Image by Sam Taylor
As the Scottish independence debate comes to a close with Thursday's vote, the No—or pro-United Kingdom—campaign has been getting out the big guns. 400 Scottish military veterans have warned that the Scottish military would be “irresponsibly weakened” with a Yes vote, saying that people should vote No to “Protect the homeland." I guess there’s nothing like the threat of being crushed in a war to stop you from dreaming of making a fresh start.
With that in mind I decided to ask an expert how pathetic or heroic a Scottish army would look, and how easy it would be to take over the country if it became independent, crushing its dreams of freedom under the track of a big tank. On the day Scottish independence crusader Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the referendum was happening, Stuart Crawford and a colleague published a report for the Royal United Services Institute looking at defense in an independent Scotland. A career soldier of nearly 20 years, Crawford once served as the defense spokesman for the Scottish National Party but now intends to stand as a candidate for the English Liberal Democrats. I thought he would be a good person to ask about this stuff, so I called him for a chat.
VICE: So to start with, what might the threats to an independent Scotland actually be?
Stuart Crawford: Well, while I wouldn't want us to be a hostage to fortune, I think there's no foreseeable, credible conventional military threat to an independent Scotland. The chance of anyone trying to attack or invade us seems infinitesimally small.
That being said, Scotland does have a number of things which other nations might covet—primarily our oil and gas reserves. No one's going to invade us to steal our whisky and they're not likely to take our tourism industry by force. I don't think they're going to take our wind turbines either, however much that might please some people. But then what did people say about the Falklands in 1980? Who foresaw the current situation in Ukraine? It's not just the most obvious military threats that countries need to be concerned about.
In the event of a Yes vote, Scotland would have to negotiate a share of the existing British military. What might the resulting force look like?
Well, I'm certain that Scotland could organize its own defense policy and armed forces. There's no doubt about that—we're not a stupid people. On the other hand, we couldn't expect to walk away with anything like a miniature version of the UK's defense system. We're just too small for that. Some of Britain's military assets are currently based in Scotland, and obviously some are not. Others, like the Trident nuclear weapons system, are here in spite of the fact that we don't want them.
So how would Scotland's new army, navy and air force look?
I would expect the army to consist of two brigades, each of around 5,000 soldiers, one regular and one reserve.
For the air force, you'd be talking about around 60 aircraft all told and a navy of 20 to 25 hulls.
In terms of high-end equipment, you would expect to see things like fast jets, submarines, aircraft carriers and main battle tanks [taken] out of Scotland in the short to medium term. Apart from anything else, they'd be very costly for the country to maintain.
In its early days the Scottish defense force might also lack helicopters, artillery, engineering equipment and the like. The other issue that you would probably face is in recruiting special forces, which would be required for situations like rescuing hostages or securing oil rigs. You'd need about 75, but they're very difficult to recruit.
And while we can train people on their feet, in the air and at sea in Scotland, we have nowhere suitable for the training of mechanized units and no facilities in place to train officers. It's not unheard of to do training abroad, and it would make sense to arrange for the use of facilities like the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, which already trains overseas cadets, and the British Army Training Unit in Suffield, Canada.
My personal view is that the resulting force would be much more about home defense than any overseas operations—although we would probably wish to retain that capability at least as an option for future governments.
How certain is it that serving Scottish personnel would want to transfer to the new Scottish forces? Might some of them want to honor their oath and continue serving the United Kingdom?
I don't know quite how a transfer would be effected. It seems to me that the Scottish Government assumes that the Scottish regiments would immediately secede to Scotland. That's quite a big assumption. If you assume for the sake of argument that personnel were given the choice, then some would and some wouldn't.
Which countries' armies would Scotland's be equivalent to?
I really don't know in terms of direct comparisons. There are the larger states, of course, but in terms of countries with comparable armed forces Scotland would lie somewhere between Ireland, which has minimal forces, and Denmark, which is considerably more capable. We might also be comparable with New Zealand. It's difficult to say with any certainty because until there's been a negotiation with the rest of the UK—we don't know exactly what the composition of the Scottish defense force would be.
If you were given the task of invading Scotland, how would you go about it?
It's really not something I've ever given any thought to, but there is a pattern to how these things are done. First you would have to suppress air defenses. That could be done either physically or electronically as the Americans did in Iraq. You would then have to disrupt communications—physical communications, which would include things like the Forth Road Bridge and the Kingston Bridge, which is said to be the busiest traffic bridge in Europe, and electronic communications as well.
Then you would look to seize key points. There are several in Scotland—airports would be among the more obvious ones. All of that would depend on disabling air defenses though, and it's difficult to know exactly how that could be achieved because we don't know for certain what those defenses would be.
And if Scotland became a member of NATO, then under Article 5 an attack against one member state would be considered an attack against all. Scotland's international alliances would unquestionably be its strongest defense.
In recent years there have been incidents involving Russian vessels and aircraft around Scotland and the rest of the UK. Why are they prodding us and what could an independent Scotland do about it?
Those incidents mainly involve aircraft, and it's part and parcel of what's been going on since the end of the Second World War. They put a couple of aircraft up, approach UK airspace, and see what happens. They're testing our reaction times. It would really be a case of having reaction forces always there to say: “We know what you're doing and we're here to stop you doing it.”
If Vladimir Putin decided to annex Scotland, could he do it?
I don't think the Americans would let him do it. That would be a direct attack. So much depends on whether Scotland would be a part of NATO, but even if it wasn't, it would be a direct attack on a country where influence could be brought to bear on the UK, the North Sea and the North Atlantic.
But hypothetically, purely as a comparison of forces?
Oh, of course he could. If you put Scotland in a vacuum and let Russia attack then we would last maybe a day.
Let's say there's a Yes vote and England decides it wants us back—how hard would it be for them to take Scotland back by force?
You know, I really don't think that's very probable.
No. But could it happen?
Well it wouldn't be a walk in the park. Obviously Scotland's military would be much smaller than the rest of the UK's. It would depend on when it happened, how well established the Scottish defense force had become. It would also depend again on international alliances, but Scotland and the remaining UK would be far more likely to work in coalition than in opposition.
Thanks for your time Stuart.