Britain will have to seek alternative locations for its nuclear submarines should Scotland vote for independence Thursday if NATO is to maintain a nuclear deterrent with more than just U.S. firepower.
Britain has no existing infrastructure capable of meeting the security requirements for hosting nuclear warheads and the submarines that can fire them except for the Scottish base in Faslane, experts say.
“The problem is, there are no easy alternatives,” said Angus Ross, a retired Royal Navy commander and professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
For more than 40 years, the United Kingdom has been leasing nuclear missiles from the U.S. — first U.S.-built Polaris missiles and later the current Trident class — for a small fleet of nuclear submarines that call the west coast of Scotland home. While France is also a nuclear power, it does not commit any nuclear capabilities to NATO and is not on the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group, which sets NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy.
The U.K. maintains four Trident-armed subs at Faslane, and the warheads are stored roughly eight miles away at a separate facility. At least one submarine is on patrol at any given time, serving as the U.K.’s on-the-ready nuclear deterrent.
If Scotland votes for independence in Thursday’s referendum, and makes good on its promise to order out the Tridents by 2020, London will have to find a facility that can meet all of the security and maintenance requirements for handling and storing nuclear weapons. The site also must be close to a deep-water port where the Vanguard-class submarines can operate.
“There is not another site that is easily developed and easily accessible from a military base that currently exists,” Ross said.
Numerous experts who have testified before Britain’s Parliament have also said it would take 10 to 20 years to build a replacement facility. Once a site were found, there would be a lengthy approval process before construction could start.
The cost of replicating Faslane and a storage site someplace else in Britain hasn’t been calculated, but government officials have said it would easily cost several billion dollars.
“It would probably be expensive to the point where you would say you couldn’t do it,” Ross said. “The cost of nuclear handling facilities in the world we live in today is prohibitively high, and in this day of stringent budgets, that would also be a problem.”
In theory, the U.K. could look to allies to play host. But such a move would pose logistical problems and raise political questions about the independence of the British nuclear deterrent.
The U.S.-made submarines routinely go to the Navy’s submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia, for maintenance.
“However, basing in the U.S. is not a credible long-term option,” says a report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute, titled “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation.”
“One of the primary purposes of the U.K. nuclear force is to provide some insurance against a scenario where, for whatever reason, the U.S. is not willing to come to the U.K.’s defence against a nuclear threat,” the report continues. “A decision to rely on a U.S. operating base would clearly undermine the credibility of the U.K. nuclear force in this scenario.”
Locations in France are a possibility, but many of the same strategic concerns would exist as basing in the U.S.
Scotland could still reverse course and allow the submarines to stay. While nuclear weapons are deeply unpopular among the population, Scotland has said it intends to apply for NATO membership if it gains independence. That effort might be compromised if it takes steps that disrupt NATO’s nuclear strategy.
“The Scottish do believe that moving into an alliance like NATO and EU is a forgone conclusion — well actually not so in NATO’s case,” Ross said. “If you upset the nuclear deterrent, NATO will take a dim view of membership.”
If Scotland opts for independence, Britain will need to negotiate for a deal that at least allows the Tridents to remain in place until there is a viable alternative, which will probably take longer than the deadline set by Scotland for their removal in 2020.
“In order to reach such an agreement, the Scottish government would have to make clear that it had no intention of forcibly denuclearising the U.K.,” the RUSI report said. “As a result, it would need to be willing in principle to give the U.K. the opportunity and time that it needed to relocate its nuclear force to alternative operating bases.”
Still, the loss of the base in Scotland wouldn’t leave NATO wholly dependent on Britain’s nuclear capabilities.
The U.S. maintains tactical nuclear weapons on European soil and has a large fleet of nuclear submarines on constant patrol.
But at a time when the U.S. is pressuring allies to increase defense spending, which has been on the decline for years now, Washington isn’t eager to assume all of the responsibility in NATO.
“Of course we could manage, but it doesn’t behoove the U.S. to be the only one in the alliance,” Ross said. “They’ve always welcomed spreading the load, and burden-sharing is a hot topic in NATO right now.”