Scotland is best known for scotch, golf, and the Loch Ness Monster; but a new phrase should come to mind as of late: nuclear weapons. Scotland will hold a historic referendum this Thursday to vote on independence. If Scotland’s largest political party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), gets its way, Scotland’s secession from Great Britain will mean seceding from the UK’s nuclear arsenal, too.
Britain’s nuclear program, colloquially known as Trident, includes four Vanguard-class submarines which carry 160 nuclear warheads on 58 Trident II D5 missiles leased from the US. Today, this fleet of submarines is exclusively housed and serviced out of Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde, near Glasgow, Scotland. HMNB Clyde is comprised of Faslane Naval Base and the Royal Naval Armament Depot (RNAD) Coulpart. The secessionist party, however, envisions an independent Scotland free of nuclear weapons and intends to expel the Trident program within the first term of the Scottish Parliament, by 2020.
So, what happens to Trident if Scotland votes yes?
A “yes” vote would threaten the UK’s nuclear deterrent. A “no” vote would continue the union of Great Britain and Scotland , and current plans to renovate the nuclear weapons program will continue as planned.
In a letter to Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, the former British chief of naval staff Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope wrote, “Your plans for the removal of all nuclear submarines from Faslane in the event of Scottish independence would add a dangerous period of destabilization in our nuclear defense posture at a time when the international picture is clearly deteriorating…” Scottish National Party spokesperson Angus Robertson replied, “While the anti-independence camp is determined to waste over £100 billion on unusable and obscene Trident nuclear weapons, a Yes vote will rid Scotland of weapons of mass destruction.”
In actuality, the money allotted for renovations on the Trident program is closer to £35.8 billion, which is equivalent to roughly $58.1 billion– nearly one fourth of the UK’s projected defense budget for the next decade.
The Ministry of Defense denies having a contingency play for Trident, hoping that Scotland will vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps Britain is reluctant to publicize a plan of action because there are no good options. The four prevailing theories on what will become of the Trident program in an independent Scotland are generally troublesome and will likely be unpopular. If the referendum passes, Britain could:
Relocate the submarines and their support vessels to HMNB Portsmouth in Plymouth, England
According to the Royal United Service Institute’s August 2014 paper on relocation possibilities for Trident, HMNB Devonport in the southwest town of Plymouth, England is the most logical location. Relocating the nuclear-armed submarines and their support vessels would not be cheap, though. HMNB Devonport is not logistically equipped to accommodate this type of weapon. It would force out the base’s existing fleet, and access routes would have to be dredged for the larger submarines to dock. Safety is a concern, too. Risk of accidental ignition could be perceived as threatening the lives of Plymouth’s 260,000 inhabitants. The proposed replacement munitions facility is near Falmouth, a popular tourist destination east of Plymouth. Additionally, the submarines stationed at Devonport would have to travel 50 nautical miles, or three times the distance between Faslane and Coulport, to reach Falmouth; t least six hours of patrol time would be spent making that journey.
Base the UK’s nuclear program in the US or France
The UK leases its Trident II D5 missiles from the United States. Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines frequent the US Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia for repairs and maintenance. While hosting the UK’s nuclear program in Georgia, or NATO’s other nuclear-armed country, France, may be tempting, it’s not a suitable long-term solution. As the RUSI report notes, one of the main purposes of Britain’s nuclear program is to be equipped to defend itself if, in the case where the US or France is unwilling or unable to defend the UK against a nuclear threat – no matter how unlikely the scenario. Housing Britain’s nuclear weapons in another country would call into question the credibility of the UK’s program.
Additionally, Article I of the Non-Proliferation Treaty explicitly states that nuclear-weapon states are not permitted to transfer weapons to other countries. The UK arsenal would have to be entirely isolated from foreign hands in order to avoid accusations of not adhering to the NPT.
Scrap its nuclear weapons program altogether
A “yes” vote could lead, however unlikely, Britain to scrap its nuclear weapons program altogether; after all, there are no easy or cheap alternatives. Support for Britain’s nuclear arsenal in England and Wales is marginally higher than those opposed (43% in favor, 36% opposed). In contrast, Scottish voters support disarmament 46% to 37%. If the UK were to abandon its nuclear program, the US would become the only nuclear power in NATO as France does not promise its nuclear weapons to the alliance. The US is keenly interested in the UK maintaining its nuclear commitment to NATO.
Leave the nukes in Scotland
The Scottish National Party recognizes that the removal of nuclear weapons from HMNB Clyde will take time; their target date for relocation is four years after their goal of formal independence by 2016. In any event, keeping the UK’s nuclear arsenal in an independent Scotland long-term would be problematic. Keeping the UK’s nukes in a territory that’s no longer part of the UK would lead to obvious questions about Britain’s nuclear force credibility.
Whether the Trident fleet is relocated to England, elsewhere, or becomes the newest exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London, is yet to be seen. What is clear is that Westminster will have a major challenge on its hands relating to the future of Britain’s nuclear arsenal if Scotland votes “yes” this Thursday.