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.
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.