Thursday, 14 June 2012

Options for Faslane and a reminder on nuclear morals

The recent comments of Nick Harvey, the Armed Forces Minister, to MPs on the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee have started to crystallise some of the options around the future of the Trident submarine base as Faslane post independence - whether absurd, practical or just realpolitik.

Ground-zero for the start of any discussion though is the morality of nuclear weapons. The issue is that indiscriminate bombing of civilians makes us judge, jury and executioner of the innocent. In the 1933 German federal election 7.5 million people voted Socialist and 4.9 million Communist. Yet in 1942 Geoffrey Shakespeare, a Liberal MP, wrote to the political master of the RAF "... I am all for the bombing of working class areas of German cities.  I am Cromwellian - I believe in 'slaying in the name of the Lord' ..."
Nuclear weapons might  be an acceptable tool of war if they were limited in scope and could be precisely targeted - but then they actually have to be used in that way. The US chose precision daylight raids on German factories, oil production facilities and railways in WW2, the RAF chose to "de-house" civilians.

The SNP has consistently opposed the use of nuclear weapons - we are different to England, and want no part of England's wartime legacy - and we want to show that to Europe and to the world.

Turning though to the practicalities though, "Faslane" is actually two facilities:
1) a submarine base with jetties, repair halls and accommodation for submariners
2) a nuclear weapons storage facility at Coulport

Plymouth though also has a submarine base, and Babcock carry out refits of the Trident submarines there.
The secret collapse since 1990 in the number of ships and submarines of the Royal Navy (from 25 to 7 non-missile submarines and 38 to 19 frigates and destroyers) means that lack of space at other naval bases cannot be an excuse.

Coulport has underground storage for warheads (the missile bodies are stored in Georgia, USA) and an undercover loading jetty - protected by the Royal Marines.

It is Coulport where most attention has been focussed by commentators as no equivalent facility exists in England. Coulport is a prime target for any nuclear strike, its location far from London thus makes military sense. Presumably an equivalent hardened facility could be built in Plymouth, but it's not the eventual cost per se which might be insurmountable, but the local opposition from residents.
In the meantime, English warheads would need to be stored in the US, with the missile bodies.

What are the options, and are there any lessons from the past?

1) Rebase submarines in Plymouth, warheads in the US
Why would the US stand in the way of such a request by England? It is an open secret that the UK deterrent  is actually joint US-UK force. Unlike France, England does not have full control over design, manufacture and maintenance of the missiles. Unless the US wished England to stop being able to operate the deterrent such a request is reasonable and grantable, after all, the US operated a missile submarine refit base at  Holy Loch until 1992.

Navies and other military forces are meant to improvise and adapt to circumstances. If they were asked to, the RN would find a way to operate outside Scotland.

2) Base submarines and warheads in Scotland until a new storage facility is built
Precedent exists for continued naval basing post independence:

1) The RN used 3 "Treaty ports" in Ireland until 1938 - but the position of Ireland was in legal transition in those times - officially a Dominion with a monarch until 1937, and not a Republic in until 1948.
2) In 1997 Ukraine and Russia agreed on a separation of their joint Black Sea Fleet, with Russia leasing the Soviet Union's former base in the Ukraine (Sevastopol),with a limit of the number of ships Russia can base there.
But how can a non-nuclear SNP allow the operation of potential WMD from its soil? The only acceptable way would be for Salmond to have his finger on the trigger too, to make sure the English used them appropriately.

That is a logical option, but clearly a farcical one.  As reported in the Herald:
Alan Reid, the Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute, asked what the UK Government's conditions would be should a Scottish Government agree to keep the nuclear deterrent.
Mr Harvey replied: "Complete freedom of action, complete control and complete sovereignty over the facility.

That leaves only option 3.

3) Carve out Faslane & Coulport as "Sovereign Base Areas" like Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus
Along with Faslane, rights would need to be granted to give free access for submarines to international waters. Rights would also need to be granted for nuclear warheads to pass overland through the border from their servicing facility at Aldermaston.

This is starting to sound silly ... but a UK sovereign base with an expiry date sufficiently far enough in the future to build another Coulport in England would in theory allow the SNP to wash their hands of the question on nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. However the electorate aren't stupid and would recognise it as the fudge for what it is.

As an aside, the submarine base at Faslane was valued in the 2007 UK National Asset Register at £260m, and Coulport at £2.1m ! [See page 246 of the document, page 255 of the PDF file]. It is unclear where the £3.5bn upgrade to the Clyde facilities referred to by Nick Harvey and reported by the Herald has been booked to.

Independence "So Whats?"
1. Scotland needs to decide now if it actively wants any part of nuclear weapons operations - referendum?
2. The RN can find ways to operate Trident outside of Scotland, if politicians have the will
3. Beware of illusory compromises which give the English everything on Trident in exchange for a Scottish figleaf

4. What is true monetary value of Faslane bases - £3500m or £262m?

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