UK considers how Scottish Yes vote would affect its nuclear capability

Mon, Oct 29, 2012, 00:00

Scottish independence would pose a threat to the royal navy’s nuclear submarine base, writes MARK HENNESSY

THE FASLANE naval base in Scotland, officially known as Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, is home to the royal navy’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines.

Each can carry 16 Trident missiles, with up to 40 warheads taken from the nuclear store at Coulport, 3km (two miles) away. One Vanguard is always at sea, providing the UK’s “continuous at-sea deterrent”.

Missiles and warheads are “married” at Coulport on a specially built 85,000-ton floating dock. Every three years, the warheads are taken for maintenance to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire.

If accepted by Scottish voters, independence would mean an end to the nuclear submarines on the river Clyde, since the Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged to get rid of them.

For now, the royal navy is working on the basis that independence will not happen, since it plans to station all of its nuclear-powered submarines at Faslane from 2017 onwards.

A “nuclear-free” Scotland has long been a pledge of the SNP. Earlier this month, it changed its long-standing opposition to Nato membership, in a bid to prevent voters from being frightened away from independence.

However, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond is insistent that the Trident programme goes; a Scottish constitution would lay down an explicit ban on nuclear weapons being based on Scottish territory.

Six-thousand people work at Faslane, though many of them would continue working there in “a free Scotland” as it would become the headquarters of a Scottish navy.

Opinion is divided on the implications of removing the Trident programme. British defence secretary Philip Hammond puts the total job losses in Scotland at 11,000. But the SNP quotes ministry of defence figures putting the number at 500, saying the higher figures are part of a deliberate campaign to scare Scots.

Both the Vanguards and the missiles they carry are due for replacement: the submarines will be replaced from 2028 onwards, while the missiles themselves are the subject of disagreement in London. The Conservatives want to replace them, believing that the UK must maintain its nuclear arm, first begun with the US-made Polaris missiles. The Liberal Democrats disagree.

In theory, the submarines, missiles and warheads could be removed quickly if the Saltire flew alone over Holyrood, with the work beginning in weeks and finishing in a couple of years. But such a move would in effect mean that the remaining parts of the UK would lose their nuclear arm.

A new base south of the border would take years to build and cost billions. Barrow in Lancashire has a shallow approach, limiting the Vanguards to monthly tides without major dredging.

Milford Haven in Wales has deep water and room for a base – and Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones has already said he would be happy to take Trident if the Scots do not want it.

However, Milford Haven was passed over in the 1960s when British military authorities were first looking for a nuclear base and, today, it is home to a huge liquid natural gas plant.

Devonport already repairs Vanguards, but it has nowhere to replicate the warheads’ home at Coulport. “Without Coulport, there is no deterrent,” says the Commons’ Scottish affairs committee.

“You could not put the Coulport facility in Devonport because there simply is not the room given the safety margins, which would be higher now than they were in the 1960s,” says Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute.

Standards have moved on since the 1960s: “Unless you are prepared to rehouse a very large number of civilians and close down areas of housing and so on, it limits where you can put [it],” Chalmers adds.

“I can imagine it being very controversial. The government would have to go through various quite difficult political processes to try to get consent for this,” says Prof Andrew Walker of the University of St Andrews.

The recent Faslane refit illustrates the difficulties. “It is not just a matter of shoving up a few buildings. It is a question of creating an immensely strong infrastructure against any seismic shock, for example, that you can possibly foresee,” says former British defence minister Peter Luff.

In the event of a Yes vote for Scottish independence, London, if it was determined to keep nuclear weapons, would face several choices, including housing the warheads at French or US bases, or, somehow, agreeing a deal with the Scots.

The model here is the treaty ports clause of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave the British control until 1938 of Berehaven, Spike Island and Lough Swilly.

But none of the UK’s choices are easy, or palatable.