Wednesday 18 July 2012

Let battle commence?

So Field Marshal Robertson has been playing with his toy soldiers again and has "updated" what passes for the SNP defence policy today. The big news is that he has firmly nailed his colours to the NATO mast. This is a bold move, sure to rile the SNP's non-aligned/peacenik tendency. We should note some of the things his boss Wee Eck has said about the organisation: that the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia was an "an act of dubious legality, but above all one of unpardonable folly", and of course his favourite soundbite about how an independent Scotland "would never again be spilling and wasting our best blood in illegal wars like Iraq". Presumably, by "wars like Iraq" he includes the war in Afghanistan which has largely been waged by NATO.

Robertson proposes an annual Scottish defence budget of £2.5bn - bigger than that of the Czech Republic, Austria or Finland, and about three times that of Ireland. At around 2% of a hypothetical Scottish GDP (depending, as always, on the uncertainties of hydrocarbon revenues), it wouldn't be far short of the projected 2015 UK defence budget of 2.2% GDP.

Exactly how the SNP's much-vaunted nuclear-free zone would work within NATO is... unclear. The current NATO "Strategic Concept" states: long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance ... The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance ... Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy ... We will ... ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.

It's difficult to see how a new NATO member could sign up to that and still insist on a fellow NATO state withdrawing their nuclear weapons tout de suite from its territory without any alternative base available. Robertson says: "With agreement on the withdrawal of Trident and retaining the important role of the UN, Scotland can continue working with neighbours and allies within NATO." Agreement on the withdrawal of Trident? What UK government is going to agree to that in the near future?

He also reckons his "Scottish defence and peacekeeping services" will have a strength of 15,000 regulars and 5,000 reservists. But where would they come from? Existing members of the UK armed forces signed up to serve the United Kingdom, and surely any transfer of allegiance would have to be voluntary. In the words of a recent RUSI papermany of the most ambitious and talented Scots would probably opt to stay in the UK’s armed forces, just as many served in the English Army before 1707. As for new recruits, the recent influx of Irish citizens into the UK armed forces suggests that those intent on a military career don't mind serving in another country's forces, if it gives them greater opportunities.

However, there is one solution to the problem of manpower: conscription. Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Greece all currently have conscription-based armed forces. The Netherlands suspended conscription in 1997, but have yet to abolish it. Sweden only stopped in 2010. Strangely Mr Robertson hasn't mentioned it. I wonder why?

It seems Mr Robertson is still sticking to his much-derided "break a square off the chocolate bar" approach to equipping his peacekeeping service: The Scottish defence and peacekeeping forces will initially be equipped with Scotland’s share of current assets including ocean going vessels, fast jets for domestic air patrol duties, transport aircraft and helicopters as well as army vehicles, artillery and air defence systems.

So what's 8% of a fleet of six destroyers? 8% of two assault ships? 8% of six Boeing E-3 AWACS aircraft? 8% of eight Boeing C-17 transporters? How many Type 26 frigates could he afford at an estimated £400-500m a piece? To quote the RUSI paper again: But these are not free-standing units, able to be rebadged as Scotland’s armed forces in the way that schools or hospitals or police forces have been. They are part of an integrated whole, organised on a Union basis. The British Army has several thousand soldiers, based around a brigade headquarters, in Scotland. But the transport aircraft and helicopters needed to carry them around, the staff colleges needed to train them, the organisations that buy and maintain their weapons, and the strategic headquarters needed to command them are all in the rest of the United Kingdom.

But then this woolly thinking exemplifies the lack of detail in this so-called defence policy. Little more than two years away from the expected referendum, the Field Marshal really needs to be giving us a far more convincing plan detailing budgets, timescales, personnel, orders of battle, and transitional arrangements and costs. National defence and security is a much more complex issue than just saying "we'll have some of them, a few of those, oh and some of these too, and it's all going to be just dandy".

But he may be preoccupied with fighting battles closer to home. Already, the opposition within his party are hoping to "kick this into touch" at this year's party conference. Union Jock predicts some lively debating come October.

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