland leave the United Kingdom, they are not entitled to any items of equipment. No one asked them to leave quite the opposite in fact.

  15. You say in your profile "The author takes no political position" That is patently untrue - your entire text and arguments are political, coming from a diehard Establishment unionist.

    When Scotland votes to leave the Union - as it will - it will do so on the basis of a fully-informed Scottish electorate at the referendum ballot box.

    Putting it bluntly, our defence is our business, will be our business, and we will negotiate the terms and manner of our exit amicably and professionally with the UK Government.

    What the men in pinstripes in the rump of the UK must then address is what the hell they're going to do with their nuclear submarines, WMDs and the so-called 'independent' nuclear deterrent.

    And that's the nub of the blind panic that faces the military/industrial complex, with its venal and incompetent MOD and revolving-door-to-industry civil servants and politicians - the people who have betrayed the brave frontline serviemen and women for generations.

    Bye,bye UK - we will still be a friend to the real people of England, Wales and Nothern Ireland.

  16. I agree that your position is hardly apolitical and your comments highly Establishment-centric, if such a word exists (and if it doesn't it should). However, leaving to one side what might some deem a mildly patronising tone throughout for the moment,many of the questions posed are quite apposite. All I can say is that those who strive for an independent Scotland are well aware of them and are working hard on potential solutions, both within the Scottish Government and outwith it. What Scotland will end up with, I'm pretty sure, will not be a miniature of what the UK has at present, but much more modest armed forces with regional rather than global aspirations and budget and equipment to match. Easier said than done, I hear you say, and quite right too. But it can, and will, be done if Scotland does choose sovereignty, of that I am sure.

  17. And good luck Scotland. I'm Australian and married to a Scots girl and have a wonderful family in my in laws here who are proud of their Scots heritage. Thier background is the mines, steel mills and the shipyards, very little of any are left from the "old days". You are very entitled to leave the union but from talking to them the fear is Scotland will be worse off breaking with the union than staying with it. All the talk of whether Scotland is up to the task of managing a well equipped SDF or just a policing and peace keeper force with a few contracted OPVs , helecopters and coastal MPAs and a grouping of squaddies. Do you think that's going to sustain your remaining local industry, keep the workforce off welfare? A lot of demobbed scots soldiers with no jobs or prospects. Your going to get another mass exodus of scots heading off to find something better. The UK might see better days again, if not glory days, but can you say the same, honestly about Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England as seperate states? persons SNP nationalistic rhetoric aside? I haven't seen informed educated decision making by voters in any democracy in my 44 all comes down to a popularity contest and people being told what they want to hear.

  18. Easy to crticise Sir H as being establuishment, the problem is he is simply articulating real issues

    Ones that the SNP prefer to ignore

    Like the realities of disentangling financial institutions, public sector administration, monetary policy, national debt, pension liabilties etc

    Once voters realise this I doubt that public support for any form of true independence will ebb away

    Of course they may want their cake and eat it... ie Scotland calls itself independent but actually repmains dependent on the remainder of the UK

  19. Given that there are at least two affordable practical models that the SNP might take on, you have to wonder why they have n't adopted either - there again, UK defence planning has been absolutley deadful since the Haldane reforms, so perhaps it's not so surprising.
    Division of assets is about very much more than the MOD, however the reailty is that the MOD has very little that would really be suitiable to Scottish needs and very little that the 'former UK' government would want to lose. There is no reason why Scotland should not have a viable defence structure in a successful economy, but you could say the same of the UK as a whole. Just because our governments have been shockingly incompetent for generations does not mean that we necessarily have to have daft policies in the future, but we probably will....
    The UK could be a much more successful insitution than it is at present, but Conservative and Labour governments(with help from the Glib-Dumbs)will always make a mess of things as they are so committed to looking after their surprises there. Scotland could be a very successful independent country, but why shouild we assume that Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney would be any less stupid than Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.//OK, Salmond etc. do understand business and the economy, but do they really understand anything else?

  20. I found this discussion to be very curious.

    I support everything that's said about operating costs - equipment support and personnel. It's expensive, and an independent Scotland will have to budget for that.

    What was more curious is the wide range of views about equipment and capital assets. There seems to be an assumption that solely on the basis of a referendum in Scotland the MoD will enagage in a negotiation about the capaital value of the defence portfolio of assets and how a share will be transferred to Scotland. I don't buy this at all. This approach seems to trample on the rights of all the English people who have paid for the majority of these assets. No doubt clever people will quickly reach for the analogues in divorce lawin addressing this point. I'm no expert in this subject, but as I understand it unless there is a mutual desire to part ways the burden of proof for grounds of divorce is quite severe. May I ask what the SNP's grounds for divorce are? It will be hard to prove mutual consent for a divorce when only a twelfth of the people in the relationship are asked.

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