An independent Scotland might have to agree a deal on Trident to get into NATO

HMS Astute, one of four UK nuclear subs, on its way to Faslane. EPA

As Scotland teeters on the brink of independence these next few days, the question of Trident is one issue in particular that is bound to cause a few sleepless nights in Edinburgh, London and Washington DC.

Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde is home to the four Vanguard-class Trident-equipped submarines (at Faslane). Nearby is the storage depot for the nuclear warheads (at Coulport). The Scottish government is at present “unable to decide whether or not nuclear weapons are based” in Scotland, a position which the SNP would seek to overturn with independence. As most people following the debate will know, the desire to rid Scotland of Trident is fundamental to the SNP campaign and, according to deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, “not negotiable”.

Google Maps

Of course, the position of the UK government is the exact opposite. Worse, according to a former minister of state for the armed forces, “the UK government are not making plans for independence… and hence we are not making plans to move the nuclear deterrent or indeed the submarines from HM Naval Base Clyde.”

Timescale differences

The Scottish government’s white paper on independence, “Scotland’s Future,” calls for “the removal of Trident within the first term of the Scottish parliament following independence.” Given their ambition to see Scotland become fully independent on March 24, 2016, this would mean removal by 2020.

There is a view that everything could be removed from Scotland within 24 months, but there is a major problem. The chances are quite slim that two replacement facilities (one to base the submarines and another to store the nuclear warheads) could be agreed and – more importantly – deemed safe enough to be operational in that narrow time period. In other words, the weapons could be removed in that period but without a suitable replacement. This would mean that the UK could be effectively disarmed of its deterrent – some may say this is no bad thing, of course. This aspect is therefore likely to dominate negotiations.

And what chance that a replacement could be found in the UK at all? According to a recent report published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the two most suitable locations (in England) to replace Faslane and Coulport are HMNB Devonport at Plymouth and a facility that would need to be generated near Falmouth in Cornwall.

Although these sites are geographically superior to some of the other locations that have been suggested, they are still located near sizable population centres. Milford Haven has been ruled out due to its proximity to natural gas terminals and Barrow-in-Furness due to the lack of a suitable location for storing the warheads in the vicinity. It is important to remember that this is not the 1960s, when the ministry of defence could get away with much more, so getting the local populations to acquiesce could also prove rather tricky. And after all that, what if Cornwall decided it wanted to go independent sometime down the road as well?

Suitable replacement sites at Falmouth and Davenport/Plymouth. Google Maps

Joking aside, the estimated cost for preparing any future facilities for Trident, according to the same RUSI report, would be between “£2.5bn and £3.5bn in 2012/13 prices,” not including the cost of acquiring any additional land. But if the procurement process for the two (or one) UK aircraft carriers is anything to go by, expect long delays and dramatically higher cost overruns to those first estimated.

Overseas options?

Other options have been proposed including “sharing facilities” in either the United States or France. However the UK government is on record as saying that, “operations from any base in the US or France would greatly compromise the independence of the deterrent and there would be significant political and legal obstacles.”

And what about the US view? Many there would be none too pleased if they suddenly found that their only other nuclear ally in NATO was suddenly disarmed of its deterrent; although they do not seem to be doing much contingency planning either.

On a recent visit to Washington one think-tanker there put it to me this way: “If the Scots go, than you can kiss-off keeping the two key strategic bases. From our point of view (USA), it will really mean you (UK) are finished as a major power. You are done!”

The truth is many in the US will argue, sotto voce, that the UK does not really need a Rolls Royce version of the deterrent, especially if it comes at the price of a bonsai conventional force. But that does not mean that they want the UK to give up the capability altogether.

Temp Trident?

There is also the possibility of a temporary leasing agreement between Scotland and the UK. This would keep Trident in Scotland past the 2020 deadline but potentially see new facilities ready in time for 2028, when the current Vanguard-class submarines are due to start being replaceed at an estimated total cost of £20bn (assuming the electorate do not take the opportunity to scupper those plans as well).

One must assume that when it comes to nuclear weapons, cool heads would prevail in post-independence negotiations but nothing is certain. Delaying a permanent removal until satisfactory alternatives are arranged would help to avoid the prospect of what could be a major deterioration in relations with London. UK officials have made clear that a forced removal of Trident from Scotland would affect discussions “across the whole piece” of pan-governmental negotiation. After all, the reputation of the UK as a state that punches above its weight would be at stake.

A temporary leasing arrangement, if it could be negotiated, would also have benefits for Scotland. If London and Edinburgh could see eye to eye on this thorny issue, the likelihood of garnering UK support for Scotland membership in NATO would be much enhanced. The chances of obtaining the share of the UK’s current conventional assets that the Scottish government seeks would also be strengthened.

Purging Scotland (and the world) of nuclear weapons is a noble historical ambition for a would be fledgling state, but an independent Scotland may want to think twice about alienating a multitude of its potential allies in the process.