The future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal is in the hands of 4.1 million Scottish voters who go to the polls Sept. 18 to decide whether to end the country’s 307-year union with England and become an independent country.
If the ballot proposal is approved, the ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged to evict the UK fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines from the naval base at Faslane on Scotland’s west coast by 2020. Having no comparable submarine base, the UK government would then face expensive choices about how to maintain its exclusively sea-based nuclear force.
“It would be an enormous exercise to reproduce the facilities elsewhere,” the UK Ministry of Defence said in an October 2013 analysis of Scottish independence. “It would cost billions of pounds and take many years.”
Although issues of jobs and social welfare programs have dominated the referendum debate, the nuclear defense issue has energized anti-nuclear activists and alarmed UK leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a strong public stance against Scottish independence, as have his predecessors Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major.
The Faslane base and the nearby naval armaments depot at Coulport, where the UK’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles are stored, are key to UK defense policy. The UK navy keeps at least one submarine somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean at all times, a posture called continuous at-sea deterrence. Each of the submarines is equipped with as many as 40 highly accurate thermonuclear warheads on U.S.-designed and -built Trident II (D-5) missiles.
The SNP seeks to outlaw such weapons on Scottish territory.
“Trident is an affront to basic decency with its indiscriminate and inhumane destructive power,” the Scottish government declared in a November 2013 brief for independence. “Billions of pounds have been wasted to date on weapons that must never be used and, unless we act now, we risk wasting a further [100 billion pounds], over its lifetime, on a new nuclear weapons system.” The name “Trident” technically refers to the missile, but the term is used in the UK to mean the entire system.
The UK Ministry of Defence, which plans to replace the Trident fleet in the next decade, contends that continuous at-sea deterrence is critically important to the country and its allies. (See ACT, October 2013.) “The UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent plays an essential part in the UK’s and NATO’s overall strategy and provides the ultimate assurance against current and future threats,” according to the ministry’s October 2013 analysis.
If voters approve independence, Scotland and the UK will have to negotiate a host of other issues, from currency to membership in the European Union, that will affect resolution of the nuclear question.
“The 2020 date is, in my view, an initial bargaining position,” Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute in London said in a June 19 e-mail. “The UK would find it very hard to relocate safely and securely over this time frame. I think a more credible scenario is basing in Scotland for a much longer period, perhaps until new submarines come into service (needing infrastructure) around 2030.”
The Scottish government says it seeks “the speediest safe removal” of the weapons “within the first term” of an independent Scottish parliament, which will serve until 2020.
“The most likely option would be submarine basing at Devonport [in southwest England] and a new warhead/missile storage facility in [nearby] Falmouth,” said Chalmers, an opponent of independence. “But the latter, in particular, would take some considerable time—no one knows how long—to build.”
The resulting financial burden could imperil the UK’s status as a nuclear power, said Frances Burwell, director of transatlantic relations at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“I do think that having to leave Faslane (if that is indeed the result) would add an enormous cost in terms of relocation that would make it difficult for the UK to continue with the nuclear deterrent,” Burwell wrote in a June 19 e-mail.
Chalmers, who advises Parliament on defense issues, said London would not willingly surrender its nuclear weapons.
“The UK—already bruised and humiliated by the loss of Scotland—would be determined to cling on to this symbol of its major power status,” wrote Chalmers.
The UK would be better off without nuclear weapons, argues John MacDonald, director of the Scottish Global Forum and a supporter of independence.
“Surrendering its nuclear capability would showcase the UK as a progressive example to follow and London might well find itself projecting a more authoritative global voice in areas where weapons proliferation threatens to destabilise regional and international security,” MacDonald wrote in European Security in March.
President Barack Obama made the U.S. government’s preference clear at a June 5 news conference in Brussels with Cameron. While emphasizing that the decision whether to leave the UK is “up to the people of Scotland,” Obama said, “[W]e obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united, and effective partner.”
Two polls taken in June found a slight majority in favor of staying in the UK, according to Reuters, citing the pollsters’ “near consensus that the race is getting ever-tighter ahead of the September referendum.”