THE BLOG

Admirals Lost in Scotch Mist Over Faslane

25/04/2014 10:43 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

The Scots played a disproportionately large role in building the British Empire, including its navy. Now they are playing a similarly weighty part in ending the UK's post-imperial global aspirations and capabilities by threatening to leave the mother ship. That is the gravamen of the recent warnings from defence chiefs about the risks to British - and Scottish - security posed by independence.

But, as Russia reverts to Cold War mode and Nato deploys ever closer to the old Soviet/Warsaw Pact borders in the worsening Ukraine crisis, it's clear that these alarm calls are sheer bluster. The biggest threat to security comes from the sheer depth of the spending cuts imposed on the armed forces by the Treasury and the bloated capital cost of updating the seaborne Trident nuclear deterrent, launching two new carriers and equipping them with new F35 fighters.

Earlier this month Admiral Sir George Zambellas took to the columns of the Daily Telegraph to warn the Scots they would "no longer have access of right to the security contribution of one of the finest and most efficient navies in the world" if they voted for independence. This coincided with a visit by his political boss, Philip Hammond, defence secretary, to Glasgow to warn workers at a shipyard belonging to Anglo-French group Thales theirs and thousands of other Scottish jobs were at risk.

At no point did either of them acknowledge that the Navy has been cut, in the words of Gen Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, "perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms" (December 2013). It is less than a tenth of the size it was in World War II, with 23 warships compared with 272 then - or a third of the fleet of 73 during the Falklands War. Nor did they admit to the long-standing debate within the upper echelons of the ministry of defence and elsewhere about the viability or indeed usefulness of the estimated £20-25billion cost of renewing Trident submarines (up to £80billion for the entire system). Or why they are putting at least one of the two new carriers straight into mothballs. Or how they can sustain the cost of equipping them with US-designed F35s - and maintaining the separate Typhoon (Eurofighter) fleet.

Their real objection is to the plans by Scotland's current first minister, Alex Salmond, reiterated at the SNP's spring conference, to remove "weapons of mass destruction" (Trident) based at Faslane on the Clyde, from Scotland "once and for all". These plans, unlike those for independence so far, carry overwhelming support within the Scottish electorate. The Scots have not suddenly become peaceniks; they simply do not share the lingering global security ambitions of many of the UK's military top brass and politicians. They seem relatively sanguine about being "a new small nation in an uncertain world", as Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, ex-first sea lord, put it.

For Zambellas, Stanhope et al Trident, like the carriers and Typhoons, symbolize the "great" part of GB. So it is vital to excoriate Salmond and Scots for putting the UK's nuclear deterrent at risk or indeed threatening Scotland's exclusion from Nato. Whether these hugely expensive pieces of kit are fit for purpose, even in a more uncertain and colder world, is not up for argument. But it is elsewhere - and it is not just Scots who need convincing that their disproportionate share of the annual £40billion defence budget (2.4% of GDP or above Nato's 2% target) is money well spent. The Admirals would be better employed to argue that issue and the dwindling Navy fleet as a whole rather than engage in counter-productive political sorties. The latter are becoming a bad habit in London: the more it catches on the narrower the gap between No and Yes in the opinion polls pre-September 18.