The referendum on Scotland's independence could have a nuclear impact on the United States. The United Kingdom's atomic arsenal is based in Scotland, and independence leaders have said they would like to expel the weapons from the country, perhaps forcing England to send dozens of Trident missiles, submarines, and warheads to a naval base in Georgia.
The UK's nuclear weapons are housed in the southwest corner of Scotland, at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, the Ministry of Defense confirmed Tuesday. The missiles, 58 of them in all, are leased from King's Bay Naval Base in southeastern Georgia, near the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Florida border. The British have been leasing the missiles and periodically having them serviced at King's Bay since the mid-1990s, according to the British government.
If Scotland were to vote yes on independence and no on nukes Thursday, the British would be hard-pressed to quickly find or build another place in the UK with the infrastructure to store them, according to experts. That could force the UK to ship the missiles back to the US, at least temporarily.
"Its a huge logistical problem,"said James M. Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "One could imagine basing the submarines at Portsmouth [Naval Shipyard], where other submarines are located, but it's hard to imagine the warheads being based there. There would be huge local opposition, I think, to basing the weapons there."
"With all the existing infrastructure in King's Bay, it could be done much more quickly than building new infrastructure in the UK," Acton said. "I think it is the most likely option to base them in King's Bay."
The decision to move the nukes would come as Scotland and England negotiate over a host of issues, including oil in the North Sea, Scotland's currency, status in the Eurozone, and entry into NATO. E. Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said England's preference would be to continue to lease the facilities in Clyde if it could convince Scottish leaders to agree.
"I know the question has been raised whether British submarines could use the American east coast Trident base," Merry said. "I don't think anybody really wants to do that. I don't think the US Navy wants to do it, I don't think the British government wants to do it, but it's kind of a fallback option if negotiations between London and Edinburgh don't get anywhere and the British need to move submarines for a few years until they can reconfigure a base in the south."
Neither the US nor the British government would comment about plans for the missiles if Scotland votes for independence.
"Her Majesty's Government is not planning for a yes vote,"a representative for the British Ministry of Defense said Tuesday. "If Scotland gains independence, we have not planned for it, so we have not planned for any military assets."
"We do not want to speculate on the outcome of this referendum, so we have no comment at this time,"a US State Department spokeswoman said.
Elected officials representing the part of Georgia where King's Bay is located declined to comment on whether an additional 58 Trident missiles based in the state would have any effect on the state, though a spokesman for Congressman John Kingston called it "an interesting question."
The British government has given clues, however, as to how it would deal with at least one of the options on the table. A fleet of Vanguard nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles patrols constantly in British waters as a deterrent to threats, according to the government's Committee on Defense. Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that the patrols are still necessary, and said it would "be foolish to leave Britain defenseless against a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat."
Those comments, according to Acton, show that one option the British are unlikely to pursue is getting rid of its costly nuclear program altogether.
"The least likely outcome is Britain giving up its weapons," Acton said. "This government and the previous Labour government both made it clear their policy was to keep the nukes. They've invested a lot of money in that. UK doctrine is that threats could emerge in the future that require the UK to have nukes."
"If you buy that premise of this government, then there is a very real risk the UK will not be able to maintain the posture it says it needs if Scotland declares independence,"he said.
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