A version of this article appears in the September 15 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
However they vote on Sept. 18, the four million residents eligible to cast ballots in the Scottish independence referendum are set to change the face of the British Isles and how they will be defended.
Few if any plans to deal with the possible transition toward an independent Scotland have been drafted by defense officials, but as the results of polls have narrowed in the final weeks of campaigning, there has been a dawning realization that a majority “yes” vote is now a very real possibility.
Even a “no” vote is likely to result in a radical devolution that will not only see the current Scottish executive gain authority but also prompt the revamping of politics across the U.K.
But what politicians fear most, of course, is a yes vote—a decision that would end 300 years of unity, with defense likely to be an early victim. Concerns about the vote have even prompted the U.K. Parliament to delay what would be a politically divisive decision on possible U.K. participation in airstrikes against Islamic insurgents in Iraq.
While the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) actually has had the effect of significantly downsizing the armed forces’ presence in Scotland—in particular for the Royal Air Force—it remains home to Britain’s Trident armed ballistic missile submarines, the country’s collective nuclear deterrent.
While fighter aircraft and soldiers can be moved easily to new home bases and barracks south of the border, relocating the nuclear deterrent would be a major headache for defense planners. A belligerent Scotland could force Britain to remove the submarines quickly, without the necessary infrastructure in place to support them immediately available elsewhere—except perhaps the U.S. or France—and not in England for at least several years. This may result in the potential unilateral disarmament of the country’s nuclear capability, a move that would not go down well with NATO partners and probably the European Union—two organizations that Scotland aspires to join.