An independent Scotland would evict the United Kingdom’s nuclear force. So, then, what would Britain do with its 225 weapons?
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The Scottish government has released an interim constitution in advance of the independence referendum scheduled for September. Should Scots vote for their independence, the document would govern the country until a permanent constitution was written. Deep into the draft is an unusual clause on nuclear disarmament. Section 23 to be exact — and quite remarkable. And no, it isn’t a purity law for Scotch whisky. It’s about nuclear disarmament:
23 Nuclear disarmament
The Scottish Government must pursue negotiations with a view to securing —
(a) nuclear disarmament in accordance with international law, and
(b) the safe and expeditious removal from the territory of Scotland of nuclear weapons based there.
A non-nuclear clause is not exactly unprecedented — Palau’s constitution has a similar one — but it is still pretty unusual. The narrative accompanying the interim constitution explains that the Scottish government would join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state and seek, for its permanent constitution, a prohibition on the basing of nuclear weapons within its borders.
In London, talk of an independent Scotland without nuclear weapons has been met with a decidedly chilly reception. You might as well refer to the queen as "that old battle-ax" as bring up Scotland’s nuclear allergy. That’s because Scotland is where the United Kingdom keeps its nuclear weapons for the moment. Currently, Britain deploys four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which carry as many as 160 warheads and are based at Naval Base Clyde in Faslane, in southwestern Scotland. The U.K. stores warheads for deployment less than five kilometers away at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot in Coulport.
Her Majesty’s Government, in seeking to convince Scots that life is "Better Together" in a United Kingdom, has voiced concerns that Scotland’s secession would "put in jeopardy the continued operation of the UK independent nuclear deterrent," as a letter by former defense chiefs put it. Sure, polls suggest that Scots are unlikely to opt for independence, but many observers expect a close vote. And the U.K. government certainly isn’t taking any chances.
An independent Scotland would mean it’s moving time. But the question is where the Royal Navy would be able to relocate the Faslane and Coulport facilities. One school of thought suggests that this might be the last straw for nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom. Of all the nuclear weapon states, the United Kingdom is winning the limbo contest — how low can you go. Foreign Secretary William Hague has even stated that the size of the U.K. stockpile is a slim 225 warheads and has committed the country to stay below that. Its next cut would probably be to zero. And, today, many Britons are just not so convinced that they will get good value for the cost of replacing their aging fleet of Trident ballistic missile submarines.
The notion that an independent Scotland might mean the end of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent has been around for quite some time. This possibility was first raised, so far as I know, by professors Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker in their 2001 book, Uncharted Waters, and companion article for the Nonproliferation Review. On a trip I took to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I remember mentioning their argument to a few colleagues and being assured that I was worrying about a lot of nonsense.
How things have changed. In the past few years, U.K. policymakers have begun to take the idea quite seriously as Scotland moves toward an independence referendum. In fact, last week, when I was at a conference at Wilton Park, which I can only describe as Downton Abbey with a bar, talk of Scottish independence, and disarmament, was of real interest.
Polls show thin support, at best, among Britons for spending what it takes to keep a nuclear deterrent. The United Kingdom might be able to relocate the submarines docked at Faslane naval base in Scotland to Devonport in England. The real challenge, as Chalmers and Walker have pointed out, is relocating the warhead storage and handling facility near Coulport. England is charming — and by charming, I mean small and densely populated. I know of no polls that show local communities eager to host some nukes in their backyards. To make matters even more complicated, Britain has a number of safety and environmental regulations that might make it very difficult to site a nuclear weapons storage facility.
Of course, Britain does have options outside the country if relocating the Coulport facility to Devonport proves impossible. One option would be to establish a warhead handling facility in the United States at Kings Bay, Georgia. Those 225 weapons mentioned above? You could put them in the United States. Britain leases 58 submarine-launched D5 missiles from a common pool with the United States. U.K. submarines must sail all the way to Kings Bay to receive their missiles from U.S. stores. Given that the submarines have to cross the Atlantic anyway, the warheads could be loaded at the same time.
The other option is that the United Kingdom might also establish a warhead facility in France, near Brest, where the French Navy bases its four nuclear-armed submarines. The two parties have already agreed to share diagnostic facilities to steward their stockpiles of nuclear warheads. Maintaining a stockpile of warheads in France would be a relatively modest evolution of a surprisingly deep relationship.
Even if a suitable location can be found, Whitehall may also worry that spending $30 billion or so to relocate a facility like Coulport might tip the scales toward those arguing that nuclear weapons are too pricey. Voices are already arguing that the United Kingdom cannot afford the steep price of replacing its current generation of aging submarines. The Liberal Democrats, among the major political parties, have long been skeptical of the costs associated with replacing the Trident. LibDem-leaning think tanks, like CentreForum in London, have argued that replacing the Trident will come at the expense of modernizing conventional forces. It’s entirely possible that rising costs and local opposition could pose a real challenge to the country’s nuclear deterrent, especially if disarmament-minded Labour MPs or cost-conscious Tories defect from their parties on the issue.
So, Britain has alternatives to basing its nuclear weapons in Scotland. Costly, politically painful alternatives, but alternatives nonetheless. Some of the threats aimed at Groundskeeper Willie and his kin are intended to support the "Better Together" campaign, just as London is warning that an independent Scotland may be thrown out of NATO and the Europea
n Union. (Side note: Has threatening a Scot ever been a successful strategy? It seems that the whole thing might just backfire.)
Even U.S. President Barack Obama got into the act, stating that the United States has "a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united, and an effective partner." Obama vocalized what has been a whispering campaign by the United States to raise questions about the impact of an independent Scotland on NATO, nuclear weapons, and the like.
It is sort of odd to see a U.S. president commenting on such matters. I recall that King George’s "Better Together" campaign went over like a lead balloon in 1776. One might have thought that Obama would be excited about an instance of nuclear disarmament, as well as a new ambassadorial posting for a well-heeled donor who likes golf and Scotch whisky. Apparently not. Washington and especially France are worried that a non-nuclear United Kingdom would raise awkward questions about their own possession of nuclear weapons.
By the same token, Section 23 is largely a response to these threats. The constitutional prohibition is a strategy by the Scottish government to tie its own hands so it is less vulnerable to this kind of clumsy pressure. If Scotland’s constitution prohibits hosting nuclear weapons, London would have a difficult time forcing Scotland to keep nuclear weapons as a price for staying in NATO. At most, perhaps Scotland would be forced to subsidize the move, though I don’t think London really wants the money. Divorces can be so messy.
At the end of the day, this debate says something very interesting about the value of nuclear weapons and the political will of states to keep them. We are told repeatedly that nuclear weapons are important symbols of status and that they offer an incomparable form of deterrence and provide insurance in an uncertain world. We are also told that disarmament is hard because no state wants to give up nuclear weapons. What does it say about those claims that the citizens of an independent Scotland don’t want nuclear weapons? Or that the U.K. government doesn’t believe it could persuade an English Navy town to host them either? The fact that the United Kingdom might need to base its own nuclear weapons abroad to limit public opposition really does undermine the notion that nuclear weapons are essential to the country’s security.